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UK Terror Alert System

Today the UK Intelligence services decided to make public the country’s new Threat Level System. This is akin to the American Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory System. The levels on the British system are as follows:

• Low – an attack is unlikely
• Moderate – an attack is possible, but not likely
• Substantial – an attack is a strong possibility
• Severe – an attack is highly likely
• Critical – an attack is expected imminently

Today it is ‘Critical’. That is all the information the Home Office and MI5 have released. Thank you for the warning.

To me, the definition of terrorism includes an actual act of violence – such as exploding bombs on trains or flying jet liners into skyscrapers. It is also the instilling of terror into the people of a country, causing them to live their daily lives in fear. Do you see where I’m going with this? A threat level system such as this is ineffective and instigates terror itself, echoing the tactics of the terrorists themselves.

This country has been dealing with terrorist threats for decades, as have many other European countries. We’ve never had a threat level system in place in the past and anti-terrorism policies have done their job well. Look at Israel: this country undoubtedly deals with more terrorist threats than any other, yet when they release a terror alert they give specific times, places and many other details that the residents can effectively use.

I’m not saying that our country should reveal detailed threat information though – this would only work in such a place as Israel where the threat is continuous already. In Britain, releasing information like this would have a detrimental effect: we love to panic and this would put us in overdrive – we are not used to threats such as this in Britain, and specific details would cause widespread alarm. The Daily Mail would have a field day and Esso would record huge profits (again).

The work undertaken by our intelligence service is covert for a reason. The majority of the work undertaken to prevent terrorist attacks in the past occurred in secret – and the results were never publicised. We know the government can’t protect us from 100% of all terrorist threats but we also know that there are thousand of unsung heroes working around the clock to protect us from as much as humanly possible.

Why the threat levels then? I read the following in 2004, written by Bruce Schneier and it echoes my thoughts today exactly:

“There are two reasons [governments like] terror alerts. Both are self-serving, and neither has anything to do with security.

“The first is… a common impulse of bureaucratic self-protection. If the worst happens and another attack occurs, the [public] isn’t going to be as sympathetic to the current administration as it was last time. After the September 11th attacks, the public reaction was primarily shock and disbelief. Next time, the public reaction will quickly turn into anger, and those in charge will need to explain why they failed. The public is going to demand to know what the government knew and why it didn’t warn people, and they’re not going to look kindly on someone who says: “We didn’t think the threat was serious enough to warn people.” Issuing threat warnings is a way to cover themselves. “What did you expect?” they’ll say. “We told you it was Code Orange.”

“The second purpose is even more self-serving: Terror threat warnings are a publicity tool. They’re a method of keeping terrorism in people’s minds.”

Essentially, Bruce Schneier gives a coherent and respectable argument that the American threat levels were put in place as a publicity tool for Republican re-election.

If these alerts remain so vague and occur frequently, the public shall start to ignore them, possibly even mocking them like many Americans do today. If the government ‘cries wolf’ too many times, we will become accustomed to having a threat level and start to ignore it.

Again, Schneier states that: “…people want to make their own decisions. Regardless of what the government suggests, people are going to independently assess the situation. They’re going to decide for themselves whether or not changing their behaviour seems like a good idea. If there’s no rational information to base their independent assessment on, they’re going to come to conclusions based on fear, prejudice, or ignorance.”

I’m not an advocate of Threat Level systems. Are you?

(The above references greatly from Bruce Shneier’s 2004 Do Terror Alerts Work? essay.)

Bruce Schneier – Do Terror Alerts Work? | UK Home Office | MI5