The recent terrorist acts in Manchester, Brussels and London prompted British Prime Minister Theresa May to argue for a more punitive counter-terrorism approach. She mooted longer prison sentences, stronger deportation regulations, and stopping the freedom of movement of suspects.
The notion that recent events necessitate changes to legislation is in part based on the idea that they are somehow different from previous incidents. Yet many past incidents have either had unclear motivations (the “lone wolf”), or apocalyptic tendencies (Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-1990s) or have used everyday items to perpetrate their crime (al-Qaeda and 9/11).
Terrorism is a chameleon by its very nature. Developing new and inventive ways to shock and challenge political authorities is fundamental to the phenomenon. Air hijackings were used until Entebbe in Uganda in 1976, where counter-terrorism forces freed hostages aboard an Air France flight. Hostage taking was de rigueur for a while.
Fears about the potential of weapons of mass destruction attacks rose considerably after the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway in 1995. As a “weapon of the weak” that seeks to spread fear, terrorism is necessarily adaptive.
What is consistent across the dynamism is an emphasis on challenging the politics of the day. Given this, ensuring a balance between security and liberty is central to any effective response. Thus the recent suggestions by May are unfortunate.
Human rights and protection both possible
For example, detaining more suspects for longer is illogical. Recent analyses show that Islamic State (IS) was created by a group of men who had been detained together in Camp Bucca after the 2003 war against Iraq. Seasoned military officers, ideologues and political minds were brought together, detained, mistreated and denied any future role in their country. The result? IS.
Altering aspects of the law that currently enshrine various human rights is also nonsensical. Keir Starmer, current Labour MP and previously director of public prosecutions (DPP) in the UK from 2008 to 2013, brings this to life.
In an article in The Guardian, he states that during his five years as DPP he saw many cases involving serious terrorist plots, but that human rights laws never prevented the Crown Prosecution Service from pursuing a prosecution, or the dedicated counter-terrorist teams from monitoring and apprehending suspects.