Leading Article: Security is a matter of balance

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The Independent Online
IN THE aftermath of major terrorist bomb blasts, it is ritually emphasised that security in a democratic society is a question of balance. Too much unfairly limits the citizen's freedom, too little puts innocent lives at risk. That was the message from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, yesterday when he said that the police were not prepared to impose 'a totally oppressive regime which undermines the quality of life for all Londoners'.

Before questioning the assumptions behind that comment, it may be asked whether the level of security revealed by the two blasts showed either resoluteness or realism. Despite the explosion eight days previously that killed at least 96 people in a Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, it was - as we report today - not difficult for a respectable-looking driver to take a short cut through Kensington Palace Gardens, where the Israeli embassy stands. As for the later blast in Finchley, hourly patrols by the local police past the Joint Israel Appeal offices in the immediate aftermath of the earlier bomb hardly look realistic.

Equally, Sir Paul seemed to be going too far in exculpation when he characterised the two terrorists involved as 'almost suicide bombers'. Probably they triggered their device as they left their respective vehicles: a task requiring something less than the fanaticism of the dedicated and trained suicide bomber. The Buenos Aires terrorist, whose body was virtually obliterated by the explosion, seems more likely to have been on a genuine suicide mission. None the less, it is true that the Kensington bomber left no time for security guards to act on their suspicions. The only hope would have been to have stopped the car before it reached its target.

That has been the approach in the City since the devastating IRA bomb at Bishopsgate in April 1993. With a policy of roadblocks, checks and diversions, the police have done more than successfully prevent a recurrence. They have also reduced traffic and air pollution, cut ordinary crime and made life pleasanter for those living and working there.

It is true that the City is a very untypical zone: very few people live in the high-security area. Yet there may be lessons to be learnt from police measures there: the right balance may be rather different to today's assumptions. The creation of more vehicle-free streets, for example, would not exclude the fanatic with bombs under his overcoat, but it would greatly reduce the danger from car bombs as well as pollution.

In the short term, there is clearly a case for increased protection of potential targets, which should be reintroduced whenever the Middle East peace process passes another landmark. Good intelligence services - and they have pulled off some notable successes latterly - will remain indispensable. In the longer term, there may be a case for re-examining the potential gains from giving security a higher priority in our lives.