11 August, 2006

Lots of heat, but as yet little light

One of the frustrating things about the media nowadays their tendency, when trying to cover a breaking story in the absence of much concrete information to convey, of filling the ether with uninformed and unsubstantiated speculation, discussion and analysis – so much so that the hard facts of the case are lost in the noise.

So it has been with the current terror alert in Britain. All we really know for sure is that the police have arrested 24 people who they suspected were about to commit acts of mass terrorism; The Times claim that they included “a biochemist [and] a Heathrow airport security worker", but no-one else seems to have picked up on this. Beyond the fact that the plan involved getting explosives onto commercial airliners, most of the rampant gossip about numbers, timing and ‘liquid explosives’ is unlikely to come from reliable sources (the security services are no doubt rightly saying as little as possible about what they know until they’re sure they’ve got all of the people involved). The Independent has a good summary of what led the security services to suspect these people, and caused them to act yesterday morning.

Only a nutcase would conclude that because our leaders are worryingly prone to taking political advantage of these situations – John Reid can be strongly suspected of exploiting his foreknowledge of coming events with this particular speech, for example - that they also went the extra step of fabricating them too. But I’d be being dishonest if I said that I didn’t greet yesterday’s news with a certain amount of cynicism. I find that a distressing state of affairs; if I had trouble taking what seems to have been a credible threat seriously, it’s no surprise there’s a good degree of ambivalence in the Muslim community. Previous overhyped incidents, such as the ricin “plot” and the Forest Gate raid have significantly eroded trust in the police and intelligence services, even for people (like me) who have no reason to feel singled out or stigmatised. Those times, what we were told in the immediate aftermath did not hold up under scrutiny. This time, the claims about the planned scope and magnitude of these attacks will hopefully be promptly backed up with hard evidence.

(We apologise for the politics, your normal scientific service will be resumed shortly...)

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