A random act of terrorism in London last week has brought the issues around multicultural Britain into sharp focus again, Peter Young says . . .
Last week’s shocking act of terror in the heart of London has attracted massive publicity, not only because of the randomness of the loss of life and of the serious injuries inflicted but also due to the particular sense of outrage that the Westminster Parliament, the home of democracy, had been attacked.
Clearly, many people were deeply shaken by the realisation that, if the security system had not worked by stopping the crazed killer in his tracks after he entered the grounds of the Houses of Parliament, the catastrophe could have been even worse.
The attack has also been splashed across the media because of the justified fear, after recent serious incidents in Europe (Paris, Brussels, Nice and Berlin), of both the threat and deadly effects of international terrorism inspired by ISIS. But Scotland Yard has already concluded that the perpetrator, 52-year-old Khalid Masood, who was a British citizen with a violent criminal record living in south-east England, had acted alone in his murderous rampage and there was no intelligence or other information to show that further attacks by others were being planned.
Reportedly, in just 82 seconds the deranged monster killed four people and injured more than 50 others, using his rented SUV to mow down pedestrians on the pavement of the four-lane Westminster Bridge across the Thames river and then stabbing to death a policeman inside the grounds of Parliament before himself being shot dead by armed police.
Knowing this bridge well as I do after having walked across it so many times when working at the nearby Foreign and Commonwealth Office makes it all the more shocking on a personal basis to imagine the sheer, unspeakable horror of a vehicle being driven deliberately and at speed into people walking normally, peacefully and unsuspectingly along the pavement of a main thoroughfare in the nation’s capital.
The official response to this attack was led by Prime Minister Theresa May who, as a long-serving Home Secretary (Minister of Interior equivalent), has had considerable experience of dealing with terrorism. The continuing severe threat of this may be one of the most challenging issues of her leadership. She was seen to have taken charge from the outset and she spoke compellingly on television the same evening.
At the sitting of the House of Commons the following day she gave a commanding performance which drew praise from all sides. Choosing a consensual tone and exactly the right words, she stressed the importance of defending, in the face of terrorism, Britain’s values of democracy, openness, free speech, tolerance, liberty and the rule of law; and she made it clear that these would always prevail in the end while the government’s resolve would never weaken. Her informed and measured responses to the many subsequent expressions of grief, sympathy and solidarity by members of parliament were also widely praised.
All this was right and proper and also admirable, in particular Mrs May’s glowing tribute to the fallen police officer and to the emergency and security services, the latter reported to have successfully thwarted numerous possible acts of terrorism in the recent past. But, inevitably, the debate about the causes of the scourge of terrorism and how governments should deal with it has been reignited.
To many, the first step is to recognise and label radical Islamic terrorism for what it is - a global terror movement intent on destroying the West - while accepting that this constitutes a perversion of Islam. As Muslim leaders in Britain stated soon after the Westminster attack, it was a violation of everything Islam stands for and all acts of terrorism should be condemned. However, although ISIS has hailed him as a hero, it is not clear whether Masood had any formal connection to it and his motive will never be determined for sure even though, as well as being known to the police as a vicious thug, it seems that he had been radicalised to the extent that he was marked by the security services as a potentially active extremist after working for a period in Saudi Arabia.
On the broader front, there is growing criticism that the official reaction has been exaggerated and has bordered on the hysterical, with overwhelming press coverage and people almost competing with one another over the intensity of their outrage. Some say that an isolated incident like this is a tragedy but should be treated as a crime rather than glorified as a threat to democracy. Terrorists not only seek to instill widespread fear but also want martyrdom in destroying the so-called non-believer and they want publicity for their horrendous actions. In a free society bad news should not be suppressed, but there has to be a sense of proportion in denying the terrorist the oxygen of excessive attention and publicity.
Masood was not an immigrant but a homegrown terrorist and this made him, arguably, more dangerous. Although he was not seen by MI5 as an immediate threat, there are said to be up to 3,000 people at any one time on its watch list of homegrown fanatics.
Critics point to the political class’ reckless fostering of the conditions which have allowed Islamist fundamentalism to flourish in Britain through the now discredited doctrine of multiculturalism and its related excessive respect for diversity.
In the 1990s, the Blair government opened the floodgates to mass immigration. This turned out to be an unwise and flawed policy for a small country like Britain, which was already overcrowded with increasing pressure on its schools, hospitals and public services. But what made a difficult situation worse was that the government did not encourage, through positive measures, the integration into local communities of newcomers who should have been required to respect British values in return for being granted residency or citizenship. Some say that this has resulted in the creation of mono-cultural Muslim ghettoes and the proliferation of hate preachers permitted to spread their ideas of violence and division so that many young Muslims, influenced by what is taught in some mosques, grow up hating their own country.
In an open democracy there can no guarantee of absolute security for its citizens. So, despite the success of the security services in preventing terrorist attacks, actions by criminal misfits, as in the Westminster atrocity, cannot be predicted.
Most people, however, do not want Britain’s public buildings to be turned into fortresses, and a balance has to be struck between the security and protection of the public and the need to maintain the exercise of those freedoms in an open society which the terrorist is trying to destroy. But perhaps this latest horror will be a wake-up call to the politicians at least to try to stop the hate preachers.
• Peter Young is a retired British diplomat living in Nassau. From 1996 to 2000 he was British High Commissioner to The Bahamas.