It was sad to write in this column last November about the terrorist attack that had taken place on London Bridge. This resulted in the murder of two young people - who were dedicated to the rehabilitation of prisoners - by a convicted Islamist terrorist. The attacker had been released from prison on licence after serving half his sentence and was himself later killed by the police. How depressing it is, so soon after that, to comment now on another similar incident in the British capital just a week ago.
This time, in the south London district of Streatham, a knife attack, described by the police as an Islamist-related terrorist incident, led to a young convicted terrorist being shot dead by police within barely a minute of launching his action that injured three people. The perpetrator had similarly been released from prison automatically a few days earlier and was being watched as part of a counter-terrorism surveillance operation.
The sad fact is the UK is facing a wave of Islamic terrorism which started with the terrible atrocities in London in 2005 which resulted in 56 deaths and some 700 injuries. In the past couple of months alone, as well as the London Bridge and Streatham attacks there has been a similar assault inside a high-security prison that left several prison officers injured.
Britain’s traditional tolerance and her respect for the rule of law, together with recognition of the need to protect the human rights and civil liberties of all including wrongdoers, is well known. But no one needs to be reminded after these incidents that the most important duty of the state is to protect its citizens - and press reports suggest there is a growing feeling among the public that the official response in Britain to this recurring terrorism has not been sufficiently robust in the past. Now, there is outrage, in particular, that convicted terrorists are being automatically released after having served only half their sentences.
In its manifesto for last December’s General Election, the Conservative Party pledged to end this policy. As an immediate reaction to the Streatham incident, the government has described the situation as one of “severe gravity” and, as a first step, is putting forward emergency legislation to keep in jail those convicted of the most serious and violent crimes and to enhance the involvement of the Parole Board in assessing the suitability of terrorist offenders for release after serving two thirds of their sentence. Reportedly, under present plans the new system will apply to both current and future offenders. But there are already signs that applying any new measures retrospectively might run into legal challenge by the civil rights lobby and opposition under the European Convention on Human Rights, which is separate from the EU and of which the UK remains a member.
It looks to me that the new government’s action is none too soon. There comes a point when enough is enough and there has to be a toughening up of the treatment of those involved in terrorist activity. The State’s duty of protection of the right to life must include measures to prevent terrorism and members of the public can simply not understand how convicted ‘jihadis’, who all too often will remain dangerous, can be released prematurely from prison and allowed to walk the streets. Moreover, what makes this worse is the knowledge that there are more than 200 terrorist offenders in prison currently awaiting such release.
People accept, however, that anti-terror measures should be proportionate and, as such, not undermine democratic values.
So a balance has to be struck between the rights under the law - not just of early release - of individuals who have committed a terror offence and the rights of other people to walk around free from the threat of terrorist violence.
As far as I can see, it is the case that some of those who have become radicalised and involved in some way in terrorist activity cannot be rehabilitated because they are fanatics driven by deeply held beliefs and an ideology whose aim is to implant Sharia principles in Western countries. So, it may come to a point that, unless terrorists, who have constituted a threat to the peace and to law-abiding citizens by trying to kill others while seeking martyrdom, can show beyond reasonable doubt that they have genuinely changed their toxic mind-set and beliefs, they could end up staying in jail indefinitely.
America - a country seemingly at war with itself
It must surely be both disturbing and disheartening for so many admirers of the US to watch the growing political divisions which seem to be affecting the whole country and could develop in to a downward democratic spiral with endless partisan vitriol and bitter debate.
The seeds of my own love affair with the ‘land of the free’ were sown when I was fortunate enough to spend a year in Massachusetts as an English Speaking Union exchange student and this was followed by frequent return visits. So, through these and maintaining contact with friends, it has been easy to keep up with events over the years.
With the nation apparently in a ceaseless domestic political war, not helped by the long-drawn-out electoral process, some people are even saying US politics may already be beyond the point of repair. Others say that is fear-mongering, but commentators are indulging in hyperbole about how bad things have become, with one BBC journalist concluding a report with the words ‘ broken politics, broken democracy, broken country’.
It is saddening, in particular, to witness the deterioration of civility and decorum in public life and the coarseness and ugliness of political discourse. This was shown most recently not only in President Trump’s so-called victory address to his supporters following his acquittal on impeachment charges by the Senate but also by his refusal to shake hands with Nancy Pelosi before delivering the State of the Union speech and then her ripping up his speech afterwards in an undignified act of petulance out of keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. But perhaps one should not be surprised. That was an example of the disharmony coming to a head and some see the divisiveness of the Trump era as a culmination of the downward spiral, though the pundits say disunity has been growing gradually.
Clearly, the impeachment of the President made the situation worse, not least because deep down even Democrats must have accepted it amounted to a naked political play rather than a grave constitutional undertaking. Right from the beginning of the Trump presidency, the Democratic Party was unashamedly seeking his removal from office and thus preventing him from standing for another four-year term.
Whatever view some take of the allegation of abuse of power, I, for one, find it hard to see how his action was sufficiently serious to amount to an impeachable offence - unwise in a telephone call to a foreign leader to have mentioned a political rival in the context he did but not bad enough to lead to removal from office.
The vote in the Senate showed political polarisation at its worst, with all except former Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, voting on party lines. Many are now saying the Democrats’ failed efforts to force Trump out of office will have strengthened him politically to the extent he now looks almost certain to win a second term in November’s election, not least because he has a good story to tell about his achievements - particularly a strongly performing economy - which he described in his State of the Union address.
What a political roller coaster is surely ahead, with the threat of a nasty presidential campaign. But I think that BBC assessment was somewhat over the top.
Another milestone for her majesty
A significant anniversary fell last week which may have escaped people’s notice. February 6 was the day The Queen acceded to the throne in 1952 at the age of 25 following the death of her father King George VI. There were Gun salutes at the Tower of London and in Green Park near Buckingham Palace and there was a special ringing of the bells of Westminster Abbey - where The Queen was married in 1947 and her coronation took place in 1953 - to mark Accession Day.
Some people think she has only now become the longest-serving monarch, but she achieved that in 2015 when she surpassed the reign of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. On her accession she also became Head of the Commonwealth. Such a role for the monarch was recognised on the basis that, without exercising sovereignty, The Queen could bring to bear beneficial influence and be a visible symbol of unity for this free and voluntary association of its members even if most of them would become republics. As Head of State for seven decades, The Queen, now 93 years old, has been at the centre of Britain’s national life during a period of sustained relative peace and prosperity. She has been a beacon of decorum and decency with, in the words of the Prime Minister at the time she overtook Queen Victoria, unerring grace and dignity; and she has been a reassuring presence - with her portrait on banknotes and stamps as a constant reminder - providing stability and continuity in an ever-changing world and a calm symbol of unity above transient politicians forever at odds with one another. Her longevity also makes her the most experienced and knowledgeable Head of State probably of all time for she has been seeing state papers and has met and got to know successive world leaders, continuously since 1952.
Everyone recognises The Queen has had a tough time recently. All will hope she overcomes the recent setbacks involving the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to step down as senior Royals and the issues surrounding Prince Andrew, not to mention concern about the health of the Duke of Edinburgh. Meanwhile, she herself continues to be widely loved, admired and respected, both at home and overseas, for her dedication to duty and public service. She has also, of course, travelled all over the world and particularly to Commonwealth countries, including The Bahamas of which, as a realm rather than a republic, she is Head of State and the Governor General is her representative.
With very little support for republicanism in Britain, so many people fervently hope and pray The Queen, who remains in good health, will continue to flourish in the coming years.