In the wake of each terrorist attack, the discussion re-emerges around how these incidents should be handled by the political classes, that is, whether it is sensible or inappropriate for the issues surrounding them to be debated by politicians. The recent attack in Manchester crystallised this problem due to its nature as a targeted attacked against young children and teenagers, and its timing in the middle of campaigning for Theresa May’s snap election.
In these circumstances, it is easy to critique the approach of politicians to this event, and to get the impression that they are using deaths as bargaining chips in a game to win points against other parties. The current state of politics and publicity makes the need for a statement and policy position inevitable, and to refuse comment would be inappropriate. It seems to me that by requiring politicians to make a comment, we reveal that a terrorist attack is by nature a political event, and one that the government and opposition are expected to respond to. By carrying out the attack, the terrorist makes a political statement and in a deeply public way. It is a cliché to describe these incidents as an assault on British people but in many ways it is true—we give up personal freedom to the government in return for order and protection, an agreement which terrorism threatens to undermine, resulting in a need for politicians to reassert themselves in response to these acts.
This is not to say that to discuss terror attacks as political events is always necessary and is always done well. Particularly with the upcoming election, negotiating this discussion is a minefield and any party leader can point at another and yell that their response was inappropriate. Beyond this, political discussion of terrorism in the current climate is dominated by a tendency to fall into the rut of having the same points made over and over again—whether or not immigration causes terrorism, whether Islam is an intrinsically violent or intrinsically peaceful religion, et cetera.
These debates have become almost redundant. In the Manchester attack the attacker was a British citizen. ISIS have just claimed responsibility for an attack made on the first day of Ramadan, proving their distance from Islamic teachings. Yet these are still the areas of discussion recycled by politicians.
Immigration was essentially created as a problem to solve in politics, something that the public could be told was a problem in right-wing media and that the governing body could take concrete steps to ‘fix’. This discourse becomes increasingly unhelpful when they speak over the nuances of a particular attack, as with the Pulse shooting in Orlando when news outlets described it as “an attack on the West”, replicating the dichotomy of regressive Middle East against progressive West rather than acknowledging the shooter’s record of homophobia.
This leaves out other necessary elements of discussion, topics which might be more helpful in reducing radicalisation and terror attacks in the first place. These include the alienation of Muslim communities from ‘British identity’ and how racism and institutional bias leads to resentment and vulnerability in these communities, as well as youth unemployment. Youth unemployment in particular demonstrates the issue of a race gap in the data—in 2012 there was a 13 per cent discrepancy in the rates of unemployment between those from white backgrounds and those from BME backgrounds. Far more could be done to remove the environmental difficulties that cause pockets of radicalisation, rather than putting in legislation such as preventing and capping immigration.
Attacking Muslim or immigrant communities and treating them like they are the threat is only likely to create greater alienation. This has become an even greater problem with the high-profile terrorist attacks of recent years. In the media, terrorism has become a buzzword with specific connotations, most notably with how it is almost entirely applied to acts committed by radicalised Muslims.
Just last week, a young white man planted a nail bomb on the London tube and was arrested, but he was not described as a terrorist by the papers, rather as a “student”, by the Independent, Guardian, and Sky. We are familiar by now with the narrative of the weird, lonely, mentally unstable white man committing violent attacks, yet these are never categorised as terrorism on the same scale as those claiming justification from Islam. It is amazing how, in a few decades, there has been such a shift from the idea that all Irishmen were terrorists to that all Muslim men are, with the groups being similarly mistreated.
Thus, the discussion of terror attacks in mainstream politics is lacking, and will continue to fail until it addresses terrorism as an issue beyond the immigration debate. Such incidents are innately political, and the reduction of the threat is an important point in policy, and so they must be discussed by politicians. Nonetheless, to do this at the expense of immigrant communities is more likely to propagate the problem, and to frame the discussion in such a way as to to win points in a general election is morally corrupt.