Wednesday 22 March 2017

Learning from the Westminster Terror Attack

At the time of writing, three people lie dead because of a hate-filled zealot. Whoever this man was and whatever his motivations were, nothing compelled him to drive a four-by-four down the pavement on Westminster Bridge. A grievance, real or imagined, didn't cause him to leave his home with a machete blade this afternoon. His intention to cause a mass casualty event on the day Belgium and Europe remembered last year's callous attacks on Brussels airport and metro was something dreamt, planned for, and worked toward. As his biography is picked apart, we can try and understand the motivations, but doing so is never an excuse in justifying them.

In this case, the security services acted in an exemplary fashion. The ring of steel protecting Parliament did its job, and the attacker was stopped just inside the gate to the grounds, though not before he stabbed and killed a police guard. Given the sudden nature of the attack, it's very difficult to see what else could have been done, though that does not preclude an analysis of the incident.

And, in a very rare instance, I'm going to defend the intelligence services. There is a very good chance the assailant was on a terror watch list. It's quite possible he had been or was presently under surveillance. Inevitably, the questions will be asked why he wasn't detected and/or picked up before now and prevented from undertaking this afternoon's attack. Again, while it's right such issues should be explored, lessons drawn and, if there is a case of egregious carelessness that those responsible be held to account, what really has to be asked is what could have been done differently? Thankfully, we don't have indefinite detention without trial of suspects, but unless there are teams on standby covering the move of every single suspect then the answer has to be very little. Watching someone getting into their car and driving into central London is not immediately suggestive of suspicious activity. There is no way his intent to kill could be inferred before the car mounted the pavement and started accelerating towards passers by. This kind of attack is next to impossible to prevent if someone is so minded to carry it out.

The main political take home from this, however, is despite the three murders and multiple injuries is that the police response acted exactly as it should. Parliament was protected and the attacker prevented from causing even more harm. Thankfully, the mass carnage we saw in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin was avoided because of timely action. The way to ensure, in the medium to long-term, that terror attacks are ultimately fruitless is by preserving what we have. If the reaction from the government is another curtailment of liberty and freedoms, they've won. If it marks a shift away from multiculturalism, with all its problems, to one-size-fits-all, they've won. If it heralds another round of attacks on Muslims, they've won.


Boffy said...

We will only know in time whether this was the act of a disturbed individual, or part of a half-arsed terrorist strategy.

We should be glad that terrorists nowadays seem to be rank amateurs compared to the provisional IRA of the 1970's and 1980's, who managed to kill large numbers of British troops, police and members of the establishment on a pretty much weekly basis, without intentionally blowing themselves up, or voluntarily getting themselves shot.

Still perhaps as well too, because given the wall to wall coverage of this half-arsed, and limited attack yesterday provoked wall to wall news coverage to the exclusion of all else, if we had the degree of professional terrorism and level of attacks of the IRA, TV would become very boring very quickly, as 24 hour news coverage seems to provoke sensationalism and lack of balance to a high degree.

Speedy said...

If you want to understand the motivations behind Islamist terror, Phil, I recommend The Way of Strangers. Of course, being clueless and ill informed, you should take my recommendations with a pinch of salt, but here's a NYT review in any case.

I don't really mean what you mean by further attacks on Muslims, most of the traffic seems to be one way (and I certainly wouldn't want to be a Jew).

The reality is that these crimes are inevitable and unstoppable in modern times. Even if there was not a single Muslim on British soil, they could still happen through on-line conversion and radicalisation. It is a very modern manifestation of a very ancient phenomenon. Of course, the size of the pool matters - just as a small fringe of Christians are likely to be extreme fundamentalists, so are a small fringe of Muslims. The difference is that this small fringe is more likely to express itself not by refusing to bake a gay cake but by wanting to commit an act of terrorism. Them's the rules, as any non-clueless person who has any knowledge whatsoever of Islam will understand.

The fact that there are millions of Muslims in the UK and this is the first act of terror on British soil in years, goes however to show how small that fringe is (although the UK is well represented among ISIS abroad, and these hundreds have doubtless committed many acts of unspeakable atrocity, but as it is largely against powerless brown girls, they can be forgiven, eh? Ditto, who cares if hundreds of French died last year, nothing to see here, etc).

You are right to praise the intelligence services. Nothing more than prevention and management of this chronic ill can be done - it will not go away, and we can hope, if managed appropriately, it will not grow worse. But the one thing we cannot do is deny it is not a malady and decline to treat it.

Anonymous said...

I am not particularly disposed to conspiracy theories, but...

It strikes me as truly remarkable that this lone nut drove unerringly to the only gate in the Parliamentary 'fence' that had been left standing wide open for some unknown reason, and which no-one was guarding for some even odder unknown reason.

If the Defence Secretary's bodyguard hadn't happened to be on the scene at that particular moment (which I presume to be no more than an ironic coincidence) this could have been far worse. As it is, Masood managed to kill fewer people than Harry Clarke, of Glasgow bin lorry fame.

Million-to-one flukes happen all the time, but in this particular case the open gate being also unguarded seems just too miraculously lucky. The existence of some unrecoverable WhatsApp exchange on Masood's phone unavoidably suggests a collaborator. I wonder whether Masood had some source in the Parliamentary estate. Or worse.

Speedy said...

The gate he went through was always open, what I found surprising was that the coppers guarding the No1 terror target in the UK were unarmed!!!

Anonymous said...

Speedy said

The gate he went through was always open

Not so. I mean, there wouldn't be a gate there in the first place if the passage was meant to be permanently open. Carriage Gate is generally opened to allow MPs quick access to the Commons during the periods in which voting takes place (for 'parachute' MPs to dart in, do their business, and skedaddle). I'm not clear on whether Masood's attack coincided with a vote, or whether the gate was simply left open by accident. The latter seems hard to believe, the former is... well.

Speedy said...

I used to work around there a lot and I rarely saw it closed...