Finally, a step change in our response to Islamist terrorism. But this new authoritarianism is not the answer
This one struck a little close to home. For several years it was my habit to walk across London Bridge from the tube station to the north side, and then on to my office on Fenchurch Street.
Sometimes I would drink after work at the Barrowboy and Banker pub at the foot of the bridge, or go to choral evensong at neighbouring Southwark Cathedral – still regretfully closed some four days after the terrorist attack on London Bridge and Borough Market. My wife now works in the shadow of the Shard tower, and only today was her firm finally allowed to re-enter their office building.
It is quite surreal to see places which are so familiar splashed onto television screens in such a grisly context. One of the smartphone-recorded videos played most often on cable news – showing police ordering stunned bar patrons to the ground – was particularly jarring, as we had celebrated a friend’s birthday at that vaulted beer hall just a few months ago. It is no longer just the bus or the tube – places where we have been conditioned to be wary since the days of the IRA. Now we are to expect violent death anywhere, a car swerving onto the pavement with too little time to react, or being confronted by a knifeman while eating at a downtown restaurant.
But enough of that – it is tempting to make these terror attacks all about us, when really we should focus on those people whose lives were deliberately, callously snuffed out by the onrushing vehicle or the blade wielded by the Islamist fanatic. We rightly praise the heroism of our first responders, the rookie policeman who took on the terrorists alone armed with nothing but his truncheon, and the paramedics and civilians who rushed to help as soon as they were alerted to the carnage.
And yet after the proper acknowledgements and the less-welcome platitudes, the same questions beg to be answered.
Firstly, why did the Metropolitan Police and numerous politicians make such a big show of advertising that it took eight minutes from the first 999 call being received to armed police arriving at the scene to terminate the terrorists? No doubt this was supposed to reassure. But does it not also advertise to every other terror cell currently lurking undetected (or shockingly unmonitored) that in one of the most central and well-protected parts of the country they will have at least an eight-minute window to inflict as much bloodshed as they are able?
Eight minutes sounds remotely laudable because the terrorists were armed only with a vehicle, blades and some preposterously, evidently fake suicide vests. But what if the next terror cell has access to firearms? We rightly applaud the quick-thinking revellers who repelled the attack by throwing chairs and pint glasses, but these projectiles are much less effective against even a single low-calibre gun. What if the next marauding terror attack takes place not in well-protected London, but in a leafy Midlands market town or a provincial city without armed police on 24/7 patrol?
This attack could have been much, much worse. It could have been a Bataclan-level massacre, had the terrorists stormed a pub or restaurant with few exits or escape routes, armed with a semi-automatic weapon. Worse even, because so few British police are armed. Having elite units on constant standby is all well and good, but it is unreasonable to expect a standard unarmed police constable to be the frontline of our response to a mass casualty terror attack.
And no, the medium and long-term solution is not to deploy more armed forces on the streets – though this may be necessary, given the shocking decline in the number of armed police officers. Though the net drop since 2010 (approximately 700) is not that great as a raw number, the idea that the numbers were falling at all given events in mainland Europe is simply staggering. Operation Temperer (or tempura, as I first heard it – like we were going to deep fry the terrorists) may be a necessary stop gap, but we need to look again at whether it is practical to maintain a largely unarmed police force.
We should look too at whether it is reasonable to deny the people the opportunity to defend themselves with legally purchased firearms when the state proves itself time and again to be so unwilling and unable to protect them from lethal harm, either by facing up to the toxic Islamist ideology that fuels the present terror threat or by ensuring that the security services make best use of the vast amounts of data they already collect about all of us. Of course, this discussion will never happen. But it should.
If nothing else, we seem finally to have pivoted from “terror attacks have nothing to do with Islam!” to “something must be done”. And about time, too. Only days before the London Bridge attack, I wrote a piece (piggybacking on Brendan O’Neill) decrying the fact that all of the left-wing party leaders practically wet themselves in shock and outrage when UKIP’s Paul Nuttall dared to talk about the Islamist (not Islamic, Islamist) threat. If nothing else, perhaps we have finally pierced that particular veil of idiocy. The idiots remain, but the general public is no longer in thrall to their denialism.
And yet the undiscovered country of Taking Firm Action may be almost as bad as the state of denial and complacency which is finally being dispelled.
