Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ to global Islamist jihad
Two competing sets of risk
The characteristics of the two conflicts have also resulted in differences in preventive strategies. During the Troubles, the emphasis was upon the deterrent effects of criminalisation and punishment. Suicide bombing has, however, made this untenable post-9/11, prompting more formal policies of ‘counter’ and ‘de-radicalisation’. Although there have been attempts in both contexts to disrupt, interdict, and restrict dangerous people and activities, these have also taken different forms in each. For example, while house arrest and the deportation of foreign terrorist suspects have had a high public profile post-9/11, they did not feature in the Troubles at all.
By further contrast, in the UK-jihadi context there has been no suspension of jury trial, no targeted assassination controversy, and no allegations of collusion between the security forces and terrorist organisations sympathetic to the state. Nor, as during the Troubles, has there been any contemporary counterpart to the extraction of confessions by the systematic mistreatment of suspects, nor any notorious miscarriages of justice comparable to those of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four. The trial of dozens of accused on the courtroom testimony of a series of ‘supergrasses’, their alleged former accomplices, has not been replicated in the current crisis either.
Whatever the type of terrorism, the key challenge in any liberal democracy lies in the effective management of two competing sets of risk. On one hand, relevant law and policy must be as efficacious and efficient as possible in prevention and protection, and in dealing with suspects and accused. On the other, human rights, democratic, constitutional, and rule of law standards must be respected and the legitimate interests of liberal cosmopolitan society safeguarded in order, amongst other things, to avoid alienating minority communities.
Public bodies must also ensure that their own activities are as transparent as possible and that communication with society is as effective and distortion-free as it can be. All this depends upon the simultaneous management of many elements on multiple dimensions: political, policing, criminal justice, social justice, ideological, cultural, educational, communal, and so on. While there is also plenty of scope for debate about the details, there is no credible case for jettisoning the broad CONTEST framework, not least because no remotely viable, coherent and legitimate alternative has yet been conceived.
Finally, we all share various social, political and legal responsibilities with respect to any kind of terrorism. These include refraining from participating in, supporting, encouraging, advocating or celebrating it, contributing to maintaining cosmopolitan community cohesion, and engaging constructively, if critically, with relevant law and policy, particularly on the preventive front. But there is no place in the mature debate for sterile denunciation – which typically rests upon prejudice, myth, misconception, misinformation and muddled thinking – much less for the kind of boycott and ‘resistance’ some advocate. The focus for all serious contributions must instead be upon the more subtle question of whether the blurred line between legitimate and illegitimate official responses has been crossed, a matter upon which reasonable people equally committed to the same goals and core humane and democratic values may reasonably disagree.