Last weekend’s horrific terrorist attack in the heart of London generated a debate that, no doubt, has shaped the result of this general election.
Security, policing, police cuts, weaponising beat cops, Islamist discourse and Islam generally, ISIS, immigration — all discussed and debated, often acrimoniously. And the fact that Britain has suffered three terrorist attacks in just three months, two of them in the heart of the capital, added to the sense of anger and insecurity.
The identities of all of the three attackers were made public by the third day: a Briton of Pakistani origin and two men of Moroccan origin. And it is key now to look at their profiles as well as those involved in the previous attacks. The Birmingham attacker who detonated a bomb at a concert venue, where teenagers and children made up the audience, was of Libyan origin but born and bred in Britain. The man who mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and then rushed towards parliament and stabbed the policeman trying to stop him had no family connection to any Muslim country, he was mixed race (black African father, white English mother), and brought up in Kent.
What were the factors that led all these young men to hatred and murder? What was the deep sense of alienation that they suffered and how was it linked to social and economic factors? What were the networks or mosques that radicalised them and why have these allowed to function unchecked? What are the groups or communities that enabled the attacks or tolerated their extremist views? These are the questions that really now need to be asked.
These are the same questions that were raised twelve years ago, after the July 7, 2005 attacks on London commuters. These are the questions we asked when we saw the video footage of those four pleasant looking young men (the youngest just 18) carrying rucksacks as they prepared to board a train from Luton station to go and blow themselves up and kill and maim scores of rush hour commuters. Three of the four 7/7 attackers were born in Britain (the fourth was born in Jamaica). Britain was their home.
So what caused their deep alienation, death wish and sense of otherness?
Is this a matter merely of religious indoctrination or a wider social problem caused by economic frustrations, unemployment and lack of direction in young British males? Whereas frustrated young men from all communities may deviate by turning to petty crime and drugs, many will find it thrilling to be in ‘combat’, arm themselves and actually kill as many people as possible.
Another factor must surely be the very separate lives led by communities in Britain today: there is nowhere outside of work or the High Street that we actually meet or get to know each other (I admit: I do not know any of my white neighbours).
Many people think this separation of communities has been caused by the authorities being overly tolerant of certain religious groups, bowing to every demand from the more fringe or fundo leaders (like the hate preacher Anjem Choudary). And Muslim communities do take their insularity to an extreme, often promoting the view of Muslims being superior to other religious groups (I have seen pamphlets handed out by proselytisers, which state that all infidels will “burn in Hell”), and not even coming together to pray for the victims of national tragedies, except if they were Muslim…
Yes, security and Intel need to be stepped up but so too social and economic policies. There needs to a re-forging of national identity, and a greater involvement of youth in national institutions — perhaps in the form of mandatory national service in the military, the health service and the schools.
One of the most depressing films I have seen in recent years is Four Lions. Chris Morris’ black comedy (with Riz Ahmed) tells the story of four directionless and fairly inept young men who decide to become suicide bombers. Watch it — and weep.