Friday, 30 June 2017

London Bridge and Borough Market: intelligence in the response to terrorism

There are two fine responses to terrorism, one military and one civilian, and two that are far less intelligent – though far from uncommon.

Shrine to the victims of terrorism on London Bridge
The unintelligent military response is to go to war. For years, we’ve had a “war against terrorism”. It’s a meaningless notion. War can be directed against a territory (which may be a nation) or against its armies: war against Nazi Germany, against the rebel American States, against the Vietcong army or North Vietnam – whatever you think of their justification, these are meaningful concepts one can comprehend.

But war against terrorism? Who or what’s the target? Where do you invade?

The answer to that last question has been Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither war has been won and both have led to a far greater threat of terrorism, indeed a far higher number of outrages. The military action was gesture politics: it showed governments doing something, with no concern as to whether it was the right thing.

The intelligent military approach requires – well, it requires intelligence. Excellent security work has foiled terrorist plot after plot in Britain. As a way to keep us safe, it has proved far more effective than, say, invading Iraq.

Even so, not all outrages can be stopped. Which takes us to the civilian response.

The less intelligent reaction is to start enacting new legislation. This is rather like invading Afghanistan. It shows governments to be doing something, but with no concern as to whether what it’s doing is useful. After all, little that a terrorist does is legal anyway – murder doesn’t need new legislation against it, and conspiracy to commit murder or complicity in murder are also crimes. Collecting the weaponry for a terrorist attack is illegal too, as is incitement to commit a crime, or perversion of the course of justice to cover it up afterwards.

Most legislation proposed in the wake of an attack is concerned with limiting thought, not action. I don’t like the idea of a worldwide caliphate being established and would do everything legal within my power to prevent it. But how can ban people from believing it’s a good thing? Why, there are people who think Trump is a good thing. How can we make it a crim to try to persuade others of their point of view? It’s the very attempt to regiment thought that excites my dislike of the notion of a caliphate.

Let me be clear: trying to persuade people that a Caliphate is desirable should not be a crime; trying to persuade people to take up arms to make it happen is a crime, as it should be.

The biggest problem with attempts to limit thought by legislation is where do you stop? In Russia, for instance, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to speak out in favour of rights for homosexuals. That’s because many – possibly a majority – in the population and certainly in power see homosexuality as an abomination. But then banning belief in a Caliphate would be based on a sense that it too is an abomination.

Limiting freedom of belief opens the door to regressive, and repressive, behaviour which is likely to have far more damaging consequences than its backers imagine. Ill though-out, unintelligent reaction is unlikely to be effective against terrorism, but is highly likely to inflict wounds on ourselves. Let’s not forget that Maggie Thatcher, in my view not maligned anything like enough, made the attempt to ban teaching in schools if it was deemed to “promote” homosexuality. Putin would have been proud.

It’s a slippery slope and it goes a long way downhill.

So how about the intelligent civilian response to terrorism? It’s the reaction that says, “it’s not going to stop me living the life I choose to live”. Fortunately, it’s a widespread attitude and one that reveals an inherent strength in our populations. That makes it probably the best guarantee of our long-term success against the attempts to undermine us by terrorist means.

I was struck forcibly by that truth when I recently wandered through Borough Market, near London Bridge. Not a month ago it was the scene of a vicious and brutal terrorist attack: three men drove a van into a crowd on London Bridge, and then chased victims enjoying the evening in the pubs and restaurants, or just the streets, around the market. They killed eight and injured 48 before being gunned down themselves by police.

There’s still a shrine to the memory of the victims on the bridge. But I was inspired by the activity in Borough Market as I walked through at 8:00 in the morning. Things were only just getting going, with stall holders beginning to open their stands, food beginning to cook, and a few passers-by beginning to appear, to stop and look and occasionally to buy (breakfast, in my case).

Normality reasserted: Borough Market reopening for business as usual
Life was already back to normal. No one had forgotten the attack. But the rights of the living had been reasserted. So the terrorists had failed..

For that I’m profoundly grateful. And hopeful.

Despite the lack of intelligence of so much else of what we do.

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