Enough of Theresa may’s outrage. We need a tough response to terror
What public purpose is served by the prime minister declaring she has raised Britain’s “threat level” to “critical”? Before she thought another terrorist attack was “highly likely”. It is now “expected immediately”.
What are we supposed to do with this information, other than feel vaguely alarmed? The words can have meaning only in the wartime sense, of ordering us to put on gas masks and head for bunkers. Do we alter our journeys to work? Do we put on body armour? Do we keep away from crowded places? As for sending in the army – terrorism’s propaganda coup – what good does that do? It supposedly releases the police, but to do what?
For the past 48 hours we have witnessed the impressive calmness of the people of Manchester. They have not shown anger or clamoured for revenge, as in more hot-headed societies, just an intense grief over young lives pointlessly lost. Their prayers, candles, poetry and song have been those of a community closing round its bereaved with dignity. The accidental death of anyone for any reason is private agony enough, but when so many are involved, it is right for public figures to express a more distant sympathy.
Sympathy is quite different from aggressive language and bombastic response. We can agree with Theresa May that the Manchester attack was sickening, callous, warped, twisted, even cowardly, and the other adjectives with which she deluged it on Tuesday. We might wonder if she stopped for a moment to ponder the wisdom of turning personal tragedy into such purposeful aggression, knowing it would be greeted with glee by terrorism’s supporters. A similar rush to rhetoric on May’s part led to a severe over-reaction to the Westminster deaths in March.
Open societies have no defence against suicide bombers. Counter-terrorism manuals assert this, over and again. The conduct of public security – such as swamping places with police, closing streets and searching bags – merely redirects the determined bomber elsewhere. Terror bombing is the one foolproof weapon of the weak against the strong. We cannot screen every public space or search every pedestrian. There is nothing new to this. The car bomb and the terror grenade are as old as Conrad’s secret agent, and his “pestilence” which stalks the street with death in its pocket.
All we can hope to do is enter into the minds of the bombers and their associates to prevent them at source. That is essentially a covert activity, and is clearly in its infancy. We can try to clean the pool in which fanaticism swims, the ideological grooming and conditioning. The security services must relentlessly infiltrate Islamist networks. That is their job – they claim to foil a dozen attacks a year – but publicising it cannot be necessary.
When accused of seeking political capital from terrorist outrages, politicians explain that their job is to “express public outrage and show that something is being done”. That is cynical. Mancunians this week expressed grief, not outrage. A leader’s job is to allay rather than promote public anxiety. It is to minimise rather than propagate the impact of an incident.