Perpetrators of violent acts of terror thrive on publicity – so politicians and the media need to stop giving it to them
We will not buckle to terrorism said David Cameron after the Woolwich murder on Wednesday. He then buckled. Everyone buckled. The home secretary buckled, the defence secretary buckled, the communities secretary buckled, the mayor of London buckled, the chief of police buckled, the press buckled, the BBC summoned its senior editors and they buckled. Everyone buckled.
The first question in any war – terrorism is allegedly a war – is to ask what the enemy most wants you to do. The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets. Any incident is now transmitted instantly round the globe by the nearest “citizen journalist”. The deranged of all causes and continents can step on stage and enjoy the freedom of cyberspace. Kill someone in the street and an obliging passerby will transmit the “message” to millions. The police, who have all but deserted the rougher parts of London, will grant you a full quarter hour for your press conference.
There is little a modern government can do to stem the initial publicity that terrorism craves. But it has considerable control over the subsequent response. When the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, pleaded for calm and for London to continue as normal, he was spitting into a hurricane. Terror could not have begged for more sensational attention than was granted it by Britain’s political community and media.
The killers commanded the news agenda. Front pages became their platform, authenticating their manifesto with blaring headlines. The prime minister obediently raced home from important business in Paris. He slavishly “cleared his diary”, plunged into his favourite Cobra bunker and summoned the mightiest in the land to “co-ordinate a response.” Had the youths merely shot a soldier, I doubt if Cameron would have snapped so quickly into line. It was the medieval crudity of the weaponry, the brazen hacking and stabbing and blood splashed over the internet that had every politician homing in on Cobra, press officers in tow. Tabloid terror invited tabloid government.
Intoning a response to horror is one of the rituals of modern politics. The adjective mountain grows ever higher, depraved, sickening, horrific, barbaric, unspeakable. Damnation is sanctified by platitude. Unctuous “thoughts for the day” are uttered by religious leaders. If it bleeds it not only leads, it pleads for cliched analysis.
“Terrorism experts” rushed to radio studios demanding we all “be on our guard”. Securocrats gleefully leapt forward to demand another snooper’s charter, another twist in their ratchet of control. While imitators were encouraged to imitate, racist extremists were invited on to the streets in retaliation. All sense of proportion departed. We were soon at terrorism’s apotheosis, violence dignified on the altar of fame.
We have a choice. Such acts nowadays mostly emanate from the fanatical corners of some sections of the community. We can treat them simply as crimes. While the professed cause may be different from that of gang feuds, robberies, domestic violence or mental illness, the outcome is the same – a violent death in the community. The police and security services are best placed to prevent it, not politicians. Violent people often claim “political status” for abhorrent deeds, but will only be encouraged to do so when politicians appear to agree with them. Two years ago the London rioters were invited by many on the left to supply political justification for their actions. Equally extremist politics will be attracted to use violence, as do certain strands of Islamist jihadism. There has always been an unholy alliance between criminality and authority. As Joseph Conrad noted of the terrorist and the policeman, “both come from the same basket”.
Thus it was inane yesterday for security pundits to seek to elevate a vaguely motivated religious killing by linking it to a “possible overseas al-Qaida network”. It recalled the 1950s Kefauver mafia committee in Washington, desperate to justify its existence by pleading with a series of small-time hoods to claim membership of some high-powered international network. The hoods blinked in amazement.
This week’s killers certainly claimed a political message, attributing their deed to Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They said that murdering a soldier in London was tit-for-tat for British soldiers killing Muslims in Asia. This does not require them to be part of some international network, merely to have read online propaganda. Nor does it require them to receive the accolade of a Cobra-style pandemonium. By doing so we risk accepting their terms of engagement in this grim debate.
British and American operators indeed use drone missiles to kill Muslim soldiers, and inevitably civilians, on the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. They deploy horrific airborne violence against communities, including in non-combatant countries. Retaliation for these killings may not be “justifiable” in our terms. But jihadists have no access to drones and must rely on car bombs, nail bombs, machetes and cleavers.
The result may appal Londoners, but there are no citizen journalists to witness the appalling impact of a drone attack on a Pashtun village. Can we be surprised when the other side (or its distant sympathisers) retaliates on London, where it gets so much more publicity than in Baghdad or Kabul? Of course, people should be able to walk peacefully down the street in London. They should also be able to walk peacefully in Kandahar, Yemen or Baluchistan.
In taking mundane acts of violence and setting them on a global stage, we not only politicise them, we risk validating the furies that drive them. Closing down the internet to starve terrorist acts of publicity is not feasible, and stifles the debate that should be taking place peacefully. But we do have the option to exercise self-restraint in the aftermath, to control the impulse to hyperbole. We can deny the terrorist the megaphone of exaggeration and hysteria. When Cameron yesterday said we should defy terror by going about our normal business, he was right. Why did he not do so?
It is this echo chamber of horror, set up by the media, public figures and government, that does much of terrorism’s job for it. It converts mere crimes into significant acts. It turns criminals into heroes in the eyes of their admirers. It takes violence and graces it with the terms of a political debate. The danger is that this debate is one the terrorist might sometimes win.