The irony could scarcely be more acute. A British Muslim woman from Leeds whose job it is to prevent religious radicalisation has herself been detained under the terror laws. It was Faizah Shaheen’s misfortune to be reading a book about Syria when the suspicious crew of a Thomsons flight had her questioned by the police. She was not returning from jihad but from her honeymoon in Turkey. That it was the South Yorkshire force who undertook the flawed “investigation” has a weary sense of familiarity about it. Even the dimmest terrorist intent on hijack or explosive destruction would hardly advertise the fact by brandishing a work of fundamentalist literature, or anything like it. They might choose a Jane Austen or perhaps a Trollope, surely, to strike a less threatening pose.
Farcical as the episode was, it was also hurtful to Ms Shaheen, whose chosen text — Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline – was taken to be the equivalent of the Anarchist’s Cookbook. Of course air staff are trained to be vigilant, as the airline points out, and they are also, presumably, taught that it is better to err on the side of caution than not. We may, in the current climate, expect many more incidents such as this. It adds to the sense that everyday life is changing across the continent of Europe. The French authorities will soon introduce “sea marshals” on cross-channel ferries, and the Metropolitan Police in London have announced a marked increase in the numbers of armed police on duty at high-profile landmarks across the capital. Life is not going to be the same.
All that said, the Thomsons cabin crew and the South Yorkshire police evidently over-reacted, and wrongly read the signs, such as they were. There are lesson here from Northern Ireland and other parts of the world which have had to tolerate low-level terrorism over a prolonged period. The first is that over-zealous use of necessarily draconian laws can alienate and hurt the people they are designed to protect. The more we are provoked into passing ever more intrusive and punitive legislation the more chance it will be misrepresented as acts of “war on Islam”, and particularly if clumsily enforced. Most, if not all, terrorist acts can be dealt with under existing powers of investigation, and it is more often than not failures of intelligence and failure to make use of existing rules efficiently that have let the bombers through. We must also accept that those previously unknown to the authorities cannot be stopped from trying to commit outrages simply because we have suspended habeas corpus or scrapped some other ancient rights and liberties.
The other lesson that can be drawn from the Troubles is that life must go on, and it does go on, and that is part of the answer to the violence. Ever since 9/11, Islamist terrorists have attempted to provoke the West into over-reaction and to lure the West into a series of wars and battles that cannot be won. Terrorism cannot be defeated by conventional armaments, as we found greatly to our cost in Afghanistan and, even more, in Iraq and elsewhere. That so many of our leaders fell into the trap originally laid by Osama bin Laden, and still do if the words of Donald Trump are to be believed, is the very reason why we have to avoid over-reaction and pantomime levels of stupidity in dealing with the real risk of terror. The public, as the security services recently confirmed, do have a vital role to play in reporting suspicious behaviour. But we may as well keep a sense of proportion.
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