The Daily Telegraph
The words are well meant, but the sad truth is that we do give in to terrorism
Today’s Islamists are a very different enemy from the IRA, but our response to both of them is too timid
Yes, almost everyone involved – except, of course, the killer himself – behaved well. Some behaved very bravely and were injured – or, as in the case of Pc Keith Palmer, killed while doing so. The public were level-headed. Parliament responded with dignified unity. Theresa May, in particular, struck the right balance between emotion and calm. But I’m afraid I cannot share the widespread feeling that Wednesday showed “British democracy at its best”. By yesterday, a mood of something close to complacency had settled in.
Is there really so much cause for self-congratulation? One fanatic, armed only with a car and a knife, managed to kill four people and then get inside the curtilage of the Palace of Westminster and kill Pc Palmer. From his point of view, he did alarmingly well. It is being truly said that no system can stop everyone every time. But Adrian Ajao, also known as Khalid Masood, should not have been so hard to stop.
Is it a good idea that Westminster Bridge has cycle lanes? Without them, Ajao would have been stuck in the usual traffic jam and would not have been able to push so lethally through. And is it good enough that Ajao was killed after getting a few yards inside the parliamentary perimeter? A tighter system might well have stopped him earlier, before he had stabbed Pc Palmer, perhaps without having to shoot him. If it is true, as is being reported, that Ajao was actually killed by a personal protection officer of the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, that is not proof of good policing in Parliament: it is merely good luck that the officer happened to be present.
Most weeks, I walk past the armed police guarding Downing Street at both ends and those guarding Parliament. I always watch what they are doing. I notice, almost every time, that the armed officers are chatting to one another rather than scanning the scene in front of them. They look as if they have the kit, but not the attitude.
If the above suggests illpreparedness, the reaction to the attack went too far the other way. Obviously the threat of a follow-up had to be taken seriously, but was it really necessary to pen MPs (and everyone else) in Parliament for four hours? The Palace of Westminster has 1,400 rooms: there is some absurdity in thinking that the entire place had to be searched even though there was no evidence of break-in. There is even some ludicrous talk in Parliament of cutting the place off from all passing traffic for ever more.
The whole concept of “lock-down”, borrowed from the United States, lends itself to melodrama. More than 24 hours later, streets well away from the action, such as Great George Street, were still being treated as “a crime scene”, blocked by police. Westminster School was taped off. Londoners certainly kept calm, but the authorities did not make it easy for them to carry on. The number of helicopters, vans, barriers, officers and the amounts of public money involved were huge. The claim this week that terrorism cannot stop normal life is mistaken. One low-tech Islamist did just that.
On these occasions, ministers rightly try to support the relevant services. But it seemed a bit premature for Mrs May and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to say that the attack exposed no intelligence failure. It was pointed out that good intelligence has stopped more than a dozen attacks in recent years: it seems reasonable to ask, by the same token, if bad intelligence made this one easier.
The question is particularly pertinent since Mrs May revealed that Ajao had been known to MI5. He was considered “peripheral”, she said. One of the great difficulties in movements of subversion which depend on ideology rather than paramilitary command is the loose relation between the periphery and the centre. Extremist pond life can be deadly without close connection with the big fish. There are a lot of people known to the authorities who present “insufficient evidence to convict”, but are still a menace. It is smug to declare that we already have the right tools to remedy this.
The “aren’t we all brave and democratic!” atmosphere also tends to stifle the bigger questions. In a grimly ill-timed book (The Enemy Within) coming out next week, Lady Warsi, the Conservatives’ renegade ex-chairman, points out that hardly anyone has been killed by Islamist terrorism since July 7 2005, implying that it is all a bit of a fuss about nothing.
Lady Warsi also complains – it is her obsession – that British Muslims are stigmatised unfairly. She points out that 31 per cent of Islamist terrorist attacks in this country have been committed by converts, not average believers. She does not see how shocking it is that the current leadership and missionary methods of some Muslims make their religion so attractive to would-be “martyrs” and murderers.
Conversion to Islam, when presumably he adopted the name Khalid Masood, must have been an important part of Ajao’s life. In its profile of him yesterday (“Who was Khalid Masood?”), the BBC website set out every piece of information and reasonable conjecture, except one. It ended with the question, “What was the trigger for this attack?”, without ever mentioning why he had changed his name.
“We are not afraid” declares Mrs May. In terms of physical courage, in terms of commitment to parliamentary democracy, that is a fair description of our people and her Government. In terms of thinking through the nature of the threat we face, however, we are a bit timid.
The coincidence of the death of Martin McGuinness this week brings this home to me. Throughout the years of the Troubles, one heard, after each atrocity, remarks like those heard so often this week. The attacks were “cowardly” and “senseless”, life would carry on as usual, the security forces would be given “whatever they needed”. Above all, the Government would “never, ever give in” to “the forces of hate, division and violence”.
Such words were well meant, but they are almost boring, because they avoided the heart of the problem. Two things were wrong with them. The first was that they gave the authorities cover for their errors. The second was that they weren’t quite true.
Although it beat the Provisional IRA militarily, Britain did, to a surprising extent, give in to them. We accepted (and thus boosted) their democratic pretensions, released their prisoners, got rid of the police force (the RUC) which used to catch them, and never collected their guns and bombs. We gave them large chunks of political power and public money. McGuinness became one of the Queen’s (deputy) first ministers.
Beside McGuinness’s coffin on Thursday stood Bill Clinton. It is hard to imagine a former US president making that journey for any Northern Irish politician who had never killed anyone. Sinn Fein/IRA did not win outright in Northern Ireland, but they did a lot better than if they had always followed the paths of peace.
Islamists are a very different enemy – operationally less formidable, but more numerous, more global and ideologically more dangerous. Our security services have often done well in foiling them. But the fact that some of our own citizens, born here, adhere to a gospel which, they believe, tells them to kill us, is very terrible. Nothing that has happened this week convinces me that we are defeating them.