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Terror Mania in Britannia

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We could be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean bordering a Nato state.
-David Cameron, Aug 29, 2014

Mischief in response to mischief may seem like sound arithmetic. But ethics, morality and political sensibility are not matters of mathematical calculation. The response to the beheading of US journalist James Foley by what may well have been a British radical fighter has seen a mix of hysteria and incoherence. It has seen Parliamentarians beats the drums of war. It has seen the Prime Minister, David Cameron, reach for the repressive law book.

This book involves seizing passports, imposing more control orders, and being particularly vigilant about particular Britons travelling out and into the country. Judges are getting ready to hand down convictions. But it also means keeping the British security forces busy by crowding various key sites wishing that a threat would materialise. Emergencies, even if unproved ones, tend to give more employment and urgency to the policing arm of government.

After a time, such regulatory frameworks become matters of dictation. There is no need for evidence. There is no need for an empirical framework, even if the tradition of verification is very much a British one. All the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has to claim is that there are dangers posed by Britons and foreign fighters engaged in hostilities in Syria and Iraq.

For Cameron, it is incumbent that the threats posed in the Middle East are, in fact, threats to the UK. There was “clear evidence that this is not some foreign conflict thousands of miles from home that we can hope to ignore. The ambition to create an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and Syria is a threat to our own security here in the UK.”

This language on meddling in the affairs of other countries, notably those in the Middle East, has been touched up. The public relations outfits that went to war with George W. Bush and Tony Blair in 2003, attempting to paint Saddam Hussein as worthy of a good kick, overthrow and ultimate execution, have been given another brief: Justify a modern range of measures against a new “terror” threat.

Gone is the fantasy of a dictator with his finger on the WMD trigger able to fire weapons against targets in London; in his place is a motley crew of fundamentalists high on utopia and rather strained readings of the Koran. Terrorism is viral: very hard to contain, and needing to be struck at its source. For that reason, Cameron feels that any terror alert concerning followers of Allah needs to be globalised. The international is local.

The consequence of such a globalisation doesn’t mean that terrorism becomes a problem in Britain. It means that citizens in Britain may well face the curious prospect of being convicted for conduct that might have occurred in another country. Bringing the war home turns the legal system inside out.

This seems to have happened in the context of Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, two Britons who were convicted in July on terrorism charges. There was no evidence that they had committed any acts against British lives or property. Any relevant activity had taken place in Syria (Guardian, Jul 10).

The report by the group Cage responding to the latest fashion of targeting British “Jihadis” warns that Cameron’s policy is “confused and dangerous.” It notes that, “If it wasn’t for the narrow defeat of a government motion in the House of Commons on 30 August 2013, Britain could feasibly have been currently engaged in Syria on the same side as those it now seeks to criminalise upon their return to the UK.”

The imprecision behind such policies should land law makers on the chopping block. The very idea of categorising a threat on gradations of “severe” or “critical” is an exercise in immeasurable nonsense. (A “critical” alert level suggests an imminent attack, while a “severe” threat is presumably less imminent.) Cameron, however, is doing his best in giving the impression that he is engaged in a serious, objective assessment.

Instead, Cameron has executed something of a sleight of hand here – I did not make the decision to declare an emergency; a committee suggested he do so after making a sound assessment of it. This is behaviour typical of a manager in power. When you need a soft cushion to rest your feet upon, by all means, blame other managers or assessors for giving you the report to act upon.

The language has to move into hyperbole and bombast. Why do it otherwise? At a Downing Street press conference, Cameron explained that, “What we’re facing in Iraq now with Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.” Everything regarding a terrorist threat is graver than the previous one. Like the cost of living, the ratings only seem to go up. Modesty is unbecoming for the terror monger.

According to Cameron Isil poses a threat that will last for “decades” by a terrorist force “on the shores of the Mediterranean.” Emergency Britain, then, is here to stay, just as the terrorist threat it supposedly combats is here to stay. The prospects of abuse for such an approach should be all too evident. At present, they are being ignored.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com  

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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