Calling LBC to Debate Our Response To Terrorism

What a hideous few days for terrorist attacks in Europe.  First, a spate of incidents in Germany: an axe attack; a shooting that killed nine people; someone with machete; and most recently a suicide bomber that injured 15 people. 

And then on Tuesday, the despicable murder of Fr Jacques Hamel at his church in Rouen, France. It’s less than a month since the Nice attacks, when a man in a truck deliberately ran over hundreds of people celebrating Bastille Day.

The regularity of these attacks only adds to the fear that the terrorists seek to sow.  There is a sense that Europe is a battleground, that things are falling apart.  The Far Right will seek to exploit this fear to their advantage.

We need to remember that these incidents are still extremely rare.  After the Nice attacks, the author Tom Pollock wrote a post on the likelihood of someone being hurt by a terrorist:

In France, in the last two years, there have been 8 attacks for which responsibility was claimed by Islamic Extremist Terrorists, killing a total of 247 people. There are 66,000,000 people in France. At the current level of activity, their odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in a given year are less than two ten-thousandths of one per cent. That’s 27 times lower than their odds of dying in a car accident. …

In Iraq, by contrast, the chances are much higher.

We would do well to remember this… but of course it’s not the whole story. Being told that they are extremely unlucky is no comfort to the victims or their families. And even though the chances of you or me being caught up in a terrorist attack are vanishingly small, we still do not want to live in a country or on a continent where this happens so frequently.  There is a psychological impact on everyone. 

Yesterday, I heard the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the radio, suggesting that everyone now needs to alter their mental state. We must, he said, become far more cautious and suspicious in public spaces. He offered Israel as an example of the permenant state of alert that Europe needs to adopt.

I think that would be sad and wrong. The Israelis perpetual expectation of attack is one reason given for the continued occupation of the West Bank.  It’s an attitude that leads to soldiers shooting at children throwing stones.

But Something Must Be Done, right?

Perhaps not. What seems clear from the recent attacks is that the level of co-ordination with the leaders of Islamic State / Daesh is minimal and perhaps non-existent. There may not be any networks to infiltrate or many conversations on which to eavesdrop. The security services are surely already doing all they can, but there is no easy way to prevent so-called ‘lone wolves’ using everyday objects to hurt ordinary people, as happened in Rouen and Nice.  

At least, no way that would preserve civil liberties and the open society that we value, and which the terrorists loathe. Security guards outside churches, really?  It’s a problem that can only be solved with long term social policies, not quick-fix increase in the security presence.

On Monday, I called into the Breakfast Show on the talk radio channel LBC. During the programme, plenty of callers had been discussing the latest terror attacks.  Some people advocated racial and religious profiling, and The host, Nick Ferrari, seemed to be imply that the terrorism was essentially the fault of asylum and immigration policy.

I called in to say two things.  The first was to point out that (pace Tom Pollock, above) terrorists kill a tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Europe.

My second point was that we should not introduce any new policies, such as banning Muslims or ignoring refugees, that would compromise our values.  Such policies are exactly what the terrorists want because they ‘sharpen the contradictions‘. Demonising Muslims and turning away refugees will only boost recruitment to ISIS.  I am shocked that there are still people in this country and around Europe who do not understand this.

At the end of my impromptu contribution to Nick Ferrari’s show, I tried to introduce the idea that we should accept that some people will die from terrorism, in the same way that people die from cancer, in wars or car accidents. In this, I had in mind the short article ‘Just Asking‘ by David Foster Wallace, written for Atlantic magazine in 2007.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea?

If we must change our way of thinking, let us internalise this: We cannot live in a state of total security.  Some crime and even terrorism is always likely to be with us. This idea is something that liberal people, who support human rights and a free society, often try to avoid talking about.  I have written before on the need for campaigners and those who advocate for civil rights to be honest about the negative consequences of advocating freedom. We need to better explain why the freedoms and rights that we hold are worth preserving, even if bad people can do bad things with those freedoms. 

When I made this point on my LBC, Nick Ferrari accused me of being “sanguine” about terrorist deaths! I cannot decide whether he was right on that point: perhaps in the moment my argument was poorly put. Or conversely, perhaps accusing rights defenders of such things is a standard tactic deployed by those of a more authoritarian tendency?

Incredibly, the audio from the show does not appear to be readily available online, so you cannot judge for yourselves. 

Here’s What We Need To Do Now

We should hope that we were wrong, and that Leave were right

OK, so the United Kingdom as a whole has voted for Brexit. I am profoundly disappointed.

For those of us who voted Remain, here are some things that we should do and some things that we should not do. Continue reading “Here’s What We Need To Do Now”

Even the most offensive art can have two meanings

This week, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was criticised for publishing a shocking cartoon about migrants and rape culture.

It features a depiction of the terrible image of drowned three year-old Aylan Kurdi alongside what appear to be some dirty old men, chasing women Benny Hill style.