The danger was always that when the government finally roused itself to righteous anger in the face of Islamist terror, the response would be one of jackboot authoritarianism rather than incisive, strategic action. As Home Secretary under David Cameron, Theresa May was quick to take advantage of the various terror attacks in Paris to push for sweeping new powers for the security services, and now elevated (above her competence, it seems) to prime minister she is gunning for civil liberties and pesky human rights laws all over again. But this time, Theresa May is swinging an even bigger emotional cudgel thanks to the immediacy and proximity of the attacks in Manchester and London.
The security services are able to gather vast amounts of metadata on all of our communications with barely a whisper of public dissent, and can begin spying on an individual with no judicial approval required, just a ministerial signature – essentially, the executive overseeing itself. They could not have a more favourable political and operating environment. And yet despite having some of the most draconian surveillance laws in Western Europe, somehow three individuals were able to mount an attack – one known to security services but not considered an active threat, and another flagged as an extremist by the Italians but apparently ignored by British security services.
This is what happens when you expand the haystack too much, when you collect so much data and intelligence on everything that moves that it becomes impossible to sort through the information, make sense of it and hone in on the most serious threats. Yes, there is also an issue of resourcing – as with the armed police, the government has been complacent and refused to spend money where it should be spent – but much of the problem surely comes from trying to cast too wide a net at the expense of watching those already caught in it.
And yet Theresa May now wants to force internet companies to undermine the encryption of their own services so that the security services can gather even more data and make the intelligence haystack even more unwieldy and difficult to search for needles. And the prime minister as a thousand and one other draconian ideas up her sleeve, like the extension of detention without trial from 14 to 28 days – not because such a revised law would have prevented the Manchester and London attacks, but just because she doesn’t want to let this crisis go to waste without extending the power of the state even further.
The only grace is that the prime minister’s desire to control the internet will likely come a cropper as soon as she tries and fails to secure international cooperation. To a bizarre and frightening extent, our civil liberties may now partly depend on the stubbornness of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and (yes) Donald Trump in resisting Theresa May’s maniacal efforts to regulate the online world.
Concerning too is the fact that we are suddenly talking about the internment of suspected terrorists for whom there is too little evidence to seek prosecution. Even as the news of the London Bridge attacks was coming in, strident calls were made on Twitter for the police to “bring in” everybody currently on the terror watchlist and presumably detain them without trial in perpetuity. Perhaps at a new British Guantanamo Bay on the Isle of Man. Then the omnipresent Katie Hopkins went on Fox News to repeat the call for internment, while Nigel Farage followed, warning that “people” would soon start to call for this step if the government failed to get a grip. Well, they certainly will now that the idea has been so helpfully injected into the political discourse. Thanks, Nigel.
Astonishingly, there seems to be support for such a move from some sober conservative voices in America, which rather makes me question how strong their much-vaunted love for the Constitution can possibly be, when they encourage Britons to enact draconian laws which would rightly never pass muster in the United States.
I had a thoughtful exchange with the National Review’s Jim Geraghty on the related subject of whether merely expressing support for Islamist ideals should be criminalised – Geraghty initially expressed support but walked his stance back somewhat following my interjection, and we more or less came to a meeting of minds.
Sadly, the conversation elsewhere has not been nearly as civil, on either side. Of course anger is entirely appropriate when our fellow citizens are killed in cold blood by a religiously-inspired terrorist – young girls enjoy a pop concert in Manchester or Londoners of all backgrounds enjoying a Saturday night in town. But this anger has to be meaningfully directed, otherwise it will either achieve nothing or give known authoritarians like Theresa May the pretext they need to expand the state’s power.
But is this really who we are, as a people? Is this really who we want to be? A nation comprised of either self-abnegating terror apologists whose first reaction on hearing of an Islamist attack is to jump on social media to declare “nothing to do with Islam!” and patrol for “Islamophobic” comments, or jumpy authoritarians who want to do away with even the most basic civil rights in pursuit of the chimera of perfect safety?
We have certainly been called to action and shocked out of our complacency by the hideous events in Manchester and London, at long last. But at present there is precious little to suggest that we will start to move in the right direction now that we are finally awake.
Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:
Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.