Last week in Barcelona, it happened again. There was a terror attack, involving a van driven at speed into an unsuspecting crowd; 14 people died. Within 24 hours, the people of Barcelona were gathering on the streets, singing and chanting their defiance, saying that they were not - and are not - afraid; it’s the same reaction to terrorism that we see in great multicultural cities across the world, from Paris and Berlin to London, Manchester and Boston. And as in all those other cities, people said that terrorism would not be allowed to change their way of life; they would party on without fear, and not permit themselves to be cowed by tiny groups of terrorists.
Yet we must, when we go through the ritual of saying this, be increasingly conscious that in most countries of the west, what we say is not true. We have allowed ourselves to be changed by the threat of terrorism, since the horrifying attack on New York in 2001; and the very fabric of our cities is beginning to show it. Here in Edinburgh, this year - after the attacks in London and Manchester this spring - festival crowds are, for the first time, experiencing bag searches in many venues, the sight of tank-trap-like barriers on the High Street, and the occasional presence of armed police on the streets. Public buildings in London, and our own Scottish Parliament here in Edinburgh, are increasingly surrounded by ugly ranks of traffic bollards and blast-proof walls; and from time to time, major events are simply cancelled outright, as in Rotterdam this week, following explicit terrorist threats.
And all this is to say nothing of the less visible but even more significant electronic surveillance state that we have allowed to grow up over the last 16 years, with millions of law-abiding citizens being put on watch-lists without evidence or redress, on suspicion of having once signed an online petition, or gone to a demonstration. To call this process insidious is to understate the case; these days, anyone who dissents from the norms and systems of our evidently flawed society to the extent of actually doing something about it runs the risk of being categorised, in UK security terms, as a potential “domestic insurgent”.
Yet there is, to put it bluntly, very little evidence that terrorism in the west represents a threat that justifies social, cultural and physical change on this scale. In the 16 years since 2001, well under a thousand people have died in terror attacks across Europe, fewer than a hundred a year, whereas 300 times as many die in road traffic accidents. And although the security establishment constantly tells us of the large number of terror attacks they prevent, thanks to tight surveillance rules, there is surely a limit to how much of such information any thinking citizen should be expected to take entirely on trust, given the huge vested financial interests involved in maintaining a heightened sense of threat.
Add to all these factors the desperate plight of all public authorities in a risk-averse age, faced with the inevitability of legal action and huge penalties if they fail to implement recommended security measures and lives are lost as a result, and you have a situation where over-reaction to the threat of terrorism becomes almost inevitable. All the pressure is on the side of expensive and obvious security measures, and on the lavish demonstration that the authorities have made the safety of the public their “absolute priority”; although in truth, if the safety of the public was an “absolute priority”, we would not only ban motor transport, but ensure that no-one ever got out of bed in the morning.
In the real world, in other words, we make constant calculations of the benefits and risks of whatever action we undertake, even if only crossing the road to buy a coffee. In the wrong circumatances, motor vehicles kill; but we value the freedom they bring us so much that we tolerate an annual death toll on the scale of a 9/11 attack in Britain every year.
Yet when it comes to our response to terrorism, those mechanisms for calculating risk and benefit seem to have entirely broken down. The risk of continuing to live our lives without bag searches and street barriers and relentless online surveillance is deemed too great even to contemplate; whereas the unseen but huge benefits of living in a civil society - where security is not a major industry, where people enjoy privacy and freedom of movement without intrusion, and where our children are not constantly given the false, disempowering and reactionary impression that all public space is dangerous and all strangers a source of threat - are never weighed in the balance at all.
It therefore seems to me obvious that we now need to call a halt to the the growth of terrorism-related security-state thinking, in the UK and elsewhere, and begin a much more mature conversation about the freedoms and decencies we are so willingly giving up in order to meet what is by any normal measure a small threat, posed by a tiny minority of citizens. For if the growth of such attitudes and systems is undesirable in itself, the reasons why we have been so tolerant of it are also deeply disturbing, and a serious capitulation - despite our fine words - to those who want to see a society undermined by division, hatred, and mutual mistrust between communities. At the Edinburgh Festival this year, there are not only barriers in the streets, and some cops carrying guns.
There are also hundreds of very angry young performers, speaking in the voices of communities that feel excluded and demonised by an official and media culture that too often places the heavy hand of “security” above the civic peace, fairness and inclusion that really keeps us safe. Those who sow the seeds of a security state, in other words, inevitably reap the whirlwind of anger from those they insult, harass and exclude; and it’s now beyond time for those of us who truly care for long-term peace and harmony to call a halt to our ever more pervasive “security” culture, and to begin to questions its terms.