The presence of troops on British streets is supposed to be temporary measure - but will they become permanent after we grow to accept the sight, asks Bill Jamieson.
After every terrorist outrage, familiar reassurances are rolled out: “We will not be cowed”; “We will not allow terrorism to change our way of life”; “We are committed to our open society”.
But after the initial shock of the carnage at Monday night’s Manchester bombing which killed 22 comes anger – and a searching analysis of how this happened, how many others may have assisted the suicide bomber and how everyday security can be tightened.
As the targets of terrorist attack now extend to places of recreation and leisure attended by children and young people, we are more than ever determined to avoid a repetition.
Terrorist attacks have changed, and are continuing to change, the way we live, work, travel and relax. This will be all the more true now that the UK terror threat level has been raised to its highest level of “critical”, meaning further attacks may be imminent.
The shocking nature of this attack drives home an unpalatable truth that truly no public space can now be considered safe. And that is likely to bring a change in behaviour by the public as well as a deeply troubling set of demands on the security services.
Such was the deadly sophistication of the explosive device, the ‘lone wolf’ explanation simply does not suffice in this case. And with every indication that co-conspirators are still at large, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the army will now be deployed to protect key sites under the new threat level.
The implication is that this would be temporary. But the evidence from previous counter-terrorist measures suggests it may become a permanent feature of life in our major cities and transport hubs.
Few imagined some 15 years ago that when extra security measures were introduced at airports these would be more than temporary. But today we accept all the hassle of airport security inspection as an inevitable part and parcel of flying - the removal of shoes, the display of liquids and the separate assorting of laptops, tablets and mobile phones for inspection - whether you are a child or a pensioner.
Meanwhile, entry at many government and corporate buildings now requires passing through a security gate, with electronic body scan and presentation of identity details. Not all that long ago this would have seemed unwarranted and intrusive. How quickly we have accepted the inconvenience. Today we also think little of seeing armed police in city centres and transport hubs. This presence is now to be augmented by members of the armed forces, reflecting in part the growing strain on police numbers and resources. Even adding Britain’s growing anti-terrorism police, the number is still limited.
Assurances have been given that the army personnel will be under the control of the police. But here, too, there are searching questions as to operational protocols and effectiveness. The emergence of a separate integrated intelligence, security and surveillance arm of government seems inevitable, if not already unofficially in situ.
What might the public’s attitude be? Again, a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable. But the apparent ineffectiveness of the existing “Prevent” strategy would seem to make the case compelling.
What other changes might the public now accept? Compulsory ID cards take a step closer with every outrage. Civil libertarians have long argued against the intrusiveness and the disclosure of personal details that violate our privacy. But we think little today of about filling in access forms on consumer websites, often surrendering on the web, in addition to age, marital status, address, phone number and email address, often details of our income, credit standing, bank account and credit card details. There are of course other objections, not least the vulnerability of such vast databases to technical breakdown or worse – hacking or cyber attack. But with every terror atrocity, the privacy objection is not as strong as it was.
The ultimate security surveillance would be a microchip implant. Yet here we would surely draw a line … would we? Microchip technology has advanced markedly in recent years to make this a foreseeable option. And if such technology can be used to help track suspects and avoid the random slaughter of civilians, it may not prove quite the ‘no go’ area most today assume. As attitudes have changed so much in other areas to help in our everyday safety and security, why not here?
As matters stand, the strain on security services and budgets is mounting. This attack followed a rising number of terrorism-related arrests in the UK. MI5 and anti-terrorism police were monitoring an estimated 3,000 home-grown extremists in 2015. And up to 350 jihadist fighters are thought to have returned to the UK from Iraq and Syria as the Islamic state’s hold in the region has been driven back.
MI5’s resources, like those of counter-terrorism police, are finite. Figures released by the UK parliament in 2015 showed that MI5 had just over 4,000 staff, with almost two-thirds of resources devoted to international-related counter-terrorism. Once identified, keeping tabs on terrorist suspects requires round-the-clock surveillance – with numbers of counter-intelligence personnel to match. Even adding Britain’s growing anti-terrorism police, more would seem to be needed.
And as Dan Lomax, Programme Leader of Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Salford, points out, “The Manchester Arena attack is worrying because of its deadliness. Rather than knives or vehicles, the use of explosives adds to the complexity of the threat in the UK. Establishing how the perpetrator was able to create an explosive device, tracing their contacts and understanding their motives are all issues for the UK’s security and policing bodies to investigate.”
Is over-reaction a danger? It may seem that for most of us the threat posed by terrorism is remote; that we face greater risks from more commonplace events and that the danger lies in giving the security services carte blanche. After all, has not the incidence of terror attacks across Europe declined sharply since the 1970s and early 1980s?
In 2015, the last full year covered by the Global Terrorism Database, 175 people in western Europe died in terrorist attacks. But this was not an unusual tally in the 1970s when groups such as the IRA, Eta Basque separatists and the Red Brigades were active and western Europe was a hub of terrorism.
Yet the decline in terror attacks in the West from the Seventies peak reassures no-one. The problem is that the nature of such attacks has changed and the targets for attacks are now much wider. Few back then would have imagined political goals would have been advanced by attacks such as that on the 2015 Bataclan concert hall in Paris that left 90 dead. The terror attack in Manchester targeted a concert populated by children and teenagers. Nothing now seems to be out of bounds. And because of that, ringing declarations that “our lives will not be changed” may be an all-too-human response but one blind to the changes we have already been compelled to make.