Don’t Let Fear Prevent Thought: A Response to Brussels – Tim Harvey

Tim Harvey is Politics editor for Sonder and a second year English Literature student at The University of Manchester. He writes poetry and political analysis, with a focus on Western foreign policy and the Middle East.

Don’t Let Fear Prevent Thought: A Response to Brussels

Today’s attacks in Brussels, which have seen 34 people killed at the current estimate, and many more critically injured, are a sobering reminder of the terrorist threat in Europe. The three explosions, two of which occurred around 8am(CET) in Zaventem Airport, and the other hitting Maalbeek Metro Station close to 9am, have raised questions about how we in the ‘West’ deal with terrorism – both in terms of responses to, and prevention of, future attacks. Some of the observations made in the media response so far, however, are worth drawing briefly to attention.

One question repeatedly asked on the BBC News Special throughout the morning was this:

Why, in the aftermath of arresting Salah Abdeslam (a key suspect in the Paris Terror Attacks), was the terror threat level in the Belgian capital not raised from 3 to 4, indicating that a ‘serious threat was imminent’?

Indeed, it is a fair question – if a system exists whereby we classify the degree to which an attack is likely at all times, why was the arrest of a supposed terrorist ring-leader not deemed sufficient to raise the threat level? It is a legitimate question, yes – but is it an interesting one? Is there any point of having these threat levels? Do they serve any purpose?

I suspect that they do not. In the UK, we have 5 levels of threat, ranging from ‘low’, meaning an attack is ‘unlikely’, to ‘critical’, meaning an attack is ‘expected imminently’. According to the https://www.gov.uk/terrorism-national-emergency/terrorism-threat-levels website, ‘the threat level indicates the likelihood of a terrorist attack in the UK’. That is it. You can check the website to see if there is any more information given as to why this is significant, or how one should behave differently according to the varying levels, but I can assure you there is none. There is a link, however, to the MI5 website, which kindly explains what terrorism is for those who didn’t know.

For these threat levels to serve any purpose, everybody must be assumed to know what level it is on at all times. Do they? I suspect not. I certainly did not know before this morning that our threat level was ‘severe’ (the second highest possible, meaning an attack is ‘highly likely’) and I am not behaving any differently in light of the knowledge. I could have guessed that it was reasonably high, but that is hardly the point.

One may respond by saying that the threat levels are for the security services and not the public (in which case, it begs the question, why are the public informed when the threat level changes?), and certainly, the implication of the question asked throughout this morning on the BBC Special Report seemed to be that the security services were not vigilant enough on account of the level not being changed three days earlier. But what is this really indicating? Are we to believe that the Belgian police were just that little bit too relaxed in the airport, only three days after a highly dangerous terror suspect was arrested? And if we were to flick a switch from 3 to 4, their vision would be enhanced, their ears would prick up and they would have valiantly whisked today’s perpetrators away with no damage being done? Of course, this is ludicrous.

The truth, of course, is that the attacks are being used to justify a greater police presence, increased state power and a departure from the presumption of innocence. In the case of Brussels in the aftermath of today’s attacks, these are of course necessary – it would be foolish to allow potential suspects to flee the country unpunished for their involvement in these heinous crimes. Yet, the implication on the BBC this morning was that such measures should have been put in place before the attacks. This is far more concerning.

In any case, the efficacy of such measures is highly questionable. The whole point of terrorism is that it is so difficult to prevent – that is why it is so effective in causing terror. Like a cancer, it is inside the body of society – planned and discussed in private venues. No amount of increased vigilance in public is going to prevent an attack once the perpetrator is committed to doing it, unless they happen to be particularly incompetent and wear their suicide belt in full view. This is precisely why talk of the ‘sophistication’ and ‘training’ of these attackers is scaremongering nonsense – anyone who has access to an arsenal of weapons (such as has been the case in the Paris and Brussels attacks) and a will to kill innocent people can do so fairly easily. It doesn’t take a highly trained expert to kill 20 people with a bomb on a rush hour commuter train, or to open fire on a group of unarmed civilians – it does take an immensely sadistic will. This is the only thing we can attempt to tackle.

How to tackle it is an immensely difficult question, to which I do not pretend to know the answer. An interesting point raised on the BBC this morning suggested that the sense of community in Brussels is particularly fractured – the police and certain communities within the Belgian capital have very little interaction, which is why Brussels has often been a harbouring place for Islamic extremists. This is a poignant reminder of the importance of a key Peelian principle of British policing – ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’. It seems that this is increasingly forgotten, yet never has it been so important to acknowledge.

In any case, do not let fear prevent thought. Any attempt to increase state power to the detriment of liberty should be viewed with suspicion. There is little that can be done to prevent tragic attacks such as have been seen in Brussels this morning. What can we do? A small step in the right direction may be simply to talk more and increase the sense of community in our worryingly impersonal society. Take off your headphones, stop playing with your smartphones. We’re all guilty of it, and it’s the least we can alter which, even if it does little to prevent the recurrence of such horrific events, may go some way to making us ‘one nation’, as the Conservative Party dearly loves to put it.

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