UK paperback

Very real

Terrorism: highly likely to be severely substantial

David Miliband said yesterday that the danger of terrorism in Britain remains “very real”, rather than moderately real or only slightly real. At least at this stage we ought to be thankful that it is not yet extremely real.

This comes after the Home Secretary raised the official “threat level” on Friday night from “substantial” to “severe”, meaning that an attack is considered “highly likely”, rather than very likely or highly real. The threat level is supposedly set by MI5’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, and it is interesting to note that, since its inception in 2006, the lowest two settings (“low” and “moderate”) have never been used: ((Just as with the “Advisory System” of US Homeland Security: see Unspeak, p153.)) the threat, it seems, has always been SUBSTANTIAL, SEVERE, or CRITICAL.

Of course, the threat level is not a reliable way of predicting the future; rather, it goes up when some terrorism has just happened. (In this case, the attempted Detroit bombing over Christmas.) But the threat level also sends a message to the public, as Lord Carlile of Berriew has helpfully explained:

It is absolutely essential that there should be public vigilance and the government has — quite rightly — decided that if you don’t tell the public to be vigilant, they are not going to be vigilant.

One might wonder why the government doesn’t just say “Let’s be vigilant, folks!”, rather than announcing a rise in a dramatically named threat level; but of course any government would look bad if its citizens were blown up at a time when it had no such rhetorical insurance. The utility of the threat level system, then, is very real, if not in the way we are supposed to believe.

  1. 1  Stan Carey  January 25, 2010, 11:00 am 

    My terror of sudden annihilation will remain low until the threat level becomes “really real”.

  2. 2  shadowfirebird  January 25, 2010, 12:34 pm 

    “The danger of terrorism remains very real”.

    At the risk of getting philiosophical, is “danger” in this context something that you can rationally refer to as “real”, at all, let alone “very real”?

    If I decide to walk across a narrow plank above a pit of rabid honey badgers, then it seems reasonable to say that the danger — of falling and being mauled — is real.

    But if we are talking about events by unknown persons, which may or may not currently have any solid plans, and even if they do we don’t know what they are — can we “really” talk about danger?

    Risk, yes. There is certainly a risk of terrorism, because terrorists do exist. But is risk just the possibility that there *might* be danger? How possible does the danger have to be, before we can rationally call it “real”?

    The government are on record as saying that they don’t know that an attack is immanent.

  3. 3  redpesto  January 25, 2010, 2:10 pm 

    I’m reminded of US satire ‘American Dad’: ‘The Terror Alert Dial is on “Orange” – which means someone, somewhere is up to something’. I suppose having a ‘terror alert system’ is cheaper than running a public awareness campaign, and ensures the government’s backside is covered if anything does happen.

  4. 4  richard  January 25, 2010, 6:23 pm 

    I love the way yellow and orange are used in the US system: not just the periodic alternation between them as a means of diverting the news, but the use of the colours themselves as presenting different conditions: orange appears a more intense sort of yellow, like a shift from lemon to cadmium, or on road signs from “ford” to “flood” – everyone knows they’re distinctions of degree but not kind. Red, on the other hand, is real urgency: if things get to red then someone in charge has failed to keep us safe. So in the end yellow and orange tell us that we’re close to the edge: that although we shouldn’t expect the failure marked by red, we’re in the region where it could happen. The sort of place where if we don’t wear our safety harnesses we might get into trouble the government cannot get us out of.

    I wonder what the whole thing has done for Ulster loyalists.

  5. 5  Leinad  January 26, 2010, 1:40 pm 

    “and it feels so real… you can feel the feeling!”
    Spinal Tap David Milliband

  6. 6  RLaing  January 26, 2010, 10:01 pm 

    I’m Chuch of Cultural Materialism myself. This wildly unpopular system of belief about beliefs essentially posits that if you want to understand some particular piece of bat-shittery, you do not engage it as a description of the world, but in terms of the practical consequences it produces.

    It is, or should be, obvious to anyone with a living mind that the ‘response’ to terrorism is grossly out of proportion to any conceivable real-world threat that it poses.

    The sound and fury surrounding this issue reminds me strongly of what Marvin Harris had to say about the medieval witch-hunt. Apparently witch-hysteria gave people something to focus on besides the fact that a tiny elite had more or less everything, while the rest made do with close to nothing. One the one hand it provided the state with a justification for its power, and on the other hand the smell of burning flesh reminded the pleb that his life, as awful as it was, could still suddenly and dramatically worsen if he allowed his outrage over social injustice to get out of hand.

    Up to now, the corporate collective has justified its hold on power on the basis of all the bright and shiny objects it produces. The emergence of this new, well actually very old paradigm of control suggests that the future, in important ways, will strongly resemble the past.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts