There’s a familiar ritual each time an operation to thwart a putative terrorist incident dominates the news. After the public’s initial expressions of relief and shuddering contemplation of what might have been, a rising chorus of sceptics takes over, with a string of questions and hypotheses.
Was it really a serious terrorist plot, or only a bunch of misguided, alienated Muslim kids larking about with a chemistry set and a mobile phone? Sometimes, unfortunately, as with this summer’s ludicrously overplayed Miami “plot” to blow up buildings in Chicago, in which the plotters had got as far as purchasing some boots but not much else, overzealous authorities bring this sort of suspicion on themselves. But you can guarantee that every incident now, whatever the evidence, will be treated with such derisive doubt. If the police had got to the 9/11 hijackers or the 7/7 bombers in time, a sizeable chunk of respectable opinion would have dismissed them as idealistic young men with no real capacity or intent to cause harm.
The scepticism is then embellished by the conspiracy-as-diversion theory. How convenient, cluck the doubters, with rolled eyes and theatrical sarcasm, just as the Government’s got some new bonfire of civil liberties planned; or just as President Bush’s poll numbers are collapsing; or just as Israel is stepping up its ground attacks in southern Lebanon.
Then, of course, whether real or imaginary or government-authored, the cynics will say the plot inevitably has its roots in our own culpability. If we hadn’t invaded Iraq, if Tony Blair weren’t George Bush’s agent of oil-fuelled imperialism, if Israel weren’t killing innocents in Lebanon, this wouldn’t have happened.
It is a neatly comprehensive schema of cynicism. If the plot turns out to be a damp squib, or the police have made some ghastly error, the sceptics will triumphantly claim that it was deliberately overdone to scare us. If the plot is real, or God forbid, as with 9/11 or 7/7 it isn’t foiled in time, then they can switch seamlessly to the claim that we’ve only ourselves to blame.
In this internally pure worldview, the consistent theme is denial— denial of the reality of the mortal threat we face, denial of the reasons we face it. The villain for these people is not the jihadist, with his agenda of destroying our very way of life. It is, as it has always been, that malign continuum of institutions of our own authority that begins with the aggressive police officer and goes all the way up via the credulous media and craven officials to No 10 and the White House.
It’s too early to say with any confidence yet, but it looks as though yesterday’s plot to blow up US-bound aircraft from the UK was closer to the 9/11 tragedy than the Miami-Chicago farce. If the police and intelligence authorities have succeeded in foiling such a murderous plan, the correct response is one of immense gratitude to them, pride in our security institutions and continued vigilance against future plots.
But we should also remember that our continuing existence lies not just in inconvenient security measures and uncomfortably intrusive intelligence activities, but in a grand global strategy. Success requires, in addition to the tiresome banalities of long check-in queues and tighter limits on hand luggage, a commitment, whatever the costs, to eradicate the deep global political causes that threaten us.