The aim of terrorism is to induce panic and fear among both governments and ordinary citizens. Its proponents succeed not just by claiming lives but by provoking states into corrupting democratic practice. In his initial statement on the appalling murder of the army drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south-east London, David Cameron rightly argued that the best response to terrorism is to “go about our normal lives”. This advice should be heeded by ministers as well as civilians. The debate about the best balance between liberty and security will rightly continue but the immediate aftermath of an atrocity, when emotion can overwhelm reason, is one of the worst moments to conduct it. Mr Cameron signalled as much when he warned against “knee-jerk responses” in his statement. The Prime Minister was wise to avoid echoing the portentous rhetoric used after the 7 July 2005 London bombings by Tony Blair, who declared that “the rules of the game have changed”. The “12-point plan” that was then hastily drawn up proved unworkable.
Yet, under pressure from Whitehall securocrats and tabloid media that revere British calm while encouraging the reverse, the government has proved unable to resist the temptation to promise new counterterrorism measures. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has spoken of censoring internet sites, banning Islamist preachers from appearing on TV and proscribing extremist groups even if they do not advocate violence. She has also pledged to revive the Communications Data Bill (better known as “the snoopers’ charter”), which was excluded from the Queen’s Speech after a revolt by the Liberal Democrats and libertarian Conservatives. In this she has been supported by an informal coalition of former home secretaries, including Michael Howard, Alan Johnson, Jack Straw and John Reid.
There is no evidence that any of these measures would have prevented the killing of Drummer Rigby on 22 May, nor have ministers suggested otherwise, which makes their decision to offer them as a direct response all the more dubious. Most of the proposals under discussion are illiberal, or unworkable, or both. A broadcast ban on hate preachers would represent an illegitimate step from criminalising deeds to criminalising thoughts. In combating extremism, liberal societies must take care to distinguish between the undesirable and the impermissible. It is doubtful whether the BBC should have given so much airtime to the radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary, clownish as he may be, but it is not for ministers to dictate who can and cannot appear on its channels. As Ofcom was quick to point out, there are rules in place to prohibit extremists where appropriate, and action has recently been taken against several stations that have breached them.
If, therefore, Islamist groups that promote “hatred and division” are to be proscribed, and those “concerned with terrorism”, there is no obvious reason why far-right organisations such as the English Defence League (EDL) should not also be barred. Any ban would prove either unwieldy or arbitrary and discriminatory.
The case for allowing the police and the security services warrantless access to every citizen’s mobile-phone, internet and email records, as the Communications Data Bill would do, is similarly unfounded. Where deemed necessary, the bodies in question already have the power to request individuals’ communications details, as they did in 506,720 cases between 2009 and 2012. Allowing them unlimited access to personal data would not only be an unreasonable infringement of liberty, it would also create an information goldmine for criminals, hackers and blackmailers.
Taken collectively, the great danger of the proposed measures is that they reinforce the belief that we face an existential threat from jihadism which requires a fundamental overhaul of our legal system. We do not. The murder of Drummer Rigby was a criminal act of a kind that the police are already well equipped to respond to, but ultimately can never hope to guarantee against. In any society, there will always be those willing to kill, for political motives or otherwise. The consoling factor is that few such individuals exist and even fewer succeed. That this was the first terrorist murder on British soil since 7 July 2005 is a reminder of how well the police have dealt with the threat. As David Anderson, QC, the current independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, wrote after the attack: “We have strong laws, excellent intelligence and enforcement – the attackers want us to panic, let’s hold our nerve.”
The ugly reprisals against Muslims in the days since the attack, with more than 200 Islamophobic incidents and ten mosques attacked, demonstrate the need for politicians to avoid inflating the threat posed by Islamist extremists. Though media coverage frequently suggests otherwise, Europol data shows that Muslims were responsible for just 0.7 per cent of terrorist attacks in Europe between 2009 and 2010. The deadliest terrorist attack in recent history was carried out by Anders Behring Breivik, a slave to the “Eurabia” conspiracy theory. The paranoid, xenophobic fear of being overwhelmed by Muslims is as present a threat as jihadism.
In most respects, Britain remains a remarkably successful multiracial, multicultural and multifaith society. As they seek to challenge those extremists who stand outside this consensus, ministers should also take the time to remind the public of this fact.