Be very afraid of the taps of mass destruction

Simon Jenkins Jan 7 2004

I knew it. Turn my back for half a minute and Tony Blair is into my bathroom pointing at the basin and shrieking. There is terror in the taps, fear in the faucets, panic in the plughole. He orders his Health and Safety Executive stormtroopers to kick down my door and take a sledgehammer to my brass-necked weapons of mass destruction. They constitute a major and imminent threat.

Mr Blair, fountainhead of global safety, has added water taps to the hierarchy of terrors facing the British people. Intelligence dossiers tell him what he most dreads, the water can sometimes run too hot. In future mixer-taps are to be compulsory. Nor can the British people be trusted to turn on the cold before the hot. These potentially lethal weapons must have compulsory thermostatic controls. Any Briton caught turning on hot before cold will in future be committing an offence - and we know what that means these days.

This is all true. My risk of being killed by an extremist bath tap must be the same as being killed by an al-Qaeda terrorist, which is infinitessimal. Yet the Government's attack on the latter risk has dominated the front pages of British newspapers for more than half of the past two years. It has been the biggest running story since the Second World War, consuming £6 billion in military spending and incalculable billions more in domestic security and inconvenience (America is spending $41 billion this year alone.) The wars have killed thousands of foreigners, most of them innocent of any crime. The culprit of all this, Osama bin Laden, has imposed as great an annual tax burden and more inconvenience on the West than the might of the Soviet empire in its prime.

The parallel between hot water taps and bin Laden is pertinent and precise. The essence of government was once the management of risk and the containment of public fear. That is collapsing. Orwell's view of the future, dating from the Fascist era, was "of a boot stamping on a human face, for ever". Without sharing this brutal imagery, I sense we are seeing a drift towards a bureaucratic version of the same, with fear as the spur.

In response to 9/11, two wars have led to the toppling of two nasty regimes. Yet this has allegedly not diminished the threat or the fear. Indeed they are said to have increased. I lose count how often the Government has declared that a major attack on London is "not a matter of if but when". Before Christmas, epithets such as likely, probable and unavoidable were applied to repeats of the previous years' hysteria over bombs, bugs and bacteria.

Yesterday, airline pilots found themselves in the front line. While most people can retreat from scaremongering into homes and workplaces, they cannot. The British Air Line Pilots Association pleaded with the British Government to let its members and not the Pentagon be the judge of safety on board aircraft. If the police thought there were a "credible" threat to an aircraft, it should not be filled with guns. It should not fly.

Until recently that might have been the end of the matter. A captain is legally in absolute charge of his ship. Over the past two decades the number of aircraft hijackings has decreased. This is due not to sky marshals but to drastic improvements in pre-flight vetting. Pilots claim it is the job of others to stop terrorists boarding. Their job begins once the aircraft is aloft. The last things they want on board are guns. In any fight guns can change hands.

Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, thinks he knows better (or at least his American masters do). Over the holiday period flights were cancelled, allegedly on intelligence from Guantanamo Bay. Any Arab passenger is to be considered suspect. Fingerprints and photographs are to be demanded. Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey, of the homeland security committee, is pressing for more, calling the failure to search all hold luggage "reckless and inexplicable". Last word goes to The Sunday Times's cartoonist, Newman. On Sunday his passenger remarked: "I was concerned but I've been upgraded to terrified."

Everyone and everything is seen as a potential killer, an agent of fear. Who knows what some maniac pilot, driver or scientist might do? Who knows what terror might emanate from that air outlet, exhaust or water tap? There is danger everywhere, if that is what you want.

I can draw only two conclusions. One is that we cannot live like this. Governments used to keep terror threats secret, revealing only what demanded a specific response from the public. Generalised scares were thought wholly irresponsible. Yet before Christmas Britain was told by Washington that it faced an atrocity "worse than September 11". It sounded like a tape from al-Jazeera. What were Londoners supposed to do with this news? They could hardly ground all aircraft, incarcerate all Arabs and refuse to help old women over the road in case they were strapped with Semtex.

The Washington Post website joins in the "faint and persistent buzz of hazard" with a personalised "disaster preparedness plan". For $139 readers are offered "a clip-on ultra-high gain amplifier with intelligent processor and highly-tuned early warning dirty bomb detection system". How could you deny your family such protection? Is this really where we want to go?

The other conclusion is more sinister. Mr Blair's belief in Iraq's so-called weapons of mass destruction has become obsessional. He is like President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa and his belief that Aids does not exist. Even Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer and their Fleet Street cheerleaders have abandoned this nonsense. Yet Mr Blair is loyal to himself. He roams the desert of his mind searching for that elusive weapon of mass destruction. Like Coleridge's owlet, he shuts his eyes And hooting at the glorious sun in Heaven, / Cries out, ‘Where is it?'

Mr Blair always deserved credit for seeking a legal basis for going to war. He deserves none for refusing to admit that he was deceived. Last year's bloodcurdling dossiers were published and doctored blatantly to scare the public into supporting the war. The argument was clear. Saddam should go not because he was awful but because his awfulness posed a threat to Britain. Mr Blair would defend us from that threat. It was a classic exercise in fear politics.

Fear is leadership's default mode. It offers a distraction from the anger of the mob. The press will always stoke the furnace. The Tories dare not gainsay it. The Treasury cannot deny it funds. The scaremonger has the best tunes and the risk-taker none. Leading the people to the cliff edge and scaring them witless is the last refuge of the demagogue, but it rarely fails.

A deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Peter Clarke, last week boasted in The Times that no terrorist atrocities had occurred in London, "yet". He implied that this vindicated his regular threat warnings and the arrest, so far without trial, of 500 people. He did not seek to assess whether the vast expense of guarding London over the holiday was justified, or was merely a response to American noise. He simply asserted that "the Commissioner and I will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to protect (the public) from harm". Authoritarians always use the phrase "whatever steps".

The need for better airline security was clearly indicated by 9/11. That need appears to have been met with existing controls. Yesterday Mr Darling said otherwise. He implied that the threat has risen so fast that gun-toting guards on planes were required, with passengers photographed and fingerprinted. The searching of check-in luggage will presumably follow, when Mr Darling is so ordered by Washington.

We have no way of knowing if this activity and the huge associated costs are really necessary. Heightened security may be the result of the War on Terror failing badly but I think not. I sense that air security has improved and needs no reinforcement.

The alternative is that we are seeing another twist in the ratchet politics of fear. Mr Blair and George Bush are mocking President Roosevelt's admonition that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself". Modern rulers are growing to love fear. It excuses their mistakes and covers their folly. It silences opponents and boosts budgets. Fear is smoke blown by weak leaders in the eyes of the people. It must make bin Laden laugh.