Opinion / Chris Peterson

Living with the threat of terrorism isn't a joke

By Chris Peterson (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2016-08-12 07:55

The changing face and visibility of Britain's police forces highlight how vulnerable we all are now

Over the years, I've managed to survive crises, both professional and personal, by developing the ability to look on the bright side.

But the latest round of terror attacks and atrocities in Europe and the Middle East has made it pretty hard.

Years ago, I lived for several weeks in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, as it came under the barrage of rocket and artillery fire. It wasn't pleasant; in fact, for the poor residents of that city, it was as close to hell as you can get. Don't forget, I had a ticket out of there, they didn't.

Living with the threat of terrorism isn't a joke

We managed to survive by developing a kind of black humor, finding laughs in the fact that the Cambodian military issued wildly optimistic media briefings, saying - as the rockets and shells rained down - that the army was winning the war on all fronts. They were signed by the wonderfully named Colonel Am Rong.

Back home in Saigon, as it then was, the South Vietnamese government's production of a glossy brochure optimistically listing the delights for tourists of areas we journalists knew to be either battle-ravaged or under the control of Communist forces was good for a laugh, especially over a few drinks on a night as United States B-52 bombers carried out Operation Arc Light strikes only a few kilometers away.

But I was single back then, and really only had myself to worry about.

Flash-forward to the present day, and as a married father of two grown-up daughters and a grandfather to two, I can't find anything to laugh at. In fact, looking back, there was nothing to laugh at in the 1970s either.

For decades, we Britons would smugly point to our police, with their curious pointed helmets and distinct lack of weaponry. (They are fondly known as Bobbies after Robert Peel, the 19th century home secretary who created the first modern police force.) Contrast that with virtually every other country in Europe, where even traffic wardens often carry side arms.

My grandfather, father and uncle were all policemen in the traditional mold, and proud of what they regarded as an essential service to the community. I can never remember at any time in my childhood them being armed, except with an old-fashioned hardwood truncheon, an essential part of a police officer's equipment. The traditional domed helmet, by the way, was designed to absorb the blow from a cudgel. Not many people know that, to paraphrase the actor Michael Caine.

Living with the threat of terrorism isn't a joke

Now, even the traditional beat bobby patrols in a stab-proof vest, with pepper spray, a US-style nightstick and often a bright-yellow stun gun, known by its brand name Taser, which can discharge up to 50,000 volts via a barbed dart connected by thin wire filaments.

Over the years, given terror activities from the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s and 1980s, and various Palestinian groups, the British have gradually become used to uniformed officers carrying semi-automatic weapons guarding key installations such as government offices, airports and railway stations.

But efforts were made to keep it all low-key, at least for the sake of appearance. For example, police cars here are usually white, with high-visibility markings. But occasionally you'll see a bright-red one in London, and what most members of the public don't know is that these are quick-response armed police vehicles, carrying trained weapons officers and an impressive array of hardware in the trunk. But again, very low key.

Until now.

In the wake of the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, we recently saw the introduction of heavily armored police officers, carrying a variety of high-tech weaponry from fully automatic machine-guns to sophisticated sniper rifles.

These guys, with full-face balaclava helmets and ski masks, look like Martians and are equipped with powerful, gray BMW scramble motorcycles allowing them to dodge traffic and get to the scene of a terror threat or incident.

Their introduction, in part, is to offer visible reassurance to a worried public, in particular the visitors that throng central London at present. It's also had the sobering effect of reminding me how vulnerable we all are, and kindling sympathy for the people of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who live with the threat of terror everyday.

My grandfather, father and uncle must be spinning in their graves.

The author is managing editor of China Daily European Bureau. Contact the writer at

(China Daily European Weekly 08/12/2016 page11)

Most Viewed Today's Top News
The unique loanwords in our daily life By zoe_ting

In our daily life, more and more loanwords appear and change our habits in Chinese expression. Loanwords sound very similar with their original English words, and the process of learning them is full of fun to foreign students.

Going "home" for the first time in four years By SharkMinnow

It has been a while since I've contributed to this Forum and I figured that since now I am officially on summer holiday and another school year is behind me I would share a post with you.