A New Culture of Fear in the West

Teaching ground to a halt in Los Angeles this week, after all public schools in the area were closed due to a threat made via email, in which it was indicated that several schools were under threat of imminent attack. Ultimately, the threat turned out to be a hoax, but the severity of the LAPD’s reaction embodies a new culture of fear that has spread throughout many Western nations following last month’s attacks in Paris.

The widespread paranoia has spread like an evil plague, after the Paris attacks showed the world that we may not be as safe as we had assumed, even in our own neighbourhoods in cities of the West. Prior to this, whilst the regional strength of ISIS was not overlooked by the general public, the possibility of attacks of Western soil seemed like a mere fantasy of the Jihadi extremists, and not a genuine possibility. But the November attacks showed the world that even the simplest tasks, such as attending a football match or going for dinner as of a Friday evening, may not be as straightforward as we had previously believed.

Following the attacks, several cities have witnessed hyper-vigilant reactions to threats, which ultimately have not materialised. In Hanover, a few days after the Paris attacks, German authorities cancelled a football match between Germany and the Netherlands due to a last-minute threat which indicated that terrorists would target the match, as well as the city’s public transport system. Rumours spread across social media that an ambulance packed full of explosives have been found, and that arrests had been made by armed police within the city. In the end, the city remained peaceful; whether this can be attributed to the expertise of the German intelligence services is something we will never know, but it has transpired that no arrests were made, nor were any explosives uncovered.

In Brussels, unprecedented levels of military were deployed to the streets, after it was purportedly revealed that several terrorists were at large within the city, and were planning a Paris-style attack. The threat to Brussels was deemed to be “serious and immediate”, so much so that the city was placed on lockdown for four days. Undoubtedly, the Molenbleek district of the city was/is a hotbed for radicalisation and extremist tendencies, but the fact that the Brussels lockdown passed without incident must lead us to ask if the risk was exaggerated, amidst post-Paris paranoia.

These incidents, alongside developments from Los Angeles, display the level of fear Western authorities are dealing with as a result of the spread of terror, through the growth of ISIS. We read about global warfare every day in newspapers and on social media platforms, but the concept that we could be in the middle of it is a chilling thought, and one which is simply terrifying Westerners. Returning to the incident in Los Angeles, it has since transpired that authorities in New York were made aware of similar alleged plans at schools in the Big Apple, but quickly realised it was a hoax due to certain errors within the email. The fact that such errors were not noticed by their Californian counterparts illustrates that panic was able to cloud the judgement and rational thinking of a world-renowned intelligence service.

The problem faced at this point is a unique one; terrorist attacks which have occurred have generally been carried out by nationals, who have been radicalised overseas. The new “enemy within” is more difficult to both monitor and prevent, an additional factor which has instilled fear into Western citizens. Reports from inside Syria undoubtedly shock readers, but the concept of living amidst terrorist cells in Western Europe and the US puts people on edge, particularly in the wake of the widespread killing witnessed in Paris, a city which many tourists have visited and found themselves attached to. As a result, many were forced to accept the chilling reality that they could have been drinking outside Le Carillon bar when the attacks took place, or at the Bataclan theatre.

This plays directly into the hands of ISIS, who will thrive on causing fear within Western borders. ISIS, as any terrorist organisation would, recognise that fear equates to power, and the concept of their power spreading to European and American soil is music to their ears. Let us not overlook the fact that, on the grand scheme of things, ISIS is far from a militaristic superpower on the ground; they have no jets, their surface to air missiles are no match for coalition aircrafts and their weaponry is far from advanced. Therefore, the fact that, in spite of this, they have managed to spread fear throughout the Western world is an achievement in itself for the group. As well as this, it makes the propaganda released by the group seem more convincing than it otherwise would- promises to “liberate Istanbul” and “conquer Rome” would once have been brushed aside, but after the Paris attacks, many live in fear that such could be a reality we face.

The difficulty for authorities is preventing this spread, while still protecting their citizens. The necessary secrecy authorities must adopt in relation to these matters means that action such as the deployment of additional police officers or military personnel is likely to raise alarm that an attack is possible. Governments must work alongside the media in an attempt to prevent the spread of paranoia, as the press is often over-indulgent in their reporting of certain issues which may not even warrant reporting in the first place. Transparency is also key, and Governments should seek to keep citizens informed when possible, as well as working alongside police forces to reasonably identify genuine risks, and differentiate them from potential hoaxes.

We, as citizens, must not live in the state of fear craved by the extremists- ultimately this allows them the most precious victory of all; disruption of the Western way of life. We must continue to enjoy the beautiful cities we are blessed to live in, and make the most of opportunities to travel to others. While vigilance is wise, we must continue to defy terrorists by enjoying the freedom we have, one which they loathe and seek to destroy. It is fundamental to focus on winning the mental battle against ISIS; we are mentally stronger than the enemy and overwhelmingly more powerful. Let us use their evil to form new alliances, stand side by side and defy their most hateful objectives.


Oil Price Continues to Plummet

How is the current oil crisis effecting those who rely on its sale?

