It’s still too early to make a fully informed comment about yesterday’s attack on Parliament. Of the few comments I’ve read so far, a few acknowledge the debt owed to people such as PC Keith Palmer, who was killed, and extend condolences to his family. Some take the line that we must not let terrorism or the fear of terrorism cause us to abandon our values, our freedoms or our democratic way of life.
Some blame mass immigration – although, interestingly, not uncontrolled immigration from the EU. Some blame multiculturalism, others say that it shouldn’t be used to attack multiculturalism. Some use it to attack Islam. Some use it to attack Muslims – others argue that we shouldn’t blame millions of people for the act of an individual … and so it continues.
Some, inevitably contrast the current terrorist threat with the IRA terrorism of the 1970s, particularly in the wake of the death earlier this week of Martin McGuinness and note that the IRA killed more people in mainland Britain than ISIS-inspired terrorists. Even more were killed in Norther Ireland on all sides and by all actors, including the British state.
There are differences, of course. The IRA were organised paramilitaries with a defined political objective. They were able to import arms and explosive from the old Soviet bloc. They received financial and moral support from powerful diasporas – most notably in the United States. They also knew about democracy – both the Republic of Ireland and the UK were and are parliamentary democracies – but rejected it.
Although the current terrorists may attract sympathy from some members of some communities and some citizens of some foreign countries, they don’t appear to be particularly organized or to be bankrolled by wealthy backers (or, like the IRA, have the nouse to knock off a few banks). The same is true of the few right-wing extremists who have turned to the gun or the bomb.
So let’s have a reality check. We are dealing, on the whole, with individuals – often, it seems, inadequate misfits. In the UK, we are also dealing with individuals who will find it difficult to get access to firearms and explosives – although, as we have seen, it is surprisingly easy to build a bomb.
This doesn’t mean that we should be complacent, that we shouldn’t take sensible and proportionate security measures or that we shouldn’t support the intelligence work that may prevent further atrocities.
But nothing will be solved by being horrid to Muslims, right-wingers, white-supremacists or anyone else whose ideas or world views we don’t much like. This is essentially a war of ideas. What we must do is stand up in the agora of public discourse and argue for our values – freedom, tolerance, democracy (however imperfect).
We survived the Blitz, we survived the IRA and we’ll survive this. The best message we can send to any wannabe terrorists is to stick a big sign on the Houses of Parliament saying “Open for business as usual” (unless it collapses because of the woodworm). And put the kettle on, obviously.