How many soldiers did you see on the streets today? If you live in a city, and you were out and about in the centre, you might have seen a couple, or some armed police officers. If you live in a town or further afield, you might have read about troops being deployed at London landmarks and seen the photographs of their camouflage dress incongruously blending in with the stonework of the Palace of Westminster.
How did that make you feel? There is no doubt that this is a significant moment. The last time troops were deployed for security, rather than to help with the foot and mouth outbreak or floods, was in February 2003, when armoured vehicles were positioned around Heathrow Airport. That was in response to intelligence of a specific threat. It was localised and short-lived and yet it was hugely controversial. This time, a more widespread deployment of troops seems to have been accepted by the British public as an exceptional and necessary measure in response to Monday’s suicide bombing.
Perhaps we are more used to seeing armed police and soldiers on the streets in other European countries. Perhaps we are more inclined to accept, reluctantly, that a wholly unarmed police force cannot be maintained after the murder of Keith Palmer at the Houses of Parliament in March. Perhaps in those times when no act of terrorism has been committed in Britain for months or years, we might feel uneasy at the sight of a police officer with a submachine gun, or at the idea of soldiers on the streets. But today, with the trauma of the Manchester nail-bomb still vivid and the screams of the young people still echoing in our ears, we might feel reassured.
Of course, we cannot know exactly what was said at yesterday’s meetings of the emergency Cobra committee. We cannot know on what grounds the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre – the independent body which assesses the threat from terrorism – raised the threat level from severe to critical. We cannot be sure, therefore, that the police decision to invoke Operation Temperer, requesting support from the armed forces, was justified. However, there should be no doubt that this is what JTAC and the police, operating at arms’ length from politicians, have to be able to do. Responding to the threat of terrorism is bound to be a labour-intensive operation and if JTAC judges that “a further attack may be imminent”, in the Prime Minister’s words yesterday, then the police ought to be able to draw on military personnel for support.
Now is not the time for debates that would quickly become party-political about civil liberties or police resources. Now is the time for mourning, and for reassurance. Part of that reassurance is rightly a matter of visible security, which inevitably means some infringement of absolute liberty – the freedom not to have one’s bags searched in crowded places, for example. Mostly, those infringements are accepted as the price of safety in a liberal democracy.
The most important part of reassurance, however, must lie in the knowledge that terrorism is so rare. Our horror at the senseless murder in Manchester is intensified by how unusual it is. Indeed, the number of deaths from terrorism in western Europe was three times higher in the 1970s than it has been in the past decade, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database.
Thanks in part to the unseen work of the security services, the norm in this country is for long periods to pass when the threat of terrorism is all but forgotten. Exceptional measures may be needed to respond to exceptional events, and they may be a price that has to be paid; a reminder, when the threat level is eventually downgraded, of the horrors – rare though they may be – that the nation must constantly strive to avert.
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