Iraq crisis: The truth is, nobody has the first clue whether Isis is a threat to this country

These three little words that mean more to me than any others: I don’t know


May I, in good faith, make a suggestion. I have no idea whether it’s a good suggestion or not. Indeed, it’s integral to the spirit of the suggestion that I shouldn’t know if it’s good or not, since that’s what my suggestion is: that we try saying we don’t know. But what if we do know? What if we know to a certainty what we think? Then my suggestion is that we pretend we don’t.

There are two advantages to this. The first is that it’s practice: that it accustoms us to the sound of the words I don’t know. Words which we might one day need even if we aren’t convinced we need them now. The second is that if we do know to a certainty what we think, we are bound to be wrong. Certainty has that effect. It deludes and misleads. So even if we’re not being honest when we say we don’t know, the errors attendant on pretending we don’t know can’t be any worse than those attendant on insisting that we do.

Though I am often in sympathy with what Simon Jenkins writes in The Guardian, I have just read a piece by him with which I’m not. It offers to know too much. “In truth,” he writes, referring first to Isis and then to jihadists returning to this country from Syria, “there is no threat.”

As a rule of thumb, we should beware of writers saying “in truth”. We all do it. Half the time it’s just a rhythmic thing. A way of pausing fractionally and then beginning a counter-thought with a vague flourish of assurance that is not intended to bring the whole weight of considered truth to bear. In truth, Hodgson should have played Rooney in the centre against Italy, and then wide against Uruguay. In truth he should, and in truth he shouldn’t.

I don’t say nothing hangs on it, but truth itself is not on trial here. “Truth” when it’s invoked in matters of life or death, however, is on a more solemn errand. Whether it’s divinely revealed truth, or truth strenuously sought – Donne’s truth that stands upon a huge hill, cragged and steep, “and he that will /Reach her about must and about must go” – it is neither lightly given nor perfunctorily attained, and whoever would appeal to it should do so in humility. We must not assume the mantle of truth in serious matters unless we are possessed of utter certainty, and what man who is not a fool would claim he is possessed of utter certainty?

It would have made considerable difference to the tenor of his piece about threat had Simon Jenkins said that in his view there was none. That he thought there was none. That he suspected there was none. Or even that he hoped there was none. I’d have joined him in the last. I too hope there’s none. But is it not precisely because we hope there’s none that we wish measures to be taken to ensure there isn’t? Just in case. By way of sensible precaution. After all – who knows?

You would think, would you not, that anyone acquainted even passingly with life’s little ironies would think twice before saying there’s no threat – not just from terrorists, but from anything. Reader, I wouldn’t say there is absolutely no threat from Komodo dragons in this country for fear that one could suddenly turn up in a bunch of bananas. It’s unwise to dare the fates, or speak oracularly when experience so often gives the lie to oracles.

But not only is it philosophically foolhardy to be categorical about such a thing as threat, it is irresponsible. On what authority does Simon Jenkins speak of the intentions of Isis or of returning jihadists? Does he know them? Do they confide in him. “As Allah is our judge, Simon...”. Has he spoken to them all? For it needs only one single jihadist, rogue or otherwise, to intend harm and know the way to achieve it for Simon Jenkins’ assurances to be in tatters and his truth to be a lie.

At the risk of contradicting himself, he offers to cover that eventuality. “They may threaten to explode some bombs,” he concedes – as though exploding bombs is not that big a deal, and “some” is not all that many. And allows, almost sotto voce, that this may result in “a threat to life and limb”, as if to say we aren’t going to worry our little heads over that, assuming we have any little heads left to worry with. But how does a threat to life and limb square with no threat? How much damage must there be before a threat’s a threat?

The truth is, to borrow a phrase, Simon Jenkins doesn’t have the first clue whether Isis or returning jihadists are a threat of any size to this country or not. He doesn’t know. I don’t know. Even you, reader, in your infinite wisdom, don’t know.

The other people who don’t know, Simon Jenkins would argue, are the security services, however dire their warnings. And here, though it’s not impossible they know things he doesn’t, he is right. They don’t know for sure either. The difference being that if they’re wrong we won’t be paying for it with life and limb.

Politics, politics. What’s powering Simon Jenkins to be sure of what no man can be sure is his mistrust of the security services. He is not alone in crying: “Scaremongering!” One of the great political commonplaces of our time is that government agencies are dedicated to robbing us of our personal freedoms and use scaremongering to achieve their aim. An accusation which, even if well founded, does not preclude the possibility that there’s something to be scared of. It wouldn’t be too difficult to show, either, that the cry of “Scaremongering!” is a form of scaremongering in itself. X swears jihadists are coming to get us. Y swears that MI6 is. You pays your money.

And the truth? Don’t know, reader. And neither do you.

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