Trust me. They want us to be scared and nervous

Simon Jenkins

I am hoping for a fear-free Christmas. Last year was dreadful, literally. The Government had a war to promote and decided to scare me witless. This year it has less excuse. Tony Blair has toppled Saddam Hussein and owes the nation a "reassurance dividend".

The American Government has taken a different view. On Sunday Washington's director of homeland security, Tom Ridge, summoned a surprised media and announced "credible intelligence" of a "possible near-term" terrorist attack that could "either rival or exceed what we experienced on September 11". He even hinted at the hijacking of another plane. The threat from al-Qaeda was perhaps greater now than at any point since 2001. The threat also embraced America's allies, which included Britain.

Mr Ridge said he was not asking Americans to alter their travel plans. Yet he raised the terror alert from yellow to orange, one stage below red. Not to be outdone, New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, rushed to the rostrum and repeated the words "major threat", although he admitted that he knew of no specific attack aimed at New York City. He wanted New Yorkers to take comfort that they were so well protected.

How Americans or Britons are meant to take comfort from yet more mentions of al-Qaeda, terrorism, planes, airports and 9/11 is not clear. Mr Ridge gave no indication of how his dire warning should be used, beyond the policeman's eternal demand for vigilance. He did not ban air travel or call for the public to stockpile dried milk or buy gas masks, as happened last year.

We are assured by those in the know that the threat from al-Qaeda is as great as ever. Sir John Stevens, the London Police Commissioner, said it was a quantum leap from what it was during the IRA campaign, which was itself murderous and horrible. Despite two bloody wars, tens of thousands of bombs and many thousands of corpses, the chief global terrorism culprit, Osama bin Laden, remains free and apparently operational. Yet there has been no outrage on British soil.

I regard this as good news. The Government regards it as bad, because it constantly tells us that Britain must be next. This time last year Downing Street was in a state of near hysteria. Frantic to boost the case for an Iraq war and find cover for the Cheriegate affair, Alastair Campbell orchestrated a blitz of media scares. Each weekend from November through the Christmas holiday and into January, the press was induced to lead on "Britain put on smallpox terror alert", " Killer anthrax threat to Britain", "Gas horror on London Tube" and "Dirty bomb aimed at Christmas shoppers".

The campaign was supplied with purple material by Sir David Omand, the Cabinet Office security co-ordinator, briefed by MI5 and MI6. As we now know from Hutton, both these organisations were under intense pressure from Downing Street to come up with hawkish material. Total rubbish about Saddam was peddled as high-grade intelligence. We have no way of knowing whether more sober minds were dealing with the al-Qaeda threat. The evidence so far is not encouraging.

The most bizarre threat was of smallpox. There was not a shred of intelligence that any enemy had quantities of smallpox, let alone in weapon form. Yet ministers in their Cobra bunker went berserk. They ordered 12 regional smallpox response groups across the nation. Seventy key workers were told to receive instant vaccination to be able to cope with millions of victims. An astonishing £100 million was found overnight to buy 50 million doses of vaccine. The ability of ministers to find huge amounts of money from nowhere under political duress never fails to impress me.

Smallpox was followed by an entire chemistry lab: by sarin, ricin, anthrax and, a Downing Street special, a "dirty bomb" to contaminate Christmas shoppers with radiation. The campaign reached its climax on February 11, when Mr Blair, "deep below Whitehall", ordered tanks to encircle Heathrow to protect it from imminent assault. He claimed that al-Qaeda was racing through Hounslow in a white van packed with SAM missiles. Sir John Stevens gave his considered view that the whole of London was facing a dire terrorist threat. It cost London £1 million in cancelled flight bookings that weekend alone. I doubt if ministers gave that a second thought.

What is a sane citizen supposed to make of such apparent and blatant scaremongering? Since the dawn of time insecure governments have raised the spectre of a murky or convenient minority enemy to distract the public mind from more evident concerns. Stalin used the kulaks. Hitler used the Jews. Senator McCarthy used communists. The apartheid rulers of South Africa used schwarzgewaar, or fear of blacks. If the threat could be declared secret, and therefore undisclosable, so much the better.

A danger to national security from Muslim extremism cannot easily be disproved. Who can tell if last February's tanks at Heathrow did not nip another Lockerbie in the bud? Who can tell if al-Qaeda's war machine did not hear of John Prescott's 12 regional centres and slink back home in fear? Who knows how many of the Muslims whom David Blunkett has dumped in jail without charge are, as he claims, dangerous terrorists?

I know that no bombs have exploded in Britain these past two years, and for that I must be glad. A serious price has been paid in public fear, anti-Muslim sentiment, loss of civil liberty and police overtime. Untold damage has been done to the tourist industry, Britain's second biggest employer. But no outrage has occurred and, I repeat, I am glad.

My problem is that I have no way of assessing the risks against the costs. Democracy is not trusted with such a calculation. Am I more at danger from al-Qaeda than on a motorway or in a football crowd or climbing a mountain? These other risks I can assess for myself. In taking them I feel empowered and in partial control.

When government cries "terrorist!" it is accountable to none. It issues blood-curdling warnings and then says, trust us. Sir John is a dab hand at this game. He accompanies his regular threats with a comforting "people should not be alarmed". Like the dictator Kim Il Sung, he wants the public ignorant but trusting of the powers that be. Mr Blunkett tells Britons to suspect foreigners with funny bags, to pay more taxes and to shut up about civil liberty.

The global security pundit John Steinbruner, of the University of Maryland, suggested on Monday that these scares were being used in America as insurance, to enable officials to claim "I told you so" should anything go wrong. Mr Ridge's press conference offered the public no information that it could use for its own reassurance. He appeared merely to be covering his back.

As Professor Steinbruner pointed out, simply spreading fear under cover of vigilance plays the enemy's game. "The whole point of terrorism is to induce victims to indulge in a self-destructive reaction," he said. Terrorism is an auto-immune disease "designed to get the political system to damage itself". It aims to erode the liberty of free societies by remote control.

This is what the War on Terror is now in real danger of achieving. I have no way of knowing whether this two-year war has been grossly overstated, whether it is supremely successful or whether it faces miserable defeat. All governments can say is give us more money and more power. Of course I want to be safer. I pay a fortune in taxes to that end. I might even accept some change in civil justice to enhance that safety, but only if convinced of the necessity. At Guantanamo Bay and Belmarsh prison I am not so convinced.

What I do not understand is how public officials spreading terror help to win this war. No practical advice was offered by Mr Ridge or Sir John. It seems that some al-Qaeda agent has merely to lift the phone to them and leave panic and spin to do the rest. It no longer takes a suicide attack to have the West quaking in its boots.

Britain has no mechanism for reviewing security scares to assess their validity or cost/benefit. The past two years have seen much loss of life and liberty in the cause of freeing me from fear. Yet London and Washington tell me I am less safe and therefore more afraid, which is just what bin Laden wants me to be.

This Christmas I shall cross my fingers and not believe any of them.