In her speech outside No 10 Downing Street on Sunday morning in response to the London Bridge attack the night before, Theresa May insisted that ‘enough is enough’. ‘We cannot’, she said, ‘pretend that things can continue as they are.’ There is ‘far too much tolerance of extremism in our country’. Rooting out extremism ‘will require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations’.
It was a speech long on rhetoric, but short on sense. It is May herself, first as Home Secretary, and now as Prime Minister, who for the past seven years has been responsible for counter-terror policy and for challenging extremism. Any failures of policy are, therefore, attributable to her.
The most specific proposals suggested by May was for greater regulation of the internet ‘to deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online’. She wants tech companies to provide governments with a ‘back door’ to break any encrypted messages terrorists may use. She also wants to censor social media and online websites promoting extremism. Both would allow the state enormous power over the lives of ordinary citizens without necessarily diminishing the ability of jihadis to pursue their attacks.
Allowing governments to circumvent encryption would license them to snoop on anyone’s activities; it would also permit criminals to do so. Terrorists would undoubtedly find other ways to communicate – after all, terrorism existed long before the Internet. Such policy would, however, have ominous consequences for the rest of us. As journalist James Ball observed in 2015 about a previous plan to ban encryption:
It is true that terrorists use encryption, much as in real life they use bank accounts, locks, money transfer services and public transport. If the presence of terrorists on a given service is reason enough to shut it. down, we’ll find there’s really no form of civil society left to defend.
Both Khalid Masood and Salman Abedi are now thought to have organized their attacks largely by themselves, and not through a network; it is unlikely, then, that being able to decrypt their WhatsApp or Telegram messages would have helped prevent the horror they unleashed.
As for ‘regulating’ the internet, this would require Britain to take the same kinds of measures as authoritarian states such as China and Iran do so now. ‘Extremism’ is a slippery word and allows states to ban much that they dislike. In any case, censoring odious ideas does not kill them; they simply breed underground. This has always been the blindspot of censorship. As John Milton put it in Areopagitica, his great pamphlet in defence of free expression, to keep out ‘evil doctrine’ by ‘licensing’ is ‘like the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his Park-gate’. If Britain tries to censor Islamist ideas, it will no more succeed than China or Iran have succeeded in eliminating ideas they define as ‘extremist’. Censorship will, however, absolve politicians from the responsibility of having to think about how really to challenge such ideas. It will allow them to spout platitudes about ‘British values’ and imagine that they are somehow taking part in meaningful discussion. If Theresa May truly wants to have ‘difficult conversations’ about Islamism, then such ideas have to be confronted head on, rather than merely being driven into dark corners through censorship.
The reflex action of every politician faced with any problem is to reach for new legislation. Since 2000, David Allen Green, the Financial Times‘ legal commentator, pointed out in a series of tweets, the UK has on average produced a new terrorism statue every two years. There have also been about 100 statutory instruments – government regulations – with ‘Terrorism’ in their title. ‘It is difficult to imagine what more laws about terrorism there could be’, Green observed. ‘Government, and parliament, is running out of ways of legislating against terrorism. Every possible way seems to have been done.’
The real problems exposed by the recent terror attacks were barely touched on by Theresa May, nor have been by any politician. They are three-fold. The first relates to policing. The details of the London Bridge killers have so far not been made public. But there are already claims that one of them had twice previously been reported to the police for his activities. Khalid Masood, the Westminster Bridge attacker, and the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi were certainly both known to the security services. But both fell off the radar.
It is inevitable that many terrorists will slip through the net. Low-tech terror, such as that on London Bridge and Westminster Bridge, which involves the use of everyday objects like cars, vans and knives, is hard to track. Abedi, however, was a known jihadi, whose father was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an al-Qaeda offshoot. Salman Abedi himself had fought in Libya with Islamist insurgents. That the security services should have lost sight of him is extraordinary. The failure here was not the inability to break encryption or insufficient censorship but of basic policing.
The second problem is political. Two years ago, the then prime minister David Cameron ordered an investigation into the funding of jihadi groups. The government is seemingly blocking publication of the report, apparently because it shows the involvement of Saudi Arabia in such funding. Saudi riches have helped promote Wahhabism, the ideology that drives most jihadis, throughout the globe. But, for economic and geopolitical reasons, Britain does not want to upset Saudi Arabia. This is not a new issue. A decade ago Saudi Arabia threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London unless Britain halted corruption investigations into Saudi arms deals. The Saudis warned that they would end intelligence cooperation, and that Britain would face ‘another 7/7’ and the loss of ‘British lives on British streets’. The Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, shut down a Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribery allegations involving members of the Saudi Royal Family.
Tolerance of extremism, in other words, starts at the very top. Theresa May may want ‘difficult and embarrassing conversations’, but only when they are not difficult or embarrassing for her. On certain matters she is quite happy to ‘pretend that things can continue as they are’.
The final problem is social. Social changes in recent decades in Western societies have opened a space for jihadis to inhabit. The influence of institutions that once helped inculcate people with a sense of obligation to others, from the church to trade unions, has declined. So has that of progressive movements that gave social grievance a political form. The rise of identity politics has fragmented society and narrowed our sense of attachment and belonging. The social and moral boundaries that act as firewalls against inhuman behaviour have weakened. Cracks now exist in which are spawned angry individuals, inhabiting a space beyond normal moral boundaries, whose inchoate rage has become shaped by a sectarian, misanthropic, religious outlook. The solutions to these problems – challenging identity politics, rebuilding political movements, strengthening civil society – cannot be reduced to soundbites or simple legislation.
Tonight there will be a mass vigil near London Bridge. Last night there was an emotional concert in Manchester, in aid of those killed and injured in the Arena attack, led by Ariana Grande and host of stars. Such acts of solidarity are immensely important. The danger, however, is that they become congealed into mere rituals that we enact after every terror attack. Just as taking down terrorist networks should not lead to the creation of a security state, and just as having ‘difficult arguments’ should not blind us to the need to challenge bigotry, so the laudable desire to ‘carry on as normal’ should not lead to the acceptance of terror as the ‘new normal’. The challenge we face is to rebuild the organizations of civil society and movements for social change that can not only challenge the attraction of Islamism to some but also channel the grief and anger about terrorism into political hope. Whoever wins at the general election this Thursday, it is unlikely that they will address this issue. This is a task not for government, but for the rest of us to build from the ground up.
The images are all of the River Thames. from top down: Colin Ruffell, ‘River Thames’; James Whistler, ‘Symphony in Grey, Easrly Morning, Thames’; Walter Greaves, ‘The Thames’.