Letting Terror Win

By Jenkins, Simon | The Spectator, April 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

Letting Terror Win


Jenkins, Simon, The Spectator


Publicity and panic make us all accessories to jihadi murders

There is nothing a government in a remotely free country can do to stop a suicide bomber in a crowded space. As a weapon, he has the precision of a drone missile. The only preventive task open to the police and security service is to penetrate and destroy a terrorist cell in advance. This means assiduous intelligence. It has clearly held the key to disarming some 50 'terror plots' known to the police over the past decade.

Every lesson in counter-terrorism warns against overreaction. But David Cameron seems oblivious to this truth. He appears to have no faith in the police to protect British citizens from terrorism. His reaction to the recent bombings in Brussels was to dive into his Cobra 'bunker' and emerge declaring that London was 'under real threat... from appalling terrorists'. An attack on London, he said, was now 'highly likely'. He has duly put 10,000 troops on standby. The SAS are ready with Osprey V-22 helicopters to race to an incident. London will have another 1,000 armed police and £143 million more for counter-terrorism. This is to be supported by the most draconian internet surveillance in the free world. For good measure, Donald Trump offered a descant, claiming that 'Belgium and France are literally disintegrating'. He let Britain off for once.

I wonder what terrorist commanders back in Iraq made of this. Did they quake in their boots and cry woe? Or did they, as I suspect, gather round their television sets and cheer? They must have echoed Lenin in calling Cameron their useful idiot.

After an act of terror is committed, the murderer is usually dead. But this is merely the start of his programme. His purpose requires that the horror of his deed be magnified a thousand times to engineer his political goal. Bruce Hoffman, in his classic Inside Terrorism, stresses the role of 'psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target'. Terrorism's objective is not just to kill but 'to create power where there is none, through the publicity generated by their violence'. As Isis has shown, publicity is terror's 'second wave'. It is the megaphone. Without publicity, terrorism is just dead bodies.

That is why the media is counter-terrorism's Achilles heel. It knows no restraint. These days it is one long 24/7 scream of horror and fear, attended by no protocol of caution or self-censorship. I could not believe that the BBC after Brussels would take us on a tour of vulnerable London Tube stations. Small wonder that any democratic leader, faced with such a mass outrage, feels obliged to offer exaggerated reassurance. These two responses -- from the media and politics -- are like whirling dervishes, dancing to terrorism's beat, with Isis gleefully orchestrating them from afar.

During the IRA terrorism in the 1980s -- more lethal than anything experienced today -- Thatcher was emphatic that the perpetrators be treated as common criminals. They should be denied 'the oxygen of publicity' or the status of a political cause. She understood that honouring them as warriors played into their hands.

Cameron seems oblivious to this precedent. He must know there is nothing that 10,000 soldiers or SAS helicopters can do to stop a London bomb, any more than anti-aircraft missiles on tower blocks could protect the Olympics. It is pure bravado. When Tony Blair sent tanks to Heathrow in 2002 'as a deterrent' he won headlines, but cost the tourist industry 15 per cent in cancelled foreign bookings. That a suicide bomber might be deterred by a tank was ludicrous.

Treating atrocities as acts of war is what the terrorist craves. He wants to be seen as a jihadist taking the struggle to the infidel. He wants acres of coverage. He wants statesmen and soldiers to snap to attention at the mention of his name. He wants to frighten the enemies of Islam into curbing liberties and oppressing Muslims. …

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