Reflections in the Aftermath
Following the attacks on London the July 7th bombings, and the attempted bombings on July 21st - the British public face some hard decisions. While such attacks have long been feared, dealing with the reality is a different matter altogether. Politicians scramble for answers, while ordinary citizens are urged to be alert and actively resist terrorism. Certainly the public has a role to play in the prevention of terrorism, but being on full alert all the time is a difficult way for people to live, and the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the population must lie with the political leaders and the security forces.
Recently, there has been considerable controversy in the UK about what some consider a draconian approach taken to security issues by the authorities, involving the erosion of civil liberties, including police powers of "stop and search", indefinite detention, effective house arrest, the proposed system of ID cards (which, even the Home Secretary admitted, would not have prevented these attacks), and most recently, a possible "shoot-to-kill" policy adopted by the police against suspected suicide bombers. The latter policy having resulted in the killing of an innocent Brazilian man has merely reinforced the fears many have had about granting police additional powers.
While the recent atrocities were expected to strengthen the hands of hard-liners within the government, this horrific mistake shows not only that this is already happening, but how high the cost of errors of judgment can be, when such an approach is adopted.
Opponents of these provisions do not underestimate the importance of national security. On the contrary, they offer some sound logic to support their position. Many are concerned on the grounds of human rights, and civil libertarian principles. Britain has a well-developed judicial system which balances protection of the rights of individuals, with the necessity to ensure that justice is done. The danger of doing away with such protections - e.g. transparent, evidence-based arrests - is that it leaves the system open to abuse.
Others, including myself, worry that many of these measures simply do not work! It has been acknowledged that "stop and search" disproportionately - and inevitably - targets those from minority communities. Quite apart from the humiliation that individuals experience, there are two key issues involved here. Firstly, there is no proof to indicate that "stop and search" has successfully prevented any terrorist activity to date. It is a highly random process, and unsurprisingly, is likely to yield negative consequences that far outweigh any benefits gained. Related to this, and most critically, it risks alienating elements of the very communities that the authorities need to have on their side in order to combat terrorism more effectively.
Which brings me back to the point I touched upon earlier: given the scale of the problem, the attempts to combat terrorism have been likened to searching for very small needles in very large haystacks. In such a situation, those engaged in searching need all the help that they can get. And authorities must rely on the public for some of that help. Some of those best-placed to help the authorities will be ordinary members of minority communities, who may be approached by those recruiting for extremist causes, or who may have important information.
The attackers' contempt for human life was evidenced in the fact that areas targeted included Aldgate and Edgware, known for high Muslim populations. But British Muslims may feel equally threatened or alienated by the attitudes of some elements within British society, particularly if they feel that they are automatically seen as the enemy within.
We all know that Islam is a religion of peace, but simply reiterating that will not solve the problem at hand. Ordinary community members must feel a commitment to combating extremism. However, if this is to happen, they need to feel a sense of both ownership and belonging to the country where they live. Using methods such as "stop and search" is not likely to make them feel that way! I was struck by the comment of some young British Muslims, who asked, rather touchingly, in the aftermath of the 7th July bombings, "We want to give blood, to show our loyalty. But will they take our blood?"
Even more critical is the need to ensure that elements among the minority communities, who may already feel excluded or disenfranchised, are not further radicalised by a backlash against Muslims as a result of these attacks. Such a backlash is likely to occur only among a tiny minority of British people, since the UK has partly succeeded - particularly in cities such as London - in creating a genuinely multicultural environment, where difference is tolerated; and in some cases, diversity is celebrated. But some within that racist minority already see this as an opportunity to sow discord. And, as the success of a minority of religious extremists in alienating large numbers of people within the global population has shown, it does not take more than a few living on the lunatic fringe to create a disproportionate amount of trouble for others.
A friend recently asked me, "Who gains from this?" In the most profound sense, of course, the answer is: no-one. But in the more immediate term, the answer is probably - the hard-liners on both sides. The extremists, who glory in destruction, and do not care who they hurt: men, women or children; rich or poor; black or white; Hindu, Christian or Muslim. And the so-called "hawks", the political and religious fundamentalists on the other side, who see the answer to every problem as being solvable by force, and rubbing everyone's nose in their military superiority.
As the challenges of dealing with extremist movements of any kind in the past have shown us, fanaticism cannot be addressed solely by military means. Its poison can only be effectively drawn by developing long-term political solutions, which include addressing the root causes e.g. the tragedy in Palestine. This requires facing up to historical injustices, and taking responsibility for ill-advised foreign policies by the West. Only doing that can cut off the oxygen supply to the factors that fuel recruitment to terrorist causes. Identifying such solutions has been effective in addressing grievances in South Africa and Northern Ireland.
The challenge for people in the UK of all racial and political hues - will now be to face up to those tasks ahead, and not to allow the extremists themselves, or their hard-line opponents, to dictate the way ahead. National security undoubtedly requires some additional measures, but the excuse of security must not be allowed to push through any and all remedial measures in the name of anti-terrorism. To feel fear because of what has happened is natural; to give in to it would be positively dangerous. In the words of Mark Twain, "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear not absence of fear."
The British people have leaders who can address these challenges effectively e.g. the Mayor of London, who has had the courage to raise crucial questions at the risk of being accused of sympathising with extremists. The question is whether those are the people that they will choose to listen to. I, for one, truly hope so.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005