Over the last few days I have become aware of people expressing concern that the Police are spreading alarmism over the Terror Alert level. As something that will be new to many New Zealanders, there is good reason for the Police exercising the prudence that they do.
New Zealand is lucky. Elevated states of alert have persisted in numerous other countries well beyond what could be considered a reasonable time frame. In France a State of Emergency was declared following the Paris attack on 13 November 2015, and lasted until 1 November 2017. It was extended several times with varying reasons ranging from protecting political rallies – France was due to have Presidential elections; Islamic State was expanding in Syria and Iraq, countries where French colonial influences have had a less than positive impact.
Other countries such as the United States have maintained consistently high alert levels for years, whilst insisting that there remained a clear and credible danger of an attack. In the case of larger countries, such as the United States, Britain or France with a more global influence and thus the ability to negatively impact across a wider area than New Zealand – intentionally or otherwise – the elevated state of alert that has existed for the last 17 years since the War on Terrorism began is probably not surprising
Sometimes no actual State of Emergency is declared, but one might just as well have been based on the rhetoric of officials responsible. Such was the case with Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Security, Peter Dutton whose pronouncements in the media, in the Australian Federal Parliament and elsewhere have bordered on the vitriolic.
New Zealand has not declared a State of Emergency. That can only be done by the Minister of Civil Defence, or a local Mayor. It can however raise its Terrorism Alert as necessary and has done so. The six levels of threat are graded at Negligible; Very Low; Low; Medium; High; Extreme. Currently the Terrorism Alert is graded HIGH, meaning there is a high likelihood of terrorism, violent criminal activity or violent protests.
The longer a country goes without an attack, but stays in an elevated level of warning, the potentially less trusting the people become of the authorities. If for example the authorities said that the warnings will be reviewed on a regular basis, and are then forgotten about, the assumption will be that a permanently elevated state of alert is the new new. The authorities will start to run the risk of being perceived as “the boy who cried wolf”, and run the real danger of being ignored when something serious happens.
To have an elevated state of fear there must be a threat to order, to a country, to its people that is considered credible. To maintain that elevated state of fear the authorities need to appear in a public setting looking like they are anticipating trouble – which is what we currently see in Christchurch: Police officers with semi-automatic weapons; higher visibility with patrol cars on patrol more.
Whilst unheard of in New Zealand, it is not by any means unprecedented around the world, something a lot of New Zealanders are just starting to realize now. In other countries there are more intrusive measures being taken such as searches of peoples belongings, occasionally of their body. Search warrants are more likely to be executed against properties. High risk individuals might be arrested and the Police may seek to detain them until either required to release them or they charge the suspects.
Time will tell when the terrorism alert level is lowered in New Zealand. Whilst there is a risk above normal levels that another act of violence might be perpetrated, New Zealand Police are aware that it cannot stay elevated forever. And indeed, as was intoned just before the Christchurch attack, following an Armed Offenders Squad incident in Linwood, the Police said that they want to be able to go back to not needing to carry firearms on their staff. For these reasons, I have no concerns about the Terrorism Alert staying elevated for a bit longer yet.