It was today announced that the price of crude oil has fallen for the 7th straight session, amidst significant worries about oversupply across the globe. The price ($35 a barrel) is the lowest recorded since February 2009, which comes as a blow after it appeared that the oil market was beginning to stabilise after last year’s decline. However, such a development could have very real consequences for countries reliant on export, and could lead to tense relations within the market.

Oil has proved to be an extremely controversial topic of late; Russia’s accusation that Turkey is heavily involved in the purchasing of crude oil from ISIS only heightened already strained relations between the countries. This, alongside the targeting of Islamic State oil fields with coalition air strikes, means that oil has been an unnaturally popular topic in recent months, and it seems unwilling to change any time soon. Reports from inside Raqqa, capital of the so-called Islamic State, conveyed that fuel prices were beginning to rise within the caliphate. However, this position is not one which is mirrored elsewhere.

The main issue with oil is, quite simply, that supply is outweighing demand. In spite of this, Russia and Gulf producers have been clear about their refusal to cut their crude oil output even if prices drop below $20 per barrel. Russia currently produces around 10 million barrels of crude oil each day, and exports half of these. The main export destinations for Russian oil are Germany and China, which demonstrates a mutual reliance I’m sure Putin and Merkel would rather not address. Overall, oil makes up 60% of Russia’s exports, and accounts for 30% of the country’s GDP. It is therefore evident that such fluctuations in the price per barrel can/will have grave implications for the Russian economy. In the second half of 2014, the decline in oil prices led to the Russian ruble declining in value by 59% relative to the U.S. dollar; in an era where Russo-American relations are as frosty as they have been since the Cold War, a Russian economic slump is the last thing Putin needs. The leader’s attempts to address this issue last year were less than popular, both within Russia and beyond; the imposition of interest rates of up to 17% were Putin’s answer to the sharp increase in import prices which resulted from the Ruble’s decline. In other nations, punishing one’s citizens in such a manner may lead to a loss of confidence in the governing party, but Putin’s immortal stance allowed him to progress unscathed in his attempts to stabilise his country’s economy.

Russia is not the only one suffering as a result of the global decline in prices; Venezuela desperately pleaded with OPEC members in early December 2015 to reduce global output by 5%, amidst economic chaos in the country which has led to the collapse of currency and a huge electoral loss for the country’s government, the first loss of its majority in 16 years. In spite of this, OPEC failed to reach an agreement on output reduction. Such news could prove devastating for Venezuela, who boast larger oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and are almost wholly reliant on the export of oil. The price per barrel in Venezuela fell to $31.24 this week, the lowest price in 11 years, and considerably lower than the price in pre-crash 2008 ($126.46 per barrel). When 2 million barrels are being exported from the country each day, it is impossible to overlook the long-term economic consequences that such a tumble will result in. After OPEC’s failure to reach an agreement in relation to global output, it is likely that Venezuela will be forced to look for a solution internally- this is unlikely to be economically beneficial for the country short-term, but any alternative seems impossible at this stage.

So where does the USA and UK fit into all of this? Such a decline is not particularly unwelcome news in the US, where the fuel tax rate is lower than many other nations. A reduction in the pre-tax price of oil has a more immediate and significant impact than elsewhere. In fact, many economists believe this decline in the oil price is the equivalent of a tax cut in terms of promoting economic growth in the US. That being said, the US has also been a contributing factor to the current oil situation; the significant growth in US energy production, resulting from techniques such as fracking, is a further cause of the decline in oil prices. It seems unlikely that the US will rush to the aid of countries such as Russia and Venezuela in their bid to economically stabilise amidst a chaotic oil market. And with alternative methods of production booming in the US, Obama’s stance in this area is highly unlikely to change any time soon.

While, at this point, the decline in oil prices has had little impact on the UK economy as a whole, many warn that sustained low prices make it impossible for companies based in the North Sea to generate profits and that jobs may have to be cut accordingly. On a more positive note, the slump in oil prices has led to the plummeting of petrol prices; Goldman Sachs indicates prices could fall below £1 a litre for the first time in 6 years. Currently the price per litre of unleaded petrol is £1.07 on average; if predictions are correct, this could fall to less than £1 within the first few months of 2016. Had Scotland voted in favour of independence in 2014, such instability within the oil market would have been most unwelcome news for Nicola Sturgeon. The volatile market was a key argument of the “No” campaign in the lead up to the referendum, who predicted that a crash in oil prices could economically cripple Scotland, who are a key producer of oil within Europe. In spite of this, Scotland’s commitment to the production of clean energy has placed renewables at the heart of Scottish economic growth. With wind-farms, both on-shore and off-shore, regularly popping up throughout the country, and attitudes towards solar panels seemingly changing for the better, it is clear that Scotland’s long-term plan is to stray from a reliance on North Sea oil, as the country moves towards a more sustainable and less volatile means of energy production.

It is evident that the fluctuation of oil prices seems unlikely to stabilise any time soon, with continued rapid production and widespread disinterest in increasing imports thereof. Aside from Syria, where it was today reported that fuel prices have increased, the global oil market is in a state of volatility, which has a domino effect on the economies of those countries who rely heavily on its export. In spite of Venezuela’s pleas, countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran simply refuse to reduce their oil output, a position which is unlikely to change, even if the current slump continues. Until a global solution is sought to the current problem, it is up to individual countries to do their best to tackle the problem at domestic level.