Thomas Sutcliffe: Tell us when to be complacent again

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The Independent Online

"The public needs to know that there may be other people out there who may be planning an attack against the UK," said John Reid yesterday, announcing that the threat level had been downgraded from critical to severe.

Having a coward's congenital affection for blissful ignorance, I found myself wondering about this remark. Why exactly did I need to know? Or, more precisely, what survival value did it confer to be informed that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) had decided that an attack was no longer "imminent" but only "highly likely"? Should I adjust my paranoia accordingly - and if so in what way? Now that the prospect of attack has moved from certitude to twitchy probability which muscles of civic vigilance can I afford to relax? And if the threat eventually moves to low, will it be alright for me to take up complacency again?

MI5's website pages on "The Threats" weren't exactly helpful. The link headlined "How the public should respond to national threats" looked promising but contained only a telephone number to ring with your queasy suspicions about the man with the beard three doors down - plus a blandly redundant explanation that "sharing the national threat levels with the general public keeps everyone informed and explains the context for the various security measures." That wasn't what I was after, of course. I wanted something more concrete. Threat level moderate: exemplify Blitz spirit, reserve suspicious looks only for men carrying burning US flags. Threat level severe: update will, buy gas mask, tell loved ones how much you care. Threat level critical: bolt doors and shop online.

But then another page admits that "threat levels in themselves do not require specific responses from the public." How could they, since it's also made clear that arriving at the exact alarm setting involves processing unreliable and incomplete information through the entirely subjective machinery of a committee formed of representatives from 11 government departments and agencies? I'd love to see this group in operation and listen to them debating the semantic differentials of "strong possibility" and "highly likely". You only have to spend five minutes on the MI5 website, in fact, to see that everything between low (an attack is unlikely) and critical (an attack is imminent) is actually just padding, a spurious calibration designed to persuade us that the Government is in fine-tuned control of an inherently chaotic situation. It's like that Spinal Tap gag about the amp that goes up to 11 - "Is it any louder" asks the interviewer. "Well - it's one louder," says Nigel Tufnell, with the air of someone explaining the obvious to an idiot. Critical is one louder than severe.

Taking readings off the Thermostat of Dread in this way would be bad enough if it was simply useless. Why waste time and energy on political theatre when there are more serious jobs to be done? Unfortunately, the threat level announcements are worse than useless. The Government's stated counter-terrorism strategy is to reduce the risk so that people can "go about their business freely and with confidence". And yet a warning that the threat level has just risen diminishes public confidence without being specific enough to assist those who might be at risk. What do you do with such information? You worry about it - because it's too vague to be of any other use. There are things the public needs to know, but the arbitrary flickerings of JTAC's pressure gauge is not among them.

The joke is on you and me

A L Kennedy's attempt to carve out a career in stand-up on the Edinburgh Fringe has been greeted with slightly surprising gentleness in the press. It's not that anyone has gone overboard with the praise. But no one, so far as I can see, has honestly described the excruciating experience audiences have in store should they succumb to curiosity.

I spent most of the time hiding behind the head of the man in front of me - just in case I made eye-contact with the artist, left, and we recognised the truth in each other's eyes - that she was dying up there and that no palliative care was available.

Only a housebrick wouldn't have felt for her but it was useful reminder that when critics are kind to performers they may be unthinkingly cruel to the paying public.

* Even as he confessed to youthful membership of the Waffen SS, Günter Grass appeared to be having some difficulty achieving the ruthless candour he has urged on his fellow countrymen for decades.

"Only when I got to Dresden did I realise it was the Waffen SS," he told his interviewer, adding that at the time he wasn't ashamed of his membership.

Wasn't ashamed? As an eager member of the Hitler Youth and an unquestioning patriot he was surely thrilled to have been selected for this military elite. Perhaps he's saving full disclosure for the memoir.

In the meantime what's interesting about the reaction of his colleagues is the edge of revenge in their remarks. Grass's real crime, you sense, isn't to have been drafted into the Waffen SS 1944, or even to have concealed the fact till 2006 (after all, personal guilt can be a credential for a moralist, rather than a disqualification).

It was to have been so monolithically self-important for the years in between.

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