When it's right to be fearful

At some point in 2004, a major British target - parliament, perhaps, or the London Tube, or a big shopping centre, or a sports stadium - will suffer a terrorist outrage. It is not a question of if, but when. So we are told. We were told the same at the end of 2001, and at the end of 2002. Yet despite the Istanbul outrages, Britain itself has suffered no significant terrorist attacks so far this century. Nor has a chemical, biological or nuclear attack of a terrorist nature been mounted anywhere in the world. Of 529 people arrested in Britain on terrorist charges since 11 September 2001, only five have been convicted of any crime connected with terrorism. Only two sets of arrests were in connection with biological or chemical agents: in one, ricin was allegedly found; in the other, there was allegedly a plot to release poison gas on the Tube. Both led to imprisonment for possessing fake passports.

What are we to make of all this? Have we just been lucky to escape attacks or are our leaders again sexing up the dangers? One answer is that the police and intelligence services have done a skilled job in rooting out terrorists and stopping them before they could strike. We should be grateful. If there have been few convictions, this is because evidence of intent to commit a crime is hard to establish. According to this argument, we shall only appreciate what the security services have saved us from once a terrorist attack is actually carried out.

You may, however, favour an opposite answer: that the government and the security services are happy to create a sense of public danger because it favours the ruling establishment and because the police, MI5 and MI6 wish to enhance their standing, protect their jobs and increase their demands on the exchequer. Besides, no minister or senior police officer wishes to be accused of being unprepared if a terrorist attack does succeed. You could elaborate this answer by arguing that a sense of impending doom across the western world gives our allies in Washington an excuse to continue throwing their weight around. Moreover, many widely supported American groups (close enough to the administration for some senior White House people occasionally to address their meetings) believe we live in the "end times" during which, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, angels will be released to "kill a third of mankind".

You may, therefore, find as little reason to believe warnings of direct terrorist threats to this country as there was to believe warnings of Saddam Hussein's WMDs. Both, you may think, belong in the over-vivid imaginations of the intelligence services, which are capable of lying, and even of colluding with terrorists, in pursuit of some convoluted political aim. As a three-year investigation under an Irish former supreme court judge has just shown, British intelligence may have helped Ulster loyalist terrorists plant car bombs in Dublin in 1974, killing 26 people. Who is to say that the security people are not up to something equally outrageous now?

The truth probably lies somewhere between these two interpretations of events. But the second is less often heard than the first, largely because journalists and MPs are in the same bind as ministers. Talk down the terrorist threat and you risk a bomb going off or poison gas being released almost as soon as your words hit the news-stands or the airwaves. The claim that we face a significant risk is incapable of disproof, but all too capable of proof. Nobody can ever say "you were wrong" or "the terrorist war is over". Unlike, say, the IRA, al-Qaeda is such a shadowy, insubstantial thing - lacking territory, formal membership, command structures or political programmes - that it can never be said with certainty to be defeated. And as long as governments can claim to be at war, they do not have to answer too many questions.

In particular, they do not have to answer (or do not think they have to answer) many questions about liberty, surveillance and wrongful detention. It is on this score, at least as much as on terrorist threats, that the coming year will require vigilance. As well as 16 people held without charge at Belmarsh Prison in the UK for the past two years, more than 650 are still being held by the Americans in Guantanamo Bay, with no knowledge of what they are supposed to have done, still less of when they might be released, charged or tried. Even the prisoner's comfort in a normal war - that the conflict must end and possibly soon - is denied them. They can be held as long as the US president wishes, and their best hope is probably that this one is voted out of office in November. By all means pray this Christmas that we are spared terrorist attacks in 2004, but pray also that our leaders, whatever their intentions, do not deal further blows to liberty and justice.

Dig deep for your holly

As always, the nation's festivities hang in the balance. A few weeks ago, Christmas trees were the problem: hot, dry weather had stunted their growth, we heard. Only a few would be available and they would be sad, droopy things, liable (would you believe it?) to shed their needles. A decent Christmas tree would assuredly be expensive. Last year, turkeys were in short supply (or was it mistletoe?). Now (pines having perhaps enjoyed an unexpected late spurt), holly supplies are in trouble. They, too, are victims of drought. "Many trees produced fewer berries," the Times advises, "and those that did shed them easily." Emergency supplies are coming from France and Italy (did they not also have droughts?). The annual holly auction in Worcestershire was not a place, then, for those of a nervous disposition. But is it not possible that traders invent such tales to ensure a good turnover and help us part with our money with good grace?