LESS than two months after the bombings in Boston, the media is again filled with disturbing images of an act of savage terrorism. The government’s emergency committee Cobra was convened, and David Cameron stood outside Downing Street to both reassure and express resolve.
One aspect of his message must be emphasised. People need to react to this event by not reacting. The impact of terrorism is in its ability to terrorise, but much of that is controlled not by the terrorists themselves but by those on the receiving end – the public, government and media.
Avoiding an overaction is crucial because, no matter how much the government seeks to reassure the public, there is little that can be done to prevent what happened in Woolwich from happening again. It was low-scale, doable violence that obviously did not require a lot of planning or preparation.
Meat cleavers are not restricted weapons and increased security at military barracks would not have stopped a murder in the middle of a street. Even if the individuals who allegedly carried out the assault were known to counter-terrorism officials, this is not as a significant as it might seem. The Security Service and the police do not have unlimited resources. As with the FBI in Boston, judgements have to be made and targets prioritised in what amounts to risk management in the face of a greatly fractured terrorism threat.
In the aftermath of an attack, it is easy to second guess the choices that should have been made. But it is impossible to put all those who might potentially turn to violence under around-the-clock surveillance. It would involve putting considerably more resources into security while removing many of the freedoms inherent to democratic societies.
In the short run, therefore, we must unfortunately be prepared for more attacks of this type. Horrific as Woolwich was, the potential of amateur terrorists to cause widespread loss of life is limited by the very factors that make them difficult to stop: their small numbers, crude methods and self-starting nature.
Historical perspective is also helpful: the threat they pose is not significant compared to the violence already experienced in the UK. Indeed, between 1974 and 1982, the Provisional IRA killed 19 soldiers in bombings in England. In the long term, addressing grievances about British policies that fuel anger, while trying to deter those who seek to turn this anger into violence, may help reduce the wider risk.
The terrorists can’t defeat British society; only British society can do that by exaggerating the power of the terrorists. That happens when we overreact to their atrocities. And overreaction includes lashing out against defenceless communities, who have nothing to do with Woolwich, thereby alienating people and playing into the terrorist’s master narrative of Islam under attack. We are the ones with the power, and an act of terrorism does not change that.
Steve Hewitt is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham and author of The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism on the Home Front since 9-11, and Snitch: A History of the Modern Intelligence Informer.