We will not buckle to terrorism said David Cameron after the Woolwich murder on Wednesday. He then buckled. Everyone buckled. The home secretary buckled, the defence secretary buckled, the communities secretary buckled, the mayor of London buckled, the chief of police buckled, the press buckled, the BBC summoned its senior editors and they buckled. Everyone buckled.
The first question in any war – terrorism is allegedly a war – is to ask what the enemy most wants you to do. The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets...
There is little a modern government can do to stem the initial publicity that terrorism craves. But it has considerable control over the subsequent response. When the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, pleaded for calm and for London to continue as normal, he was spitting into a hurricane. Terror could not have begged for more sensational attention than was granted it by Britain’s political community and media.The clue to poor political judgement can be found in the poor political language:
Intoning a response to horror is one of the rituals of modern politics. The adjective mountain grows ever higher, depraved, sickening, horrific, barbaric, unspeakable. Damnation is sanctified by platitude. Unctuous “thoughts for the day” are uttered by religious leaders. If it bleeds it not only leads, it pleads for cliched analysis.Jenkins advocates restraint:
In taking mundane acts of violence and setting them on a global stage, we not only politicise them, we risk validating the furies that drive them. Closing down the internet to starve terrorist acts of publicity is not feasible, and stifles the debate that should be taking place peacefully. But we do have the option to exercise self-restraint in the aftermath, to control the impulse to hyperbole. We can deny the terrorist the megaphone of exaggeration and hysteria. When Cameron yesterday said we should defy terror by going about our normal business, he was right. Why did he not do so?
It is this echo chamber of horror, set up by the media, public figures and government, that does much of terrorism’s job for it. It converts mere crimes into significant acts. It turns criminals into heroes in the eyes of their admirers. It takes violence and graces it with the terms of a political debate. The danger is that this debate is one the terrorist might sometimes win.So why do political leaders add to the ‘adjective mountain’? It is because our post-Diana, how-does-it-feel media culture – in which every news item must be turned into a vicarious experience – demands an emotional not a rational response. It is a brave person who risks appearing unfeeling by resisting that sentimental pressure. But such bravery is necessary for leadership instead of followership.
A cool analysis and a rational response? No, let’s tie another teddy bear to the nearest railings.
Postscript: More good sense on this subject from Frank Furedi and Jonathan Calder.