Exaggerating the danger is a mistake—for three reasonsby Richard English / March 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images There is an entirely understandable pattern of public and political reaction to atrocities such as this week’s Westminster attack. The merciless nature of the violence, the terrible suffering of the victims, the jolting shock of such an unpredictable assault—all of these elements provoke an instinct towards reading the threat of such acts as being a high-level one. But exaggerating the danger involved in such terrorism is in fact a profound and dangerous mistake, for three main reasons. First, it tends not to be terrorism which most significantly changes history, but state and public reactions to terrorism. And if we exaggerate the level of danger then there emerges a much greater risk of over-reacting to terrorism and actually worsening the situation. After the 9/11 attacks, there was an exaggeration of the scale of the threat posed to the west by al-Qaida, and this facilitated an overly militaristic counter-terrorism response. What was the result? The number of terrorist attacks and of terrorist-generated fatalities globally rose during the War on Terror, rather than falling. Moreover, the chaos in Iraq after the invasion of 2003 (an invasion which was partly legitimated politically by claims that it was essential for effective counter-terrorism) in fact contributed to the sequence of events which created IS. The long history of terrorism and counter-terrorism strongly suggests that calm, intelligence-led police work, rather than heavily militarised or only dubiously legal responses, offers the best route to countering terrorism. What happened at Westminster was shocking. But it should not alter the ways in which Londoners, or the British government and state, assess the practices by which they live. A proportionate and patient response will save lives. For the second point is that, sadly, terrorism is something with which societies have to become accustomed. Exaggerating the level of threat leads to implausible demands that something decisively must be done to remove the danger from our society. Yet it is entirely unreasonable to expect that the threat of terrorist assault will become entirely removed from the UK. London has been experiencing terrorism much longer than anyone reading this essay has been alive, and it will continue to do so long after we are all dead. More encouragingly, cities like London and societies like the UK have actually proved extraordinarily resilient and adaptive in the face of such terrorist threats. From the nineteenth-century Fenians to the Provisional IRA of the 1970s and 1980s to al-Qaida and beyond in this current century, the proper goal is to reduce a threat which cannot be extirpated, and to do so in democratic societies which continue to flourish. Quite rightly, the police and government will prepare for such threats in the hope of minimising their occurrence and their lethality. They deserve full support in those endeavours. But realistic expectation about what we face involves not merely the avoidance of exaggerating the threat; it also involves recognizing the limits of what can be done to extirpate it altogether. And here we come to the third point about our discussions of terrorism and our reactions to events such as those of this week: far too much debate currently ignores past experience, and suffers as a consequence of this amnesia. For it is deeply ahistorical to present current levels of danger in the UK as unprecedented or unfamiliar or novel. There’s nothing genuinely new about small-scale terrorist attacks in London, nor about attacks in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament, nor about civilians being killed, nor about policemen and women being targets. The media sometimes presents such stories as though a fault line has been generated. In this case, the story is familiar, for all of its cruel horror, and the attack changes nothing politically. When terrorism strikes at London or at any other such setting, the best way of responding to it is to encourage patient state and societal responses, ones which are proportionate to the actual threat. We need to be realistic about terrorism: it is an enduring danger which we can deal with resiliently. And we need to remember that what we face is a reminder of familiar horrors, rather than a game-changing initiative. Politicians who adhere to these principles are the ones most likely to keep us safe.