LONDON, UK — To walk through the booths of the Counter Terror Expo is to enter a world permanently poised on the brink of catastrophe.
“Don’t let disaster slow down your mailroom!” exhorted the banner of a postal-security company hawking its wares at the annual security trade show, held this week in London.
“Imagine. Unwelcome visitors try to smash their way into your building with a truck. What happens next?” asked a security-barrier-maker's display.
The cavernous Victorian exhibition hall of West London’s Olympia Conference Centre was a showcase of disaster and its aftermath: body bags, fire-resistant glass, IED jammers, sensor-equipped fences, armored vehicles and facial recognition software.
There were hazmat suits in a rainbow of colors and Norwegian-manufactured grappling hooks “to get onto a building or ship without taking the normal way,” a company representative said.
Counterterrorism is big business in Britain, where the government spent $5.9 billion on domestic counterterror measures in 2010-11, according to the book “Terror, Security and Money” by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart.
While anti-terror spending increased after 9/11 and the London public transit bombings of 2005, the growth hasn’t approached the post-2001 boom in spending on the other side of the Atlantic, experts say.
The United States has spent $1 trillion on homeland security since 9/11, says Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University.
Even accounting for differences in size and population, the UK has spent less than half of what the US has on counterterrorism, Mueller says.
That doesn’t mean it's taken less seriously here.
“In the UK, it’s really a very mature anti-terrorism culture,” says David Livingstone, director of the security consulting firm Napier Meridian.
Having lived through the bombing campaigns of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Britain was already equipped with much of the legislation and infrastructure needed to confront a domestic terror threat, he says.
In the years since 9/11, the nature of the threat has shifted from plots backed by Al Qaeda and other international networks to incidents launched by homegrown rogue individuals, security officials say.
Although no one in the exhibition hall was complacent about the danger nearly a decade after the last major terror attack on British soil, there was a sense that the UK’s investment in counterterror has paid some dividends.
“The threat is currently substantial, but overall, the general public going about their day-to-day business is pretty safe,” said a police officer with the National Counter Terrorism Security Office. He declined to give his name because he did not have permission to speak to reporters.
The chance of dying in a terrorist attack in Britain currently stands at one in 4 million, Mueller said, compared to one in 6 million in the US.
In contrast, the odds of dying from a wasp, hornet or bee sting in the US is one in 75,000, according to the National Safety Council.
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Determining the ratio between government terror spending and actual risk is a tricky one, experts say.
Writing in a 2012 paper, Mueller and Stewart put the annual number of deaths from Islamic terrorism at about 200 to 400 per year.
While no terror deaths are acceptable, the authors said, the scope of the threat looks different when seen as about equivalent to the number of annual bathtub drownings in the US.
“The question [governments are asking] is are we safer? That’s the wrong question,” said Mueller, an outspoken critic of US homeland security spending. “Any expenditure makes you safer. The real question should be, how safe are we [already].”