There always appears, in any discussion of terrorism, two essential tensions within the discourse. One is the familiar problem so prophetically highlighted by Benjamin Franklin, that of how much liberty citizens should give up in order to guarantee their short-term security (or in Franklin’s view whether considering such a bargain invalidates our rights to either liberty or security). The other, fraught with difficulty due to the ambiguous nature of terrorism, is whether a particular action against terror is actually tackling its root causes or whether we are just dealing with their surface manifestations. To use a medical analogy, the question is whether we are treating symptoms or actually dealing with the underlying illness.
The recent Streatham terror attack has of course brought these issues to some extent to the fore, as the government quickly issued emergency legislation to remove the automatic early release of terror offenders. The basis for this has been that the attacker, Sudesh Amman, had been released under this mechanism just days before his knife attack. There is also a broader question here about what kind of crime terrorism actually is - is it another kind of violent crime or, as Iain Dale has said, is it a form of treason? This is a nuance in the discussion that, while it appears marginal to a discussion over legislation, actually points to a greater problem we as citizens have in debates over counter terrorism. The absolutely abhorrent and revolting nature of the crime lends itself to demands for quick solutions to prevent this from ever happening again. While such demands are completely understandable, they prevent proper discussions of counter-terror strategies that need to take place at some point.
If the action in question is examined in light of the aforementioned tensions it is immediately found wanting. In terms of whether it treats symptoms or diseases, it is fairly clear that it only engages with the former. As much as it would be simpler if there were a set section of the population that simply are ‘terrorists’, and as long as they are locked up the population will be safe, a mature discussion of terrorism has to concede this is not the case. It is true that Mr Amman may not have been able to commit his heinous crime if he had remained in prison. The man who supposedly radicalised him however, Abdullah al-Faisal, was behind bars - yet he was still able to reach not only Mr Amman but many others beyond his prison using internet chatrooms. Radicalisation itself is a very woolly term that again simplifies the transition from citizen to terrorist into just being exposed to the wrong literature, when the reader themselves is a vital component of the transition. This is a root of the problem - that there exist disenfranchised and alienated people who find solace in murderous ideology. Yet even this does not even begin to fully conceptualise the problem. The issues around mental illness and drug abuse remain not truly engaged with, despite some academic support that these are identifiable in the pasts of some terrorists. This is how our discussions and actions fail to ‘treat’ the diseases of terrorism - they focus on its manifestations rather than its causes.
Then there is the issue of personal liberty. In this instance, it remains somewhat peripheral given how the government’s legislation targets former terrorists rather than ordinary citizens. However, the question has to be as to what kind of precedent this sets. Should the government be allowed to perpetually imprison people for any crime it deems particularly abhorrent, or is this the thin end of a very large wedge? The lack of a proper discussion of the limits the government can operate in to combat terror will inevitably lead to this ad hoc assumption of emergency powers to try and deal with the issue, all the while reducing the personal liberty afforded to each citizen. While this case does not appear particularly threatening, it is certainly indicative of the relatively casual way in which the safeguards of private life and popular sovereignty are being handed to the state in exchange for short term security. Perhaps Franklin is correct that we will end up with deserving neither.