All terrorist atrocities are unspeakable. But some seem more so than others. The murder of children is simply incomprehensible – the ultimate barbarity.
That there were so many children and young teenagers among those killed leaving a pop concert in Manchester – and that the suicide bomber deliberately targeted them will seem to most of us a measure of depravity below which it is almost impossible to sink. We have become habituated to respond to such terrorist horror by insisting that we will not change how we run our affairs or go about our lives because to do so would be to do the terrorists’ bidding. Perhaps such defiance is right. But are outrages such as Monday’s now becoming sufficiently frequent and, by the logic of terrorism, increasingly despicable that we must think anew about how we respond?
The facts are by now well enough known to require little rehearsal. Twenty-two people, some of them children, were murdered when a terrorist detonated a suicide belt loaded with nuts, bolts and bits of metal to maximise the carnage, as an audience of young fans emerged elated from an Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena. Around sixty others were seriously injured, some in a life-threatening way. It was the worst terrorist atrocity in Britain since July 2005. The terrorist organisation Islamic State claimed responsibility and celebrated via social media. But they have made such claims in the past and some have proved false.
Equally, all that needs to be said in condemnation of the moral outrage of the attack has been said by everyone who needs to say it from the Queen down. The Prime Minister spoke of the ‘sickening cowardice’ of the bombing. The emergency services have rightly been praised for the speed of their response. The people of Manchester have rightly been congratulated for the way so many of them came together to offer help to those who so suddenly needed it. We have reasserted our determination to carry on, not exactly regardless, but certainly without letting the horror lay down the terms by which we live our lives.
Yet the frequency of these terrorist attacks, at least in Western Europe, and their seemingly increasing brutality, must give pause for thought. Manchester’s bombing was described as ‘a step up’ by Chris Phillips, the former head of the National Counter-Terrorism Security Office. He told the Today programme on Tuesday morning that it had all the signs of being more organised than some others we have seen, with the implication that there might be more in store. Since terrorism ‘works’ by creating sensational news out of atrocity, and since we cannot simply ignore such atrocities as though they were of no significance, it follows that terrorists will seek to repeat them and to maintain the sensationalism by ratcheting up the degree of depravity. Whether or not we choose to say we are engaged in a ‘war on terror’ there is no doubting that we are in the midst of a terrorist epidemic.
Security measures can always, of course, be tightened up. But it is a truism to point out that they can never be adequate. As the experts in counter-terrorism like to say, once a terrorist has strapped on a suicide belt and boarded a bus it is already too late. So prevention is key.
At the moment countering terrorism is one of the things the police do. They are doing it with falling numbers and resources reduced. The government points out that cuts in the funds spent on the police have not led to a rise in crime. In fact the opposite is the case. But in facing up to the terrorist threat do we need to take a less sanguine view?
Mr Phillips thinks so. He argues that the police do not any more lack the legal means to do what they think is necessary to fight terrorism but he argues that government needs to ‘rethink strategy’ when it comes to resources. He points out that cuts have meant that there are no longer as many fire-arms officers as there need to be, but that that deficit pales into insignificance compared to the gap between the number of police needed to maintain adequate surveillance of potential terrorists in pursuit of prevention and the numbers available to do so.
He estimates that it requires between twenty and thirty officers to maintain twenty-four-hour surveillance of a single suspect. But the number of suspects is increasing fast. Hundreds of British-born jihadis are returning from Syria, many of them radicalised to the point where they need to be kept above the radar. Many others who may never have been abroad are ‘on the cusp of going really bad’. And there is an increasing number of those who have been imprisoned on terrorist charges whose sentences are coming to an end.
It is also vital to extend intelligence activity in communities where the danger of radicalisation shows no sign of receding and many experts believe the need for more resources is obvious.
To others this may just seem like police special-pleading. But there is another way of looking at it. When we are at war, governments place no constraints on the resources they make available in order to make sure the war is won. The need to reduce the deficit or not to put up taxes is never cited as a reason not to do what is necessary. In trying to prevent terrorist acts like Monday’s in Manchester, are we now in such a world?
That will be for the government elected on 8 June to decide. Meanwhile, how should the rest of us react? Life carries on, of course, and so do we. We have to. We cannot stop going to work just because there seems to be an increased risk that our bus, our train or our tube will be the target of a terrorist attack. But not all that we do is necessary. We don’t, for example, have to go to concerts. We don’t have to let our children do so either, no matter how much they demand to be allowed to follow their idols. Should we be more prudent, even irrationally prudent, or is that ‘giving in to terrorism’?
Each person will make their own decision. What horrors like Manchester do is force us to make those decisions anew. How do you think government should respond to the threat of terrorism? And how will you?
Let us know what you think.