Be Very Afraid – We Are Being Fleeced by Purveyors of Fear

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In case you missed it, since Monday an "Irish-related" attack on Britain has been "a strong possibility". At the same time, an al-Qaida attack is "highly likely" and "only a matter of time". This presumably means one will occur – though, since August 2006, when this alarmist language was first to put us on continuous alert, terrorism has been like mad flu disease, afflicting Whitehall but strangely absent from the nation at large.

I hesitate to tempt fate, but this dog’s dinner of nouns and qualifiers cannot mean anything to the general public. Rather than describing a menace to the British state, the words are more a comment on English teaching in schools. They are verbal garbage, reflecting a habit of bureaucratic mind and relieving public services – airport security, railway guards, traffic police – of the need for courtesy. They just want to keep the public scared and paying taxes.

Travelling on a First Great Western train nowadays is like entering Guantánamo – a cacophony of repetitive announcements telling passengers to protect their belongings at all times and inform the police if they see anything suspicious. Likewise the fatuous frisking of old ladies at airports, the half-hearted searching of bags in shops, the reams of safety literature pouring from the nation’s printers. It is the white noise of state fear.

Nothing is as absurd as Home Office "threat levels". They purport to grade the risk of something called an "attack". This is not defined, but graces a crime with the glamour of a soldierly act. It grants terrorism political status and thus dusts the security industry with the glory of defending the realm.

Above all the threat must be kept alive, sorted into classes of low, moderate, substantial, severe and critical. We are currently at severe. What regius professor of English chose these words? I would put severe below substantial, the word being a strengthener of very, while substantial has substance. But I assume Whitehall has done focus groups and sweat tests. Substantial was perhaps greeted with a shrug, while severe brought on the shakes. As for critical – mujahideen "expected imminently" to hurl bombs down Oxford Street – it is surely the most devalued word in the OED.

There is no way a member of the public can sensibly use the information that an al-Qaida threat has altered from substantial to severe. These are abstractions. Are we supposed to calibrate our dread with Theresa May each morning, treating all dark skin as suspicious and every beard as hiding a foe?

The former home secretary, Alan Johnson, raised the al-Qaida threat level in January from substantial to severe, yet added that it would be "pretty daft" to say why. Under his predecessor the security service boasted that it had tabs on 2,000 individual terrorists, 200 networks and 30 active plots. The impression was the more the merrier.

The public pays the police and security services to protect them from these bombs going off, while accepting that occasionally one will get through. But it also pays not constantly to be reminded that there are bad people in the world. It pays to be relieved of fear. May claims to be "alerting not alarming" the public by "raising its awareness". She treats terrorism as, like gay rights and climate change, in need of an Arts Council grant.

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