Politicians should honour London Bridge attack victims. Instead, they’ve dragged the families into a childish blame game

No matter the urge to uncover some conspiracy, weaponising tragedy reflects poorly on anyone who takes part. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have stopped our leaders

Sean O'Grady
Monday 02 December 2019 13:11
Boris Johnson denies Tory cuts played role in London Bridge terror attack

After every terrorist atrocity, the politicians mumble the usual platitudes about “thoughts with the victims’ families”, pay tribute to the outstanding bravery of the police and members of the public, and then declare, with a solemn face, that they have no intention to use it for political advantage… “But”. And then they go on to use it for political advantage. It has become a distressful routine at such moments.

I don’t think it works, on any level. First, it is disgustingly tasteless. The bodies are still not buried, yet suddenly it’s “Labour failed”, or, “you Tories were in power for 10 years and did nothing”, or, “you abolished our laws”, or, “it’s the [liberal] judges fault for letting him out”, or “austerity” or “I’m Boris Johnson and I’ve only been in power for four months so not me guv”.

You would not be surprised to see “activists” turning up outside the memorial services with banners saying “Corbyn Loves Terrorists” or “Tory Cuts Mean Murder on our Streets” or “Blame Bliar for Starting Wars”. One of the families has already objected to this weaponisation of their grief in this “debate”. The voters are not going to be swayed, in any case. It is like a scrap at a funeral, ugly to watch, distressing to everyone, and reflects rather poorly on those who take part (whoever started it).

Second, it is absurd. You would think, from listening to social media and the like, that a combination of David Blunkett, Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg, Lord Leveson, a small army of lawyers and the combined forces of the security services, the probation service, and the police had spent the last couple of decades finding ways to make it easier for people such as Usman Khan to murder us.

We always want to blame someone, uncover some conspiracy. The truth is both simpler and more complex than that – the proximate cause of the bloodshed is clear; the long history and forces driving any given individual to such actions vastly harder to discover, describe and understand. That, though, takes time and patience. With 10 days to polling day, there’s no time for any of that stuff. Johnson wants to blame Labour and the judges; Jeremy Corbyn wants to blame Tony Blair and the coalition’s economic policy. Both, in fact, are wrong.

There is nothing wrong with trying to hold officials responsible for their actions, or lack of them. Public authorities are capable of mistakes and misjudgements. A full inquiry should painstakingly go through them, and reach some useful recommendations. Then we can reform the law and procedures. You don’t do it by tossing out claims on The Andrew Marr Show or in some seven-way debate with Plaid Cymru and Nigel Farage.

The truth is this. No free society can eliminate the risk of an attack by an individual or a gang who need nothing more than a kitchen knife and a van to carry out an attack. They do not need much more – an internet connection and a few quid – for a homemade explosive device.

We can monitor them, gather intelligence, lock them up if you like without even a trial, and throw away the key – but there will always be someone who is out there plotting. It is nobody’s fault except those who carry out the crimes.

Everyone involved in the childish blame game would have kept Usman in jail had they known what he was intent on doing. He perhaps fooled the authorities, under-resourced or not.

Do we, though, want a system where rehabilitation and repentance and conversion and deradicalisation are judged to be too risky to even attempt?

Do we want an army of would-be jihadists unconvicted of any actual crimes heading for old age in Britain’s prisons? Do we want the death penalty without trial? What would we like?

Someone will always kill. Like any crime, it is a constant battle. Laws and techniques need to be continually adapted to the changing tactics and methods of terrorists. It is a war without end.

Second, it’s worth noting that terrorism occurs even under police states, or ones with the most draconian of anti-terror measures. Ask anyone in the Middle East, or the Philippines, say.

For a time in Northern Ireland, at the height of the Troubles, they had internment without trial. The British then spent the 1970s banging up loads of innocent Irish people for murders they did not commit. It failed.

In Franco’s Spain, a proper fascist dictatorship, the Basque separatists were still able to bomb and assassinate. Even in Hitler’s Germany there was sufficient freedom left for the odd plot to kill him to almost succeed. We can abolish human rights, and torture and detain as many people as we wish, but it will not stop a right-wing extremist with a machete or a black-market gun from trying to, say, murder an MP out campaigning. We know this. We should face up to it. Johnson, or Corbyn for that matter, is not going to end terrorism.

Assuming we’d like to keep the rule of law and preserve our human rights, then there is no law passed by any parliament that is immune from judicial review, or political attention. There should be no case that a court cannot look at to see if the law is being applied in the correct manner. Rightly so.

Apparently, when Michael Gove was the justice secretary in around 2015, he looked at a number of those who had been detained under the draconian legislation passed by the Labour government (by David Blunkett as home secretary) – the “indeterminate sentencing” regime under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

He discovered the case of a man who had been in prison 10 years after being given an indeterminate sentence for stealing a phone, with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of a 12-month term. That didn’t look quite right.

In the 2016 referendum campaign, after the murder of Jo Cox, and in the 2017 general election, after the Manchester Arena bombing, we went through the same thing. The politicians soon returned to arguing about things they should be arguing about, presumably because they’d gained whatever fleeting advantage they could from the deaths of their fellow citizens to win votes in marginal constituencies. Of course, they shouldn’t even try to do so; but every time they do. They just can’t help themselves.

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