For many, the natural reaction to terrible events like the Manchester and London terror attacks is defiance. Accordingly, following terror attacks both in the UK and abroad news broadcasts and social media is crowded with people declaring their intention to “carry on as normal” and show would-be attackers that such evil deeds are of no use. But after the second attack on British soil in as many weeks, more and more are beginning to accept that defeating terrorism may take more than changing your Facebook profile-picture to a heart. Regardless of the still miniscule odds of actually getting caught up in a terror attack, we are starting to be fearful and feel that our lives ARE being changed by these events, and with it, that terror is winning.
This is all happening against the backdrop of a general election campaign entering its last days, and it has forced politicians to talk tough. So, forced by events, after Saturday’s attack in London Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May suggested a four-pronged approach to dealing with a problem she has been close to for years, given her previous job as Home Secretary. However, what she has come up with is predictably terrible: a push to combat extremist propaganda smacks of restriction of free speech and thought-policing; regulating the internet is an appalling idea (which, by the way, has been politicians’ agenda for a while and terrorism is just an excuse to extend their powers to another sphere of our lives); stopping the formation of segregated communities, while a commendable ideal, looks like social engineering; and ensuring that police and security services have the necessary resources to combat terror threats is something over-taxed citizens had a right to expect was already happening. Apart from the bad politics, it also sounds pretty weak and un-concrete: the aims are clear; how to achieve it isn’t.
Admittedly, it is a very difficult problem. The terrorists work individually or in small groups, often use crude, easily obtainable weapons and tend to blend in effortlessly in big, multicultural cities until they commit their crimes.
So what can government, who we have to rely on to protect us, then actually do? For one, they could allow citizens to arm themselves, giving terrorist less favourable odds than they currently enjoy when facing up against a largely defenceless public. Adding resources to police also seems reasonable: when danger is heightened, security spending should be expected to increase. But we are fundamentally against giving law enforcement new powers or curbing free speech through an expansion of hate speech laws, preferring the danger of being free to the phoney safety provided by a draconian government. Some call for anyone who has travelled to Syria or other terror hot-spots to be banned from returning to Britain, but stopping citizens from returning to their home-country without a trial stands at odds with fundamental judicial principles. The problem with public property is that it belongs to all citizens, and until proven guilty of a crime even those returning from places like Syria should be allowed to live as freely as the rest of us. So, the problem of home-grown terrorism – radicalisation of our own citizens – is a very hard nut to crack. The problem can possibly be managed to a degree, but is here to stay.
However, with respect to people who are not already citizens, there are things a reasonable government could do. The starting point, as with a sensible immigration policy more generally, is private property: what would you do if it was your house? Would you admit just anyone, or would you – faced with the risk of admitting a terrorist – prefer strict vetting before letting people on to your property? The answer is obvious, and governments should act accordingly when admitting strangers to live among its citizens through a much tougher immigration policy. And yes, when it is Islamist terrorism you fear, you would apply those tough measures first and foremost to travellers from Muslim countries. Donald Trump took a lot of flak from his “Muslim ban”, but being non-PC does not make it wrong. Further, once someone has been admitted to the country, it would be reasonable to reserve the right to change our minds and, at our full discretion, send guests packing. No need for a trial here, as those who are guests have no property-type right to stay. I can throw someone out of my home, and we should have a similar prerogative to deny guests in our country the right to outstay their welcome. To be fair to Theresa May, she has suggested that she is in favour of some measures of this sort, but details remain scarce.
In the longer term, if the government really wanted to deal with the problem, they should start to realise that the root of it lies in the welfare/warfare state. Our interventionist foreign policy has inflamed opinion against the western word in large parts of the Middle East and beyond. When our bombs kill innocent civilians we talk about justifiable collateral damage, but they see terrorism. It is no justification, but it is an explanation. The welfare state, meanwhile, has trapped large parts of the UK’s Muslim population in a dead end, with boredom and a lack of opportunity creating fertile ground for extremist preachers offering a purpose in life (and death). So, there are measures which could be taken to reduce the risk of further attacks, and which do not require government to take any of our freedoms away. The problem is that politicians are unlikely to be thinking along those lines at all.