In the wake of terrorist attacks focus must remain on democracy

Clearly almost everyone on these islands is in a different emotional space after the shocking London Bridge attack. But are we in a different political place too?
Two women hug after bringing flowers to add to tributes laid on the north side of London Bridge following last night's terrorist incident. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA WireTwo women hug after bringing flowers to add to tributes laid on the north side of London Bridge following last night's terrorist incident. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire
Two women hug after bringing flowers to add to tributes laid on the north side of London Bridge following last night's terrorist incident. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire

Saturday night’s carnage was intended to maim and kill but was it also designed to derail the general election?

The motives of the three attackers shot dead by security forces may never be known so the likelihood of copycat violence is hard to gauge. No one can know if the election process will become the next focus of violent intent or how voters will respond.

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Some will stay at home on Thursday, others will feel glad they opted for a postal vote but many will feel that a massive turnout is the strongest way for all Britain’s ethnic communities to make common cause and assert the peaceful, democratic process as our highest collective priority.

Indeed these vicious assaults on everyday life could yet animate voters and turnout in a way no politician has yet been able to do – and how that might affect the race for No 10 is impossible to predict.

Moments of national tension generally favour the incumbent but Theresa May’s “strong and stable” credentials have been sorely tested over recent weeks and her speech outside No 10 may not retrieve her lost credibility.

Mrs May warned there’s been “far too much tolerance of extremism” in the UK and promised to step up the fight against Islamist terrorism, saying “enough is enough”. But what does that mean?

According to the Prime Minister, internet companies must not give extremism a place to exist but eliminating that space may be next to impossible in a democracy. There’s a suspicion that leading right-wing newspapers are pointing the finger of blame at companies like Google because they have taken millions of newspaper advertising revenue over recent years.

Above all, there are big questions over the Conservatives’ Prevent anti-terrorism strategy. After the Manchester attack, Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s new mayor, told a Question Time audience there should be a “fundamental review” of the “toxic” Prevent strategy because it’s leading members of Britain’s Muslim community to feel unfairly “picked on”.

Last year, a United Nations special rapporteur warned that the programme might stifle healthy discussion and debate and a study by the American Open Society Justice Initiative found Prevent was badly flawed and potentially counterproductive. Indeed a Muslim community leader and two friends did report Salman Abedi on the police counter-terrorism hotline without managing to prevent the Manchester attack.

Meanwhile many on social media have observed that seven years of Mrs May in charge of Britain’s security (as Home Secretary and PM) is more than enough – others suggest they’ve also had enough of UK governments selling arms to Saudi Arabia while cutting police numbers.

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Last night Jeremy Corbyn enlarged upon earlier criticisms of the “War on Terror,” accusing Theresa May of trying to “protect the public on the cheap,” suppressing a report into the foreign funding of extremist groups and avoiding “difficult conversations” with Saudi Arabia on that issue. Is that fitting or wildly inappropriate? We’ll know soon enough.

Meanwhile, for someone who grew up during the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, there is a strong feeling of déjà vu.

South of the border there are soldiers on the streets – in Scotland there will be armed police at many events.

In Northern Ireland there were restrictions on cars parked outside buildings for the best part of a decade after a spate of car bombs. Now bollards may appear on London bridges where pedestrians are particularly vulnerable to vans mounting pavements and finding no avenue of escape.

Handbag searches are commonplace, concert-goers in Manchester last night were asked not to bring rucksacks and the language of “unequivocal condemnation” has lost its Belfast accent, as politicians from every party try to find fresh ways to express a grief that is fast sounding tired and rehearsed.

Now, as then, a horrified public is searching for some logic about likely targets without entering the attackers’ mindset. The media feels compelled to offer blanket coverage and rolling news channels make that easier than it was in 1970s Belfast. All the while, important aspects of ordinary life get shoved to one side, seemingly trivial in the face of death and disfigurement. We learn to live in a trembling present where the public is all too ready to perceive threat everywhere, the press is ready to amend news priorities at the drop of a hat, broadcasters are pulling “unseemly” programmes from TV schedules, commentators are feeling constrained by the enormity of the situation and politicians are pulling their punches – delivering homilies to the dead and messages of defiance to the “men of violence”.

So far, so horribly familiar.

But there is one big difference.This is no civil war.

The present campaign of terror has next to no community backing. Of course there are pockets of radicalised support but one community is not at the other’s throat. Neighbours are not asking to be protected from one another by permanent, ten-feet high “peace walls” amid bombed out no-go zones.

From Manchester to London and far beyond, solidarity across communities has been the order of the day. From the Muslim taxi drivers who ferried injured victims and stranded youngsters home after the Manchester attack to the clear-eyed young Muslim woman on Question Time who called on faith leaders to report and weed out hate preachers, the prominent images of recent weeks have been constructive and hate-free.

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The general refusal to blame the whole Muslim community has been as surprising as it is welcome after the toxic, anti-immigrant nature of the Brexit debate south of the Border.

So evidently London and Manchester 2017 are not Belfast or Derry 1977 and the response to violent provocation must be different and proportionate. In Scotland, the First Minister should resist calls to put soldiers on the streets unless she receives information of a specific threat.

We are not fighting a war in our own backyard. We are doubtless facing a level of threat none but the security forces previously understood, but voters have the chance to turn that grief, shock and anger into a new focus on democracy this Thursday.

No doubt millions will take it and use it well.