Poisoned by terror made and sold in Whitehall
Two stories were this week expected to top the political agenda. They were Brown-versus-Blair and Cherie Blair’s murky ventures in the Bristol property market. On Monday the firefighters’ dispute was old news and the week was looking uncomfortable for Downing Street.
By yesterday morning the world was singing a happier tune. “Britain put on smallpox terror alert” and “Killer bug threat to Britain”, sang the headlines. There was also a descant: “Saddam a Monster,” incanted the Foreign Office; “See Saddam’s Jail Horror”. The Prime Minister was taking tea with the wives of tortured Iraqis. The masters of spin had done it again. Welcome to the world of tabloid politics.
Both the smallpox alert and Saddam’s jail horrors could, of course, have been public service notices long planned by the Central Office of Infomation. Such is the cynicism bred of experience that nobody believed it. This is the third weekend in a month that a terrorism threat has emanated from Whitehall. Terror stories are always the easiest for government to sell. Headlines write themselves and the pictures always “burn or bleed”. Yesterday they came with string accompaniment. Jack Straw’s Saddam-is-awful video showed Iraqis yet again having their heads kicked in, this time to background music. Foreign policy is now a branch of showbiz.
Two American polemicists are in town this week. One is Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defence Secretary, out to persuade the world of the vast and imminent threat of Saddam Hussein. He must scare us witless. The other is an oddball film-maker called Michael Moore. His ambition is roughly the opposite. In his brilliant film, Bowling for Columbine, plus a book and a sell-out theatre show, Mr Moore attacks America’s love of the gun as proxy for his real enemy, the manipulators of public fear.
They make a good pair. Mr Wolfowitz displays the calm assurance of the fundamentalist. To him, America is top nation and in the right. The United Nations are a bunch of saps. Saddam is pure evil and all right-thinking people must help to remove him, quickly. Mr Wolfowitz says that the Arabs will soon see Americans as soldiers of liberation. So will the North Koreans.
Mr Moore is also a fundamentalist. A modern day William Cobbett, he crosses America talking to ordinary people on street corners about guns and violence. His intention is to explain how two boys could commit the Columbine School massacre of 1999, a terror he regards as not random but symptomatic. He goes about his work with gallows humour. His cast embraces children, arms manufacturers, bullet shopgirls, journalists, policemen and a wretched Charlton Heston. Mr Moore is a reporter who not only asks “what?” but also “why?”
His answer is surprising. Many other countries have histories of guns and violence. Canadians have more guns per head than Americans, yet they rarely shoot each other. Americans, Mr Moore concludes, are not essentially violent; they are terrified. They fear each other and the world. They “bowl alone”. They lock and guard their doors while Canadians leave theirs open.
Mr Moore carries his camera back through the desperate lives of the teenage killers and their friends. Nobody escapes his withering inquiry: the media, the police, “cop” TV, gun shops, Welfare to Work, security salesmen and politicians who “bomb countries we can’t pronounce”. He wonders what goes through the mind of the bank manager who offers “a free gun” with each new account. He asks a television producer why he always shows half-naked black men being held down by white police. He asks Charlton Heston why he sleeps in a house of loaded rifles. “Thank you for not shooting me,” is his constant refrain.
Although Mr Moore’s outlook is essentially left-wing, I might agree with him by a different route. Why does the British Government now scare me, rather than persuade me, into spending more taxes on defence and security? By what right does it make my children frightened to walk the streets or use the Tube? Why must we all fear white powder and Arabs with duffel bags? Is it sensible for courts and welfare schemes to deprive vulnerable children of their parents? Leftwingers have no monopoly on the connectedness of things.
I was outraged by the smallpox scare story. It was a clear repeat of the previous weekend’s lobby story of “gas horror on London Tube”, itself an echo of the Home Office “dirty bomb” story two weeks earlier. These Whitehall officials are panic happy, careless of the cost and worry they cause others. In a speech at the Mansion House last month, Tony Blair pleaded the difficulty of drawing a line between public information and “doing the terrorists’ job for them”. He implied that, given what MI5 had been telling him, he should close Britain. If so, he should sack MI5. His predecessors had a far more immediate threat from the IRA. They managed.
Downing Street seems no longer able to assess risk. The chance of Britain being engulfed by a smallpox epidemic must be infinitessimal. Three weeks ago the story was anthrax and cyanide. There is no evidence that Iraq or al-Qaeda have the smallpox virus which, we are told, is near impossible to convert into a weapon. Yet Downing Street virtually wrote yesterday’s headlines. There are now to be 12 “regional smallpox response groups”, 700 vaccinated key workers and 50 million doses of vaccine. The word “danger” was spattered through the remarks of the hapless Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, on Monday.
Mr Blair argues that openness is a virtue and disclosure should reassure the public that ministers are in control. Besides, when the Government holds back, as with generalised warnings covering Bali and Kenya, it is accused of secrecy. Yet the decision not to pass on a general threat to tourist targets was sound. The warnings were too vague to merit ruining dozens of tourism economies. Monday’s operation was different. It generated front page headlines from an admitted total lack of threat.
With America now vaccinating millions of workers, the effect can only be to unnerve parents into worrying whether they should be vaccinating their children. If the entire nation were vaccinated, say the epidemiologists, on average one in a million would die and ten times that number would suffer crippling side-effects. In Britain that means 50 dead. That is the real risk of this scare.
There are a dozen more “terrifying” epidemics than smallpox deserving of #100 million of taxpayers’ cash. There are a dozen regimes whose human rights merit the attention of Gordon Brown’s #1 billion Iraq war chest. This is a Government which continues to bomb Iraq each week yet refuses for devious reasons to cite its leaders before any war crimes tribunal.
The present menace in Britain comes from the al-Qaeda murderers, allegedly financed by “friends of Britain” in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. But even they are no “threat to Britain”, in whose political stability, prosperity and culture I have absolute faith. Their threat is of a one-off atrocity, which is quite different.
While an atrocity kills and maims, its impact lies in the nation’s reaction to it. Killing is murder. Terror is aftermath, and terror can be enhanced or diminished by leadership. After September 11, the saint of the hour, Rudolph Giuliani, the Mayor of New York, tried to manage terror by pleading with his citizens to behave normally and go back to work. His Government, and Britain’s, did the opposite. By turning the hunt for the perpetrators into a “War on Terror”, they effectively switched sides. For the past year they have bombarded their people with scares, threats, warnings, Hitlers, evil armies, mushroom clouds and “something in the offing”. It is the terror, not the atrocity, that has wrecked the Western economies. Mr Giuliani’s was a war on terror. Weekly scares are a war of terror.
If my number is on some bomb or bullet, so be it. But as a free citizen I resent the Government trying to terrify me, week after week, to dominate the news agenda. I am not afraid of Saddam Hussein. I do fear the next leak, wink and nudge from the terrormongers of Whitehall. Scaremongering is not a spin-doctoring pastime; it plays on the basest human instincts of group paranoia, xenophobia and ghoulish panic.
Downing Street and Mr Wolfowitz may have glowed inwardly when they read “Britain in Smallpox Terror Alert”. Mr Moore would have thought them mad. I am with Mr Moore.