Blame the scapegoat

I know it hasn’t been long since I ranted about the craziness in the UK media nowadays, but listening to local and national radio tends to have this effect on me. One of the main headlines over the last few days have been the revelations from the Terrorism Trial which found five British Citizens guilty of terrorism charges. Part of the surveillance footage showed the now-convicted terrorists in conversation with two men who later (a year or so later) went on to bomb the London underground (7 Jul 05).

This “find” has motivated the survivors (or at least a media-friendly subset of them) of the London Tube Bombing to call for an “Independent Inquiry” into the Security Service (MI5) investigation. As with lots of things which become news items in the UK it has the air of self evident truth and “justice” but on second glance it really is pointlessly mad.

The radio news I have been listening to has been crowing over the “outrage” the survivors have felt that MI5 had two of the bombers under surveillance a year before the blast, with the implication (often stated) that if the Service had acted against them earlier they would have disrupted the bombing and the 55 odd people would not have died. Sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it?

Sadly, it contains some inherent flaws and, basically, any investigation is likely to come out with a predictable outcome, make no one any happier, provide no assistance for future Anti-Terrorist cases and do nothing to increase public support of (and trust in) the security services.

At the most basic level, 12 months prior to blowing themselves up, the two men who went on to bomb the underground were innocent citizens of the United Kingdom. Even the five men who were sentenced on Monday were innocent. There was not enough evidence to arrest them for over two years. With the wonders of 20/20 hindsight we now know the two men were bombers, but in 2004 the security service didn’t know. If they did, the security service would have increased the surveillance on them.

Like every organisation in the world, MI5 has limited resources (manpower) and is constrained by there only being 24 hours in the day. It is probable that the two men would have been subjected to a bit of basic checking, after coming into contact with the primary suspects, but this can not last for ever. At some point, a decision would have been made as to the value of continuing while the primaries were still on the loose. If the service had switched targets and arrested the London bombers we might now be talking of the hundreds dead in a massive explosion at the Ministry of Sound. Would people be saying that MI5 should have concentrated on the other five then?

In situations like this, the security organisations are in a lose-lose scenario. Unless people are happy to either increase taxes (massively) or divert funds from the NHS (etc) to pay for hundreds of new MI5 personnel, decisions like this will have to be made. Some times they will end with one cell getting a strike in, most of the time they probably don’t. When they do end with a boom, is there any value in an “independent” inquiry into the decision process? It is the same decision process that takes place in pretty much every organisation in the world.

Any inquiry will suffer from hindsight. It is always easy, once you know the outcome, to look back and spot patterns. This is pretty much a fact of life, but it can often provide no objective value. You can try it at home if you want, think of something which has happened to you today and look back to see if there were any warning signs you never picked up at the time.

In some, rare, instances this historical review will teach you things you can apply in the future. Often though, it is an illusion and you are making a false assumption that A led to B and will always do so.

Personally, I think it is reasonable to assume the Service will have reviewed their actions and tried to identify any lessons learned. A public, independent, inquiry would not do this. The purpose of these “things” is to find a person to blame for something that has gone wrong. No member of the public calls for an independent inquiry when something goes well – that is taken as a given – but on an almost daily basis there is a call for one into some part of the government which Joe Public thinks is operating below par.

For an inquiry to be “independent” it would have to be made up of people with no real insight into the workings of intelligence or security work, let alone anti-terrorist activities. What value would such a thing give to the service to prevent a similar thing in the future?

Of course, there is always the chance that the survivors, and victims families, are just looking for an easy person to blame. This is common and understandable (it is happening over the Virginia Tech shooting for example).

Fortunately for these people, there is “someone” to blame. The four terrorists who became so enamoured with an imaginary being, and so divorced from their own country and culture that they could kill themselves and others, are actually 100% to blame for this.

Who needs a scapegoat?