Streatham attack: preventing terrorist atrocities will require more than tough noises from simple-minded ministers

Knee-jerk law and order policies are no substitute for resources and dedication

February 05, 2020
EYui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
EYui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

Terrorism seems as if it will always be with us. In the United Kingdom, the generation that knew of the Birmingham pub bombings was followed by the generation that experienced the Manchester and Enniskillen bombings, and then by the generation that grew up with 9/11 and 7/7. For Millennials, they have the Ariana Grande concert bombing and the London Bridge stabbings. No doubt the generations yet to come will endure their own atrocities.

There is no simple solution to terrorism. Certainly making laws is not enough by itself. Hundreds of laws have been passed to address terrorism. There has been major terrorism (sometimes called anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism) legislation almost every other year this century. The government is running out of things to make laws about in respect to terrorism. And so politicians are now having to announce they will change things that have already been changed, just to have a "crackdown" to announce.

In Streatham in south London on 3rd February 2020 there was another terror incident. A convicted terrorist, released half-way through his sentence, attacked and stabbed two people before being shot dead. Such early prison releases have already ended for those convicted more recently. The government has announced that it will now end such early release for all terrorism convicts.

There can be no real objection to this even on human rights grounds: the sentence is not retrospectively lengthened, only the means of how the sentence is served is being changed. This is not something that even a liberal lawyer can get triggered over.

But prison is not working if terrorism convicts just commit more offences on release. Indeed, the further "radicalisation" inside of prisons may be making the problems worse. One of the more idiotic aspects of modern political discourse is the common view that more terms of imprisonment and for longer periods is somehow a public good. In fact, other than temporarily keeping people off the streets, putting people in prison is invariably an expensive exercise in making society worse.

To address "radicalisation" requires resources and dedication. Other countries have shown that a complex policy response can work. But this requires a sincere will on the part of government, officials and the media to want to solve the problem. What will be needed will be more than what can be put on a press release or announced to cheers by a "tough-sounding" minister. If terrorism is unlikely to go away, nor will the tendency of politicians to want to treat complicated problems as if they are easy.