Recent attacks in France and Germany have brought home in a shocking way that no one and nowhere is off limits, and nothing safe or sacred. The new ‘Nike’ terrorism, so called as it encourages individuals to ‘just do it’- whatever, wherever and however they can has changed the threat to our societies. The perpetrators aren’t an army from without our countries but individuals from within our communities. It's available online and often without support offered or training given.
Some attacks may be ISIS instigated, others ISIS inspired and some just random acts by individuals on the margins of our societies or with a mental illness. Sadly, though it’s going to be with us for some time and no government anywhere can give an assurance that none will happen. However, there are three steps that can be taken to reduce the risk, in addition to ‘no brainer’ actions such as tighter gun control and greater support for individuals with psychiatric problems.
The first step is to try and prevent attacks. That’s not Trident missiles which won’t protect us from these attacks and whose obscene costs would be better used in protecting our communities and promoting health and well-being at home and abroad. It comes from vigilance by us all but especially in actions by the police and intelligence services. They require though to be both proportionate and subject to democratic scrutiny. Blanket surveillance both overwhelms the intelligence gatherer and alienates the wider community.
Critical infrastructure sites
Some covert intrusion is necessary but requires to be monitored by elected representatives and overseen by independent adjudicators. A modest increase in armed police is necessary and at locations beyond airports and critical infrastructure sites. Though attacks in many rural areas may be highly unlikely, no assurance can be given that they won’t ever occur; never mind the increased risk of firearms offences in areas of high gun ownership. However, there are other actions which cannot be done by public or police but require action by political leaders in the western world.
Secondly, the response to the attacks requires to be balanced and proportionate. They have after all been perpetrated by sick individuals not entire communities. Moreover, there has to be a recognition that it’s not simply the west that is suffering. The Arab and wider Muslim world has suffered much more and for far longer. In Iraq alone 18,600 terrorist incidents have occurred since the war in 2003. It puts the scale of suffering in Europe and the USA into perspective. Black or white, Muslim or Christian, the blood spilled and tears shed are the same. There has to be a recognition that those areas are not causing it but suffering even more from it.
ISIS does have to be confronted but it’s how it’s done that matters. Rash and random actions, whether the Iraq War or drone strikes on wedding parties in Yemen, have been counterproductive and left a bitter legacy. Bombing indiscriminately in ISIS held areas will kill innocents by the score and in even greater numbers than have been lost in the recent outrages in the west. Moreover, many are sheltering in those areas of Syria as a result of fleeing terror perpetrated by Russia and Assad; who have killed more there than the so called Caliphate. They are our supposed allies though tension is rising with the former and bombing was proposed on the latter only a few years back. President Obama wouldn’t bomb Harlem because of atrocities in Baton Rouge and similar logic must apply in the Middle East. Indiscriminate and disproportionate actions fuel the sense of injustice that western lives matter but Muslim ones don’t.
Moreover, the actions of the west require to be balanced as is not simply in Syria that double standards apply. The actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen go unchecked and President Obama’s Cairo Declaration in 2009 has faded along with the Arab Spring. Military coups are opposed in Turkey but supported in Egypt. It’s no wonder that many are cynical and resentful of actions taken by western powers. The Iraq War have been compounded by other actions, whether toppling despots with no plans for the peace thereafter, or continuing to support other equally odious regimes. There’s no easy or quick way to resolve the problems in the Middle East but acting in a balanced and proportionate way is essential to avoid acting as a recruiting sergeant for ISIS.
Equality and opportunity
Finally, as well as being balanced in our actions abroad, we need to seek to provide equality and opportunity at home. Most of the perpetrators of recent atrocities have come from marginalised and disadvantaged communities within our own countries. They have felt neglected and rejected by the societies in which they were reared. Perhaps, sometimes with reason and sometimes not. But they’re not alone in those communities in feeling marginalised at best and rejected at worst. That simply fuels alienation from our societies.
Unemployment and hopelessness can lead to criminality and offending. That happens in white communities also but the added dimension of discrimination on the grounds of race or faith compounds it. It causes bitterness and resentment which in turn can see susceptible individuals act in a nihilistic way. Some can then also fall prey to those offering a violent solution to their ills or revenge for their plight as they see it.
However, the statistics on unemployment and income, as well as many other indices, disclose that there is discrimination against Muslim and minority groups. This needs to be tackled along with the prejudice they face on a daily basis because of their religion or ethnicity. Recent ludicrous comments in a tabloid paper about a Muslim interviewer on Television were tame in comparison to what many sadly have to endure on a daily basis. That needs to be dealt with as it simply fuels a perception that they’re neither welcomed nor wanted in what is, after all, their country.
None of those actions will ensure there’ll never be an atrocity but they’re a necessary start.
Kenny MacAskill was the Scottish Justice Secretary between 2007 and 2014.