In the face of rising terror risks, a security expert is “alarmed” by the public’s attachment to headphones

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and shootings in San Bernardino, California, Western countries are acutely aware of the risks of potential attacks.

But while many security forces are taking serious precautions—closing down rail stations in Munich in response to a suspected threat, for example, and canceling annual leave for every armed police officer in London over New Year’s—behavior from many members of the public is alarming, according to a former UK security minister.

Baroness Neville-Jones, former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program (at 52 minutes) that too many citizens seem oblivious of their surroundings. She said:

“I think being alert is very important. I am alarmed by the number of people I see wandering along the street entirely engaged in their mobile telephones and with their ears plugged into music and they are not aware of their surroundings. You need to be aware of your surroundings.”

When the presenter of the program, Lord John Browne suggests that citizens should be able to live their lives as they wish, Neville-Jones reiterates her concerns.

“You do have to take some personal responsibility,” she says. “I do think we can be more alert than we are.”

Official UK government guidance is that citizens should be “alert but not alarmed.” In a statement in November, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said:

“I would urge the public not to be concerned about things they are unable to control, but to focus instead on what they can do that will make a difference. Be vigilant and you could be the person who spots something odd or unusual and prevents an attack.”

For those attached to their power-walking tunes or morning podcasts, putting aside headphones may seem like an affront to personal liberty. And realistically, it seems highly unlikely that one person could make a major difference to the terrorism threat by turning off their backing music. But as these security officials have pointed out, entire nations of people walking around like zombies isn’t particularly sensible, either.

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