Here’s a nicely paranoid fantasy, worthy of a Tom Clancy thriller: it’s not the IRA who are currently planting bombs in various corners of Britain; it’s the Special Branch. This particular concept came to my mind because, recently, I’ve been getting increasingly twitchy about my liberty. The first symptoms started a couple of years ago, when automatic gates on the Underground were introduced, supposedly to stop fare-dodging. People worried about the fire risk, but no-one seemed to notice that given the nice magnetic stripe on the back, it would be a piece of electronic cake to track any ticket holder’s progress through the system.
It’s surveillance masquerading as a public service: BT are good at this, one of the major advantages of System X is that it makes phone tapping much easier, your itemised telephone bill (complete info on everyone you call, when and for how long) is merely the tip of the iceberg. See also computerised libraries: at university, it was widely rumoured that books on certain topics i.e. drugs were “alarmed”. When issued through the computer system, the name of the borrower was dumped in a file for later perusal by the powers-that-be.
Of course, it’s easy to get round some of these; for example, don’t take the tube, stick to buses or other methods of transport with manually inspected tickets. But that was before the IRA arrived, and it became clear under how much direct surveillance we residents of the capital live. Almost every bomb was followed by a variably clear picture showing suspects, and I started to realise how many cameras are out there taking our pictures. When even the traffic bimbo on the local news has access to a delightful variety of angles from which to pan, scan and zoom in on us, imagine the toys the police have to use.
This doesn’t apply just to terrorists. The hunt for the gay serial killer, with pictures taken at Charing X station, showed how easy it is for ‘them’ to check where you were going, who you were with, and when you were there, regardless of ticket collecting. Meet a visiting friend at King’s X, hand over a parcel and you can be sure you’ll be the subject of close scrutiny. And these are just the publicly owned cameras, add those on the outside of buildings, which the police are keen to add to their network, and you’re talking seriously comprehensive coverage.
“What have you got to hide?” is the obvious question. Put it this way: even if you’re pure as driven snow, I’d worry about a body with the reputation of the Metropolitan Police having untrammelled access to my life. There are also many unanswered questions regarding these cameras. Who has access to the footage? How long are the tapes kept before being scrubbed?
However, this is still not unbearable; the sheer volume of London means that it would be hard for them to track any specific individual very far, though I confess I’d be a relatively easy target given my fondness for sight-ripping T-shirts. But at the start of July, the City of London introduced checkpoints on selected routes into the Square Mile, sealing off all other gateways. Vehicles and passengers were stopped and searched. Did they catch any terrorists?
No. The first day the roadblocks were in operation, they did arrest three people. For possessing drugs. I find this offends my British sense of fair play; if they stop you on suspicion of being a terrorist, it’s surely a bit off to look for anything other than Semtex. In any case, even if they are trying to prevent the supply of illicit pharmaceuticals to the City of London, I doubt the yuppie dealers will have to do without their supplies of Colombian talcum-powder as the police don’t yet search helicopters.
Terrorism has become a stick with which to beat our freedom over the head. It seems that people will acquiesce to any erosion of their liberty if threatened with the bogeyman of Irish nationalism. Control by fear, and irrational fear at that. In the past year, precisely two people have died in London as a result of terrorist activity – and one of those was a ‘News of the World’ photographer, hardly a great loss (maybe next time the IRA will get the editor). This is insignificant compared to, say, the number of people killed on the roads, or even those who die In police custody.
Ah, but the IRA aren’t trying to kill people, they’re trying to cause disruption to life in the capital. However, if you want disruption, you just have to stroll across London Bridge in the morning; what was a busy but moving thoroughfare has become the automobile equivalent of the La Brea Tar Pits, thanks to the police’s checkpoints.
The IRA’s bombing of London seems strangely at odds with the peace talks currently going on In Ireland (although Bosnia admittedly proves it’s easy to talk and wage war simultaneously); so here’s where the alternative scenario mentioned at the start comes in. The government want to clamp down on our freedom; so they commit the odd atrocity here and there to convince us of I he reality of a “terrorist threat” (again, Bosnia shows that governments will happily kill their own citizens for propaganda purposes).
They institute draconian security measures in a small area – namely, the City of London. The “terrorists” move their activities elsewhere; at time of writing, North London (a sensible choice – large areas up there would be immeasurably Improved by a meteor strike). This can then be trumpeted as proving the success of the City of London scheme, which will then be extended, first to London, then to all other potential IRA targets – and that basically covers any built-up area. The day may be coming when you can’t go Into the centre of your town without being photographed, searched and questioned.
Still uncertain? One final point then: contemplate for a moment how much easier it is to achieve spectacular, vote-winning success against a terrorist organization, when you’re running it yourself…