Leader: arming officers alone can't stop lone wolf terror

How to react to terror threats of the kind that caused last week's attack on Westminster is one of the key questions in the aftermath of the tragic events outside the Houses of Parliament.

A police vehicle sent to Holyrood after the London attack. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

We have known for long enough that there is no obvious answer. But as we report today in the Insight pages, the debate over whether or not to arm the police is far from clear cut, including within the force itself.

It is quite possible to envisage a future with a greater number of armed officers in operation, while still stopping some distance short of every police officer carrying a gun.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Would this offer the public greater protection? Statistically, yes it would, but in practical terms, probably not. The pattern shows lone attackers striking in situations where it would come down to luck that an armed officer was present. There are simply not enough police officers to prevent a lone wolf causing carnage.

But that is not to say that our security forces face a hopeless task. We know that if terrorists decided to target Scotland, it is more likely that a concentrated gathering of people would be the focus than an iconic building. Security resources can be allocated appropriately when such occasions arise.

We have grown accustomed to seeing armed police at our airports, and we have witnessed a very visible presence at events such as the Commonwealth Games. If more armed officers are deemed appropriate by our security forces, we would no doubt be ready to accept this as part of our daily lives.

However, the debate over how effective armed police would be as a response to the current terror threat is perhaps the wrong way to look at the matter.

Intelligence and identification of radicalisation are the best weapons with which to fight terrorism. It is imperative that in our efforts to foster a greater sense of security we do not divert scarce manpower away from building vital links within the community towards mounting armed patrols.