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To beat terrorism, don't trash human rights—get to know human nature

Winning the war within
June 20, 2017

I’ve spent months with terrorists, in high-security prisons, in court cells-—defending them. Not defending their actions, but their rights. Should I have done so? Should anyone? This question was put to me at the recent Hay Festival in Wales. After I gave a talk, a woman put up her hand. She burned with anger, she said, when she heard I’d acted for terrorists; she had every right to feel that way. She was a Tube driver on the Circle line and a survivor of 7/7. This was only the second time she had mentioned that fact in public. That exchange took place at 2pm on Saturday 3rd June. At around 10pm, three men committed indiscriminate murder on London Bridge and at Borough Market.

In the aftermath of those attacks, many around the UK will have felt the same as my questioner. Certainly, Theresa May was counting on that when she announced that she would change human rights law if it “gets in the way” of fighting terrorism. But this is a lazy substitute for thinking about the real problem. I’ve spent the best part of a decade grappling with the very worst human instincts. Keeping ourselves safe from terrorism has to start by understanding what it is that can make these people, young men normally, ready to maim and murder in this way.

It is entirely natural to reach for a concept like evil, which—as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it—is a word for wickedness that applies “especially” when it is “regarded as a supernatural force.” But the atrocities at Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge were not acts of a supernatural force. They were the acts of men. In our age of high-tech warfare, the most devastating weapon is still the human being. To keep ourselves safe from the darker parts of human functioning, we need to cut through our sense of mystification at how this could have happened. How could Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena bomber, who was born and raised in Manchester, who attended Salford University, and who was repeatedly described by those who knew him as “friendly” and “normal,” have done what he did? And what could have motivated the Westminster Bridge attacker Khalid Masood—born on Christmas Day 1964 in Dartford—to murderous and suicidal fundamentalism?

A critical part of the answer is to be found in deep drives that have evolved in our species and reside in all of us. In my research I have identified 10 different modes of behaviour that can, to greater or lesser degrees, be switched on and off in all of us—the software of the human brain turns out to be as modular as the different apps on an iPhone. While some of those modes concern things like empathy and the desire to nurture our young, others have evolved for darker purposes. Terrorism can result from three types of human behaviour combining in a perfect storm: (i) confusion about identity, which affronts the “Tribalist” in us, our deep desire to belong; (ii) falling victim to the very human tendency to exclude (the “Ostraciser”), which creates a deep sense of pain; (iii) the bringing to the fore of the destructive emotions of rage and revenge against others (the “Aggressor”) through radicalisation.

All three of these modes of behaviour concern relations with other people. But what happens, these British jihadis ask us, when you don’t feel part of the group you’re born into?

"The way to keep safe starts with understanding what it is that can make these people ready to maim and kill"
Ostracism is found among virtually all social animals. It is there in the goby fish on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in ritualistic religious excommunications, and in banal un-friending on social media. We ostracise and are ostracised. Neurological research shows that the resulting pain involves similar neural structures to physical pain. And it can lead to a real existential crisis: isolation, alienation and a yearning for meaning.

Disaffected Muslims who do not identify with mainstream Britain desperately search for a sense of belonging. The call of extremism fills that void. You will be shut out no more, it whispers. You belong to us. We will revere you. All the way to your “glorious” destruction. Combine that with exposure to indignities and violations of their wider faith “family” (the “ummah”) thousands of miles away, and there is an induced rage and thirst for revenge. As the recent Notre Dame attacker shouted, “This is for Syria.”

Such visceral emotions can deactivate our empathy systems,  which contribute to moral restraint. When that happens, we can stop perceiving (and/or caring about) the pain of others. There is a lurch towards dangerously destructive behaviour—and the destruction of others. We have to understand this sinister cycle better, in order to break it.

So what works to achieve that? Indiscriminate militarism without regard for the norms of international law is one option. We tried that in Iraq and we know what happened. It fomented radicalisation and extremist recruitment on an almost unparalleled scale. Torture? George W Bush was asked by the CIA if he could introduce, in the euphemism, “enhanced interrogation techniques” and waterboarding followed. It certainly did not eliminate terrorism, and we now have a euphemism-free president in the White House who crassly asserts that “torture works.”

