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The morning after the latest attacks on France the new occupant of Number 10 Downing Street will have been greeted with the latest news delivered by officials, along with a government box full of papers to read, amend and sign. Theresa May took office this week after six years in the Home Office, which oversees the UK’s policing and security effort, so the process of adjustment involved in taking on the premiership will not be too difficult. But now she is no longer just a leading cabinet minister. She is top of the tree.
For David Cameron, across town and and out of power, the aftermath of the Nice outrage is the first such occasion in six years on which he has been able to roll over and go back to sleep. Dealing with ISIS and the assault on the West is no longer Cameron’s responsibility. Within 24 hours he went from being at the centre of things, to being an ordinary citizen, albeit one under protection. The departed Cameron did his patriotic duty and now it falls to May to do hers.
But what should that involve beyond the issuing of diplomatic statements in which May is well-versed?
In the hours and days after an attack like that in Nice, it is difficult not to stay glued to the coverage. Even though we know this is what the perpetrators want, we are compelled to pay attention out of concern for fellow human beings who merely wanted to watch fireworks with their friends and families. Seeing the footage, and hearing the stories of survivors, produces waves of grief and then rage. Who are these barbarians who did this? What kind of sick scumbag drives a lorry into a crowd of innocents? Can’t we get the terrorists? Can’t we wipe them from the face of the earth, now? Can’t we win this damned war?
Donald Trump – who terrifyingly has narrowed the polling gap with Hillary Clinton in recent days – knows how to tap into that rage. His statements after Nice were typical of the man and his rhetorical bombast. He is always the bully at the bar, commanding all to his listen as he explains what is really going on and how he would know how to sort it out. These politicians are useless, give the job to me and the terrorists won’t know what hit them, he says
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In grief, and with the idea of revenge justifiably alluring, it is difficult to be entirely immune to a flush of sympathy with the Trumpian view. Obama has so often sounded too clinical and his reluctance to lead abroad has complicated the West’s task. Are we doing enough?
The answer it turns out is that we in the West are – within the boundaries of a civilised society – doing rather a lot, and perhaps even almost as much as we can. In the UK and in France the amounts spent on combating the Islamist threat has increased substantially. In the UK, the total spend on security, intelligence and GCHQ (the listening operation) has risen from £1bn in the year of 9/11 to almost £2bn now. Against a chaotic background, of two wars gone wrong, plots we often do not hear about have been disrupted, experience has been gained and expertise strengthened immeasurably. The EU is of little practical relevance. The Five Eyes partnership (the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) shares intelligence, and the bilateral intelligence relationship between the UK and France has improved a great deal since the latest wave of attacks began.
That, say the most hawkish, is simply not good enough. This is a war, they say, can’t you see? It’s not just a police operation and we should treat it like a war.
I understand the allure of such an argument, as someone who was radicalised and turned into a virtual neo-con by 9/11. But even though many of us on that side of the argument made that case for years I am note sure calling it a war gets us very far. It not only gives ISIS some of what it wants, because it bestows a degree of legitmacy. Wars are between states. ISIS or so-called Islamic State is not a legitimate state. It is a network of sick nutjobs who want to enslave women and kill non-believers. It is the latest expression of a strain of thinking best described as Islamism, that has spawned a death cult. And at root it rests on a terrible idea, using modern media techniques and murder to fight for twisted political goals and power over others.
The closest comparison here is with Communism, another terrible idea that attracted useful idiots and took decades to defeat. It too was originated by a small group of wrong-headed intellectuals, was gradually transmitted to tens of millions and then commandeered by sadists and the politically ambitious. Islamism’s emergence was similiar, when it came out of the jails of Egypt. It was boosted by Saudi money and it has spread ever since like a virus, morphing into different groups and murdering as many Muslims as non-Muslims.
In response we can shout and scream and promise to drop so many bombs on their heartlands that we create even more of a wasteland. This, plus banning Muslims from entering the US and killing the relatives of terrorists (seriously), is Trump’s pitch that will resonate with many worried Americans who have had enough of business as usual. It is the road to escalation, more radicalisation and ultimately even our defeat, however.
While business as usual, with some adjustments and an increase of the pressure, may be unglamorous, the long, hard methodical process of getting better at intelligence, sticking to the law, striking ISIS surgically in the Middle East and Africa, engaging constructively with domestic communities at risk of radicalisation, gives us a much better shot at victory and defeating Islamism. It will take many years – longer than Theresa May will be in Downing Street. But it is winnable – if we keep our heads. After all, our idea – freedom, tolerance and prosperity – is a much better idea than their idea.