Government warnings about possible terrorist attacks are becoming increasingly difficult to take seriously. They are delivered with the gravitas and certainty of an ancient oracle in an old Monty Python sketch, booming: "An attack could be imminent!" "Where?" replies the cowering populace. "Nobody knows," booms the oracle. "When?" ask the people, cowering slightly less. "Soon . . . soonish . . . It's not an exact science, you know." "OK then, who?" "Couldn't rightly say." "How do you know?" inquire the quizzical folk."The intelligence services told us." "What, the same intelligence services that helped do the dodgy dossier and the 45-minute claim of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction?" "Er . . . Look, this is serious, you know . . . Oh, is that the time?"
When it comes to predictions, Mystic Meg is more accurate and, frankly, more credible.
Even when the warnings are specific, they don't manage to be as credible as the government might hope. "Terrorists could topple Big Ben on to parliament!" screamed recent headlines. This is true: terrorists "could" topple Big Ben. In theory, they "could" also steal the Millennium Dome and use it as a giant Frisbee to decapitate Canary Wharf. They "could" organise a mass urination into the Thames and flood London.
Not content with that, an MI5 report for the House of Commons concluded that the anti-tank concrete blocks ringing the Palace of Westminster "could" be used as projectiles against parliament. Which, again, is true - but surely the police would spot the terrorists charging down Whitehall with their enormous siege catapult, before they got to use it?
There is no denying the threat from al-Qaeda and the like, but we've had our chains pulled once too often. From boats seized by police and which apparently contained ricin but actually contained sugar, through dodgy dossiers and on to Lord Hutton's obsequious verdict, it is hard to believe that we have not been deceived, or at least, in the words of Hutton, "subconsciously influenced" by the Prime Minister.
So the new government leaflet advising us on what to do in the event of a terrorist attack is hardly likely to be received with enthusiasm. To be fair, any form of advice offering handy hints on coping with mass carnage looks odd. Tony Blair's latest effort could never be as bad as Protect and Survive, issued by the Thatcher government in 1980, on how to survive a nuclear holocaust. In it was a list of dos and don'ts, should we survive a nuclear attack, such as: "Do not smoke." Me, if I survived a nuclear assault, I'd probably think: "Fuck it, I'll chance a cigarette." There were lots of other tips, such as: "If you have a home fire extinguisher, keep it handy." There were even drawings of a man putting out the small fire in his curtain with an extinguisher. Presumably, the huge radioactive fireball had missed him and he'd just been careless with his cigarette.
The advice that I most remember from Protect and Survive was that everyone should build a shelter out of household doors by leaning them against the house walls and covering them with cushions. We should also paint our windows white to reflect the blast and we should put dead relatives into plastic bags and tag them.
So, according to the government of the day, we should all spend our last four minutes on the planet doing DIY and pondering how to fit each other into bin liners.
How does new Labour's latest leaflet compare with Protect and Survive? Well, it makes up for what it lacks in alarmism by stating the obvious. We should have food in the cupboard, some money, and a torch in the house. (We really didn't need to read a leaflet to realise that, did we?) It further says that, if we find ourselves in a building that has been bombed, we should "find a safe way out". As if we might think: "Right, the building's been bombed. Who fancies a rollerblade race to the photocopier?"
The government claims we should, once again, stay in our homes and wait to be told what to do. Why, though? Surely, in a chemical weapon attack, you don't want people going to or staying in their homes in the attacked area. If Sellafield were attacked, for example, what earthly reason would there be for people in Cumbria to remain in their homes? As an emergency planner explained to me: "In extreme situations, you don't want people to behave normally. You want them to react abnormally."
Anyone who spends their time in the middle of a terrorist attack wandering round their home with a government checklist, turning off the electricity, checking their supply of tinned beans and making sure they have their credit cards handy, doesn't deserve to survive. This isn't bigotry or prejudice: it is Darwinian fact. We should have evolved to a stage where we trust ourselves more than our government, and if we are not prepared to make that leap, then we are heading the way of the dodo.
See you at the taxidermist's!