Terror threat is real but more Robocops on the streets of London are not the only answer, argues Joyce McMillan
Festival time: and huge, swirling crowds gather in Edinburgh for the 70th year of the greatest arts festival in the world. One of the most striking features of Edinburgh in August is the extent to which, unlike many other arts festivals, it not only lights up our major arts buildings – and Fringe venues across the city – but spills on to the streets, as thousands of performers try to sell their wares by pressing flyers into our hands, or giving us a glimpse of their shows; and vast crowds gather for outdoor events like the annual fireworks concert, or this weekend’s Deep Time opening spectacular, projected around the mighty castle rock.
And what all this street life means, of course – particularly in these troubled times – is a series of enhanced risks which the authorities in Scotland and Edinburgh traditionally handle with little fuss, and much geniality. Yet still, the presence of so many revellers in the city, combined with the knowledge of other attacks that have taken place in the past year, is bound to make us think hard about security, and what we mean by it. The language in which we discuss it, for example, is often loaded with unexamined assumptions; so that when we talk of “security measures” – like this week’s deployment of a new cadre of “Hercules cops” on the streets of London, heavily armed with machine-guns and body armour – we are often talking of measures which, in fact, only reflect our growing lack of a real sense of security.
So this is perhaps a moment to stand back a little, and to look again at the checklist of what we really need to keep our society secure, and our public space peaceful and enjoyable. In the first place, we clearly need excellent intelligence and enforcement, when it comes to real threats such as those currently presented by supporters of IS/Da’esh. To say so is to state the obvious; but given the amount of energy that some officers seem to have spent, in the past, infiltrating perfectly legitimate political campaigns, and abiding their trust, we can only be hoped that their efforts today are better focused, and more capable of distinguishing between radical political campaigning on one hand, and conspiracy to commit violent crime on the other.
Secondly, we need far better ways of measuring both the real level of risk to our security, and the negative impacts of some of the measures we take to counter it. To put it bluntly, our debate on how we should keep ourselves “secure” often primarily expresses the world-view of giant security companies which exist to sell “hard” security solutions involving hardware, more weaponry, and more physical defences, however ugly and alienating; security companies are now among the most influential players on the UK poltical stage, closely linked to many senior policy-makers. And what tends to be absent from a national security discussion inflicted in this way is both an accurate assessment of risk – terrorism, for example, remains low on the list of real risks faced by people in Europe, compared with other risks which we cheerfully ignore – and an accurate assessment of the impacts of the counter-measures we take.
Do we really want armed officers dressed like Robocop on the streets of London? Do we really think that their presence will increase the long-term cohesion of our society, or have the effect of making people feel less anxious, less tense, and therefore less violent? Despite stout instinctive resistance from some politicians, I doubt whether anyone, in current discussions about security in Europe, has actually tried to measure what we do to ourselves, when we allow a small threat of terrorist action to change the look and feel of our society in this way; and that needs to change, as a matter of urgency.
And then finally, for the long term, we need a politics that actually promotes security, both nationally and internationally, by seeking to reduce fear, and to meet basic human needs, rather than placing them beyond reach. It may suit the world’s growing army of “terrorism experts”, in the aftermath of events like this week’s attack near the British Museum, to talk as if mental health issues and involvement in terrorist violence represent two distinct phenomena; but a single glance at the record of the so-called “IS fighters” who conducted the recent horrific attacks in Nice and in Orlando shows that their mental health was far from stable, and that the link with IS terrorism is fast becoming, in many cases, a mere pretext for violence adopted by deeply disturbed individuals.
This is not, of course, to excuse those who make the individual choice to commit acts of violence; they are criminals, and should obviously be treated and assessed as such. As a matter of policy, though, it should be obvious that a society which offers justice, dignity, and economic security to its citizens, and which plays a role in promoting those positive values internationally, will breed fewer deeply disturbed and alienated individuals, and will therefore be more profoundly secure, than a society which promotes fear, hatred, alienation, and profound inequity. In her early pronouncements as Prime Minister, Theresa May has shown some signs of recognising this truth; it remains to be seen whether she understands just how dramatic a reversal of recent Conservative ideology it would require to set Britain back on a more convivial and egalitarian path at home, and – in our international dealings – to return to the kind of ethical foreign policy that now seems like an urgent practical necessity, in an explosively angry world.
And in the meantime, half a million people or more converge on Edinburgh, intent on three weeks of Festival. We wish them, in Burns’ words, peace, enjoyment, love and pleasure. And we also remember the hard-won lesson of the great global conflict out of which this festival rose, 69 years ago – that any new world worth living in has to be built on the principles of peace, justice, creative co-operation, and mutual respect, across all boundaries; or its foundations will crumble, and it will not stand.