What is it we’re on that the moment – “severe”? Yes, that’s right: it was raised from “substantial” a month ago. Or do I mean lowered?
The UK Threat Level system, introduced eight years ago, is the national indicator for alertness to terrorism threats in the United Kingdom. The possibility of attack is measured on a five-point scale, in ascending order of danger, as follows: low, moderate, substantial, severe, critical. It’s a list full of strong words; in fact, you might argue, rather too full.
With the well-known US defence readiness condition (Defcon) system, which uses numbers, there is no rhetoric in the status beyond the simple raising or lowering of the level, once you have recalled which way the scale runs (five is low, one is high). Colour-coded systems have a little more emotional content to them – red alert! code blue! etc – but remain essentially inarticulate. For example, one of the status levels in the old “Bikini” alerts, the forerunner of the UK’s current system, was the terrifying-sounding “Code Black Special”. It sounded like the designation for a pre-emptive nuclear strike; in fact, it was just the midpoint of a standard threat scale that started at white at finished at red.
But once you employ words instead of colours, you employ rhetoric: you reveal how you want your audience to feel. And your audience, as readers, can begin to evaluate the way you write.
Exactly how much worse than “substantial” is “severe”? In this context, aren’t they almost synonymous? “Critical”, the highest level, is slightly easier to prioritise, as it is well understood as the most acute status in medical bulletins. But in the American Hospital Association’s five-point scale, the next two conditions below “critical” are “serious” and then “fair” at the midpoint. The gradations are much wider and better defined. Less formalised UK hospital bulletins sometimes drop straight from “critical” to “stable”, at other times via “critical but stable”.
But in neither case could you confuse the midpoint word with the highest word. The trouble with the UK terror threat scale is that it contains three terms that each, at a pinch, could pass for the highest one. The result is that you get dispiriting announcements to the effect that “the threat level has been lowered to severe“. Lowered to severe. The words are so close in meaning as to create a kind of unrelieved despondency whichever one is used, even when the threat of attack is relenting.
This is not to underplay the seriousness of the situation: heaven knows, no one who has lived or worked in London for the last 20 years needs to be reminded of how real terrorism is. But the danger is that, by making such fine distinctions between such strong words, you lose the chance of galvanising the public at a time of crisis. Instead, you simply generate an exhausting, permanent vigilance that can vary only in the small range set by the scale.
Terrorism alertness systems are an important signal from government of awareness and action; properly used, they can call an entire nation to alert, and perhaps even reassure them afterwards. But they need to be better written than this.