Continue reading “Even the most offensive art can have two meanings”

On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi

We need to be shocked now, so we may demand action from our government now. I think that trumps our squeamishness

Before I mire myself in questions of when and whether to publish shocking images, I should—must—begin by writing about the fact of Aylan Kurdi’s drowning and the refugee crisis in general.  If the central argument for publishing an image of a dead boy is that it ‘gets people discussing the issues’ then I think I have an obligation to do so, even if these thoughts have been stated earlier and more eloquently, elsewhere. Continue reading “On the ethics of publishing the photo of Aylan Kurdi”

Quoted in the Guardian, demanding free speech for the publishers of Belarus

From Wednesday, a Guardian report about the legal harassment of radical publisher Ihar Lohvinau:
Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, demanding free speech for the publishers of Belarus”

The ritual of condemnation

In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:

The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?

Continue reading “The ritual of condemnation”

Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?

For now I will dwell on a single question, which is to wonder how the Charlie Hebdo magazine will recover from this hideous attack?

The callous murder of ten journalists and two policemen yesterday in the centre of Paris is a landmark moment. The French now have their own 9/11 or 7/7. It’s certainly a defining moment in the history of freedom of expression too: on a par with the Rushdie fatwa.

It’s less than 24 hours since the atrocity and the murders are still at large, yet there is already so much to write about. With ‘moments’ such as this we experience cycles of news, comment, counter-comment and meta comment (i.e. comment on the comment). We seem to be experiencing all of these at once. Continue reading “Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?”

Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean

Should the EU act to save illegal immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean? Superficially, this question sounds a bit like one of those dilemmas presented by moral philosophers: do you switch the path of the runaway train so it kills one old man instead of a family of six?

But in this case, the question is not a like-for-like, life-for-life comparison. Instead, it boils down to whether we

  1. save the lives of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants; or
  2. try to save a few million Euros of costs incurred by the Italian navy

… and I suppose, a few million more Euros caused by the inconvenience of being stuck with a boat-load of Africans without identity documents.

Students in ‘Introduction to Ethics’ seminars should not find this example particularly troubling. Since we are not weighing up human lives, a few humane heuristics will see us through. One of those is that if its a choice between people and money, you save the lives. When confronted with someone in clear and present danger, and the power to save them, we should not sit on our hands and watch them drown.

Really, what is so hard about that? Continue reading “Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean”

If you abdicate, that should be game over for the monarchy

If we allow blood-lines to play a part in our constitution then we have to accept whatever gaffe-prone idiot that genetics throws up… and that idiot is stuck with the populous too.

King Juan Carlos is to abdicate. I love this simple poster design, campaigning for a referendum on the future of the monarchy.


The abdication reminds me of the point I made in last week’s post about MP recalls, where I said:

If the electorate cannot get rid of their representative outside of election time … I think its is only fair that the representatives cannot rid themselves of their electorate either.

I think a similar principle holds for monarchies.  If the hereditary principle means that people cannot choose their head of state, then its inconsistent and wrong for the monarch to be able to choose whether or not they serve as head of state!  If we allow blood-lines to play a part in our constitution then we have to accept whatever gaffe-prone idiot that genetics throws up… and that idiot is stuck with the populous too.

To my mind, a single abication undermines the whole idea of hereditary monarchy.  Any country where that happens should transition to a full democracy with an elected or legislature-appointed head of state (I prefer democracies with a nominal, not executive president but I’m sure there are arguments for and against both models).  I hope that the abdication of the Spanish King triggers a referendum that ends the anacronism.


How the BBC's 'Gotcha' questions hurt democracy

Did anyone hear the BBC Today interview with UKIP leader Nigel Farage this morning? I was tearing my hair out at the inanity of it all.

Presenter John Humphrys repeatedly asked Farage whether he wanted to be Prime Minister and whether he thought UKIP would soon be in Government. This is a no-win question for the Interviewee: if he says ‘yes’ he will be accused of being delusional. If he says ‘no’ he is accused of lacking ambition and not worthy of a person’s vote. So, like all minority party leaders, he was forced to give an evasive non-answer.

This is ‘gotcha’ questioning from Humphrys, and reveals nothing about the matter at hand: why are UKIP doing better in the polls?

There may be instances where ‘gotcha’ questioning is appropriate – for example, to highlight a contradiction in a Government policy. However, the electoral paradox that Farage must confront is not of his making. Instead, it is a feature of the political system. There is no value in wasting broadcast time trying to get Farage to explain this. Voters are savvy enough to understand the conundrum. It is patronising to suggest that Farage is somehow pulling the wool over their eyes.

Single issue parties seeking protest votes is an entirely legitimate use of representative democracy. Any kind of electoral success brings influence and an audience, and so can be an aim in itself , not just as a route to power. When Humphrys and the BBC portray such political activism as fringe or Quixotic, they are being unhelpful to the voters and to the issues. And when this journalistic cynicism is practiced at the expense of actual scrutiny of UKIP’s policies, it is downright harmful and wrong.