Internment? Remember Northern Ireland in the 1970s? Internment bred yet more atrocities. Surveillance and infiltration are more promising, but difficult. The media pounces on any lapse. If, as has been suggested after the latest outrages, a terrorist has been reported for arousing suspicion and nothing was done, that is human error. Khuram Butt, one of the London Bridge attackers, was surveilled by 30 officers in 2015 before the operation was downgraded. If we don’t have enough officers to monitor such suspects, that is a resource issue. These failures have nothing to do with human rights.

Two things must always be remembered about the scheme of human rights law. First, almost all the rights are qualified. They are not absolute protections. They can be limited if there is a legitimate wider public interest, and so long as the means of their infringement is proportionate. It’s about striking a balance. A system of law invariably is. Second, the power exists to derogate from human rights in times of emergency. Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) explicitly enshrines that. After 9/11, the Labour government derogated from the Convention with its control order scheme.

The ECHR is also a living instrument, which means it can be interpreted in context: the rights of a terror suspect can always be read in the light of a genuine threat. Human rights law permits a shifting calibration of collective security and individual rights; there is no need to choose one or the other. It is not a starkly binary question as May suggests. One of the functions of a rights regime is to force us to think. And surely, given the darker urges of human instinct, that has to be better than the alternative, which is to give way to the immediate, destructive—if understandable—urge to lash out against those who have harmed us.
"Criticising human rights, as if they were somehow implicated in the spread of radical Islam, when in fact human rights are the antithesis of it, is one way to avoid uncomfortable conversations"
Immersing oneself in the scientific research, the close connection between the best and the worst in us becomes evident. There is an umbilical link. I appreciated it when speaking again later to the Tube driver who asked me the question at Hay. She stated that her first reaction—how could it not be?—was to forget about rights for the terrorists, all they deserved was to be shot. But there was another part of her, a better part of her—of us. Ultimately, she was glad that our system was strong enough to give those accused of terrorism a fair trial. In the aftermath of the recent outrages, we’ve heard affecting stories of people risking themselves for strangers. People like Romanian baker Florian Morariu, who works at Borough Market, who sheltered 20 people and fended off the terrorists with a crate. Such selfless concern for the welfare of others is noble in itself, and also the quintessence of the project to develop a system of fair, decent and humane treatment. We’ve come to call that project “human rights.”

In the face of the potent, destructive emotions that terror provokes, we should recall that terrorism itself is a violation of human rights. States not only have the right but the duty to take preventative measures. That is perfectly well recognised in human rights law. In the words of the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights: “Effective counter-terrorism measures and the protection of human rights are complementary and mutually reinforcing objectives which must be pursued together as part of States’ duty to protect individuals.”

May’s castigation of human rights is no surprise. They are a reliable bête noire. It is also a distraction. Criticising human rights, as if they were somehow implicated in the spread of radical Islam, when in fact human rights are the antithesis of it, is one way to avoid uncomfortable conversations about the extent that historic foreign policy failures in Iraq, Syria and Libya have exacerbated the conditions that breed radicalisation. To be clear: human rights do not foster terrorism. Whereas fundamentalist and oppressive ideologies are all about violating human rights. One only has to think of the realities of daily life in Raqqa to understand this.

So here’s the question: should our policy be shaped by the very deep impulse to lash out? A theme repeated to me by terrorists is that our system, our values, our democracy, are a sham. I profoundly believe that they are not. To one such individual I posed this hypothetical: if I were in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and recruiting young Muslims into a Christian cult to blow up innocent Muslim civilians, who would defend me? What rights would I have? I fought for months to ensure that this terror suspect had a fair trial. In doing so, I was not defending his actions, or his ideology, still less his character, but rather defending his right to be dealt with by the due process of law. To me, that is something worth fighting for. In fact, it is part of the war against terror.

“So what happens to human rights now?” asked a young lighting engineer that Saturday in Hay, as we found out that it all had happened again—on another bridge, at a market. I found myself recalling a time even darker than our own, when this nation was on the verge of invasion by Nazi Germany, and the lone Law Lord, James Atkin, urged respect of rights and the rule of law. He reminded us in his famous dissenting judgment in Liversidge v Anderson, “In this country, amidst the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace.”

So who needs human rights? There are many arenas and battlefields in the so-called war against terror. One of them is within us. Human rights speak to the finer side, the better angels, of who we are and who we hope to be. We must not fall into the error of sabotaging ourselves.