“…then your children will be next” – the chorus of The Manic Street Preachers’ 1998 ode to (Welsh) foreign fighters going abroad (to Spain) to kill people (Fascists) because of their beliefs. It also happens to be the kind of sentiment that is currently driving anti-Islamic/immigrant demonstrations across Europe, most notably in Germany this week, many of whom were quick to jump on the killing of 12 people by Islamic terrorists in Paris 2 days ago. If you happen to be non-French and would like to get up to speed on French counter-terrorism, check out War Studies’ own Frank Foley, and his book “Countering Terrorism in Britain and France”.
Last night Andrew Parker, Director General of MI5, gave a speech highlighting the attacks (full text) that displayed a degree of caution (“It is too early for us to come to judgements about the precise details or origin of the attack…”) as well as a call for, well, the sustainment of communications intercept powers granted in emergency legislation last year (“we need the capability to shine a light into the activities of the worst individuals who pose the gravest threats”). It is, in my mind, a decent speech – one that we should expect from a person in Parker’s role – and highlighted MI5’s commitment to oversight and accountability. It is also, I think, a speech that will persuade no-one who isn’t already a believer in this institutional commitment.
The bit I liked in Parker’s speech was a turn of phrase – “crude but potentially deadly plots” – to describe a number of recent attacks. You know, the ones defined as “lone wolf” attacks, or as the metaphor of the lone terrorist is now being stretched, “wolf pack” terrorism. Lone individuals can do a lot of damage – see Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh, or Ted Kaczynski – but the spate of individuals committing murder in the name of Islam (much to the horror of many Muslims) is seen as a growing threat to the ordinary way of life in the West. Something must be done.
The reason I liked Parker’s turn of phrase is that he somewhat unintentionally put his finger on the limits of his service (and all security forces in democratic states). Almost every single adult is capable of carrying out a “crude but potentially deadly” terrorist attack. It doesn’t take much training to stab someone, like Roshanara Choudhry, who stabbed the MP Stephen Timms. If you ask any A&E doctor or nurse, they’ll probably give you a sober description of quite how fragile the human body is when it encounters sharp objects. Any society where humans possess some degree of agency will be full to the brim of people capable of “crude but potentially deadly” attacks on one another. Guns help, of course, as do explosives, and training. Restricting access to these is the right and proper function of a government. But nothing can save us, 100%, from our fellow citizens. The kind of society in which individuals could not replicate Kaczynski, Choudhry, et al would be a prison. As Rebecca Solnit wrote (on a different topic): “the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” Unless a person cuts themself off from all human contact – like a hermit or sociopathic executive in an ad for premium London property – then they have to put up with imperfect safety from others.
There is little doubt in my mind that in the coming days and months politicians, analysts and securo-crats will offer up any number of “solutions” to lone wolf terrorism. Preventing general access to guns, explosives and training is good, but that will never stop the truly driven: nothing will. More to the point, there’s nothing that can prevent said lone individuals from taking cheap hits at society. Regardless of the motives of all involved, your average muslim waking up to find the internet flooded with offensive images of the prophet Mohammed is likely to be offended, just as if Christians were to wake up to a billion re-tweets of mocking death metal depictions of Jesus, or if atheists wake up to find the world’s papers full of images celebrating executions for blasphemy around the world. All that offence and division from a single attack, conducted by a handful of people. That said, such offence isn’t a knock out blow, and for the life of me, I can’t see how lone individuals ever could land one.
The point, I think, is that democracy survives on the tensions that states with blasphemy laws seek to eradicate. Most average people can reconcile the right to free speech and the general principle of “don’t be an offensive idiot” (Ross Douthat has a great piece on Blasphemy re Paris here). Democratic states are all the better for that, even if it does mean that, from time to time, cowards will murder people in cold blood. We tolerate the latent threat of our fellow citizens to our own lives, and those of our children, because there is no way to eradicate it without changing the fundamental principles of freedom that underpin our society.