Nick Cohen asks some awkward questions about whether tolerance and civil liberties in Britain would survive a terrorist attack in the UK:
A great deal depends on whether Tony Blair was right when he said in his speech justifying the war on Iraq that what the world has faced since 11 September is a ‘war by religious fanatics who were prepared to wage that war without limit. They killed 3,000. But if they could have killed 30,000 or 300,000 they would have rejoiced in it. The purpose was to cause such hatred between Muslims and the West that a religious jihad became reality; and the world engulfed by it.’
He’s right in theory. Nothing has been sillier in the past few years than the wishful thinkers who instantly try to explain every outrage as a brutal but understandable reaction to Western, usually American, policy. In its own way the argument is a species of racism, which holds that the answers to all questions lie in the West and denies that the Islamic world is capable of producing apocalyptic movements just as irrational and inexplicable as the communism and fascism of Europe.
When the Prime Minister said that supporters of a psychopathic fundamentalism would happily kill 300,000 if they could, he’s telling the truth – in fact they have already killed hundreds of thousands in the Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan. The question is whether they can kill thousands of people or even hundreds of people in Britain. Because if they can and do, Herzen’s ideal of the Englishman doggedly clinging on to his civil liberties may not stand the strain and everything will go.
I’m afraid, I’m heavily in the pessimist camp on this issue especially when it comes to the issue of racial tension.
As Cohen says: Given that there are soft targets and potential suicide bombers in Britain ready to strike them, it has been a compliment to the public that there hasn’t been more racial tension.
Would that survive an attack? I suppose the positive way to look at this is that in the United States after September 11 the number of violent attacks on Muslims, although not negligable, was much lower than you might have imagined.
But I’m not optimistic.
As for civil liberties, I just wish the government could frame a discussion about the necessary balancing act between protection from terrorists and protection of freedoms. It would be much better to have that debate before an attack rather than after when the support for protecting rights and liberties would be much different. But when it comes to civil liberties we really should expect the worst of governments.