“How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorised”…Salman Rushdie
Barely had the dust settled on the carnage in Brussels, before media sources and governments around the world began to climb aboard the terror bandwagon; turning what had been an unforgivable attack on innocent people into a political football that is playing right into the hands of the terrorists themselves.
Islamic State sacrifice a couple of unimportant foot soldiers to the cause and then sit back and reap the rewards of government meddling and media hyperbole, watching in smug self-satisfaction as we ramp up the fear factor and elevate a brutal and unforgivable slaughter into a policy-changing event. They supply the carnage and we supply the column inches and TV coverage that they desire; as politicians and journalists queue up to get their soundbites in and nod their heads sagely, whilst liberty is thrown to the wolves and political grandstanding takes centre stage.
Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, claims that Britain is facing the biggest terrorism threat in its history. What about the IRA bombings and punishment killings of the 1970s and 1980s? Back then the Irish Republicans were quick to realise the political capital that a bomb in London would have over half a dozen in Londonderry. In 1973 alone there were 36 bombs exploded in the British capital. The British mainland, and London in particular, became the target of a concerted bombing campaign that lasted well over two decades. The big difference between then and now though is that both the Labour and Conservative governments treated the terrorism as criminal, rather than political. In spite of the fact that IRA active service units could move amongst the large Irish populations of the capital with impunity, little was done to curb civil liberties. It is true that mistakes were made and miscarriages of justice perpetrated, but on the whole the policy worked.
There is nothing new about terrorism, it has been with us for centuries. What has changed is the instant accessibility of it. Television and social media has become the newest and most potent weapon in the terrorist arsenal. Imagine the anti-Catholic rhetoric that could have been generated after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot if James I had been on Twitter. And what about the Sidney Street siege of 1911, when Latvian anarchists murdered a policeman during a bungled jewellery raid. At the time the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, tried to strengthen legislation against aliens, an action that was criticised as being tantamount to “…the death of ideas and the betrayal of English traditions”…The bill did not make it into law.
During the 1840s there was a widespread movement for change across Europe, with Italy, France and Poland on the brink of revolution. Thinkers, activists and anarchists were everywhere, and many of them ended up on the streets of liberal London. Back then, the British capital was a safe haven for other peoples ‘terrorists’. Even at a time when London itself was becoming a dangerous place for the elite of society. Queen Victoria survived no fewer than seven attempts on her life during her long reign and Irish nationalists tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London in an event still referred to as “Dynamite Saturday”. And let’s not forget that forward thinking Suffragettes were considered by many in the establishment back then to be harbingers of doom and destruction. These modern thinking women were imprisoned, force-fed and abused to the point that the government at the time had to vehemently defend its treatment of them.
What we face today is nothing new. It is just more scary, and potentially far more damaging on an economic and national level. Apparently, when he planned the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden was looking to undermine the very fabric of western ideals. He wanted to show that the outwardly liberal facade of our democratic foundations could be undermined by some determined and ruthless acts of terror. He wanted to prove that we could become as repressive as anyone if our very freedoms were being attacked. The attacks in Paris and Brussels, and before that in London and New York, have highlighted not only our inability to ultimately stop a determined attack, but have also shown that we are all ready to turn on ourselves to try to apportion blame. Attacks like the one that happened in Brussels occur daily in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but they barely register on the media radar. Serve up a dead European or American though and you are front page news.
Richard English, a Belfast academic once defined terrorism’s threat to democracy not as the “limited danger’ of human and economic destruction, but more as the “…ill-judged, extravagant and counterproductive state responses” that it provokes. Isis wants us running scared. It wants to see the West restricting civil liberties and persecuting Muslims. What is doesn’t want to see is quiet dignity and restrained courage. Freedom comes at a price, it always has. It is how we preserve that freedom that matters.
What we should really fear is the fear itself…and how we deal with it…