Yvonne Ridley: Tear down the barriers of fear if you really want to fight terror

CommonSpace columnist Yvonne Ridley says living in fear impacts on freedom and the UK Government has a responsibility to counter that, not exploit it

SO we might never know why someone hired a car and committed the murderous attack on a group of innocent people in London before turning his attentions on a policeman, stabbing him to death.

And yet the media has delivered a huge goal to Daesh by its round-the-clock coverage examining in minute detail every aspect of the 90-second attack. The first three days, in the absence of any real facts other than the subsequent identities of those killed and how they died, was all speculative.

The failed terror project which calls itself the Islamic State jumped on the media bandwagon immediately, declaring it was one of its "soldiers" who brought death and destruction to Westminster. 

As a journalist I am conflicted by the coverage because we are trained to rinse out every detail for any sort of major story, but there is a balance to be struck when it comes to terrorism.

However, my gut feeling is that it was a blatant lie on account that it couldn't even name its dead "soldier" and all subsequent chatter coming out of the Daesh headquarters in Raqqa failed to glorify or even mention the incident further.

As a journalist I am conflicted by the coverage because we are trained to rinse out every detail for any sort of major story, but there is a balance to be struck when it comes to terrorism. We know that the aim of any terror organisation is to generate as much publicity as it possibly can and those in Daesh, responsible or not, must be delighted with the headlines and 24/7 news coverage of the London attack.

During three decades from the 1970s, London was the target of "shoe string" terrorism virtually every day. Hoax bomb calls had to be taken seriously and underground tube station would be sealed off, closed and searched. However, unless you lived in that particular area you wouldn't have read about it anywhere because the media collectively ignored hoax calls, no matter the disruption caused to peoples' lives, especially in central London.

As a result, few outside of London knew the full extent of our lives being disrupted on an almost daily basis.

The so-called terrorists arising from the Irish Troubles were ignored, so they failed in their mission to impact on the lives of Londoners and those living in other major towns and cities in the UK. Such incidents were given a wide berth by journalists and politicians while the police and other authorities quietly got on with the business of making sure we continued to move and operate freely.

How we should have reported his act of terrorism is up for debate but what shouldn't be up for discussion is how we can reduce or dilute our freedoms and liberty or a knee-jerk reaction by way of new laws.

In other words, the terrorists failed to disrupt or impact on our lives and certainly weren't given the oxygen of publicity for their cause.

More than a century ago, tens of thousands took to the streets and campaigned so that women could vote in Britain; one woman, Emily Davison, who was born in Northumberland, paid for the struggle with her life. The heroic work of the suffragette movement can be seen every time there is an election.

While the Westminster Parliament still has to catch up to Holyrood when it comes to equal gender representation, it is thanks to the efforts of the suffragettes and other democracy movements throughout the UK that our parliaments operate the way they do.

Do you imagine for one moment that some cowardly individual who drove a car into schoolchildren, tourists and Londoners can destroy our hard won freedoms, liberty and democracy or the work of the suffragettes and every other campaign group that promotes democratic values?

Sadly, today some of those hard won freedoms and liberties might be diminished by the Westminster government because of one, twisted individual. Since the ubiquitous cry of "Allahu Akbar" wasn't even uttered by this particular lone wolf, his cowardly act might not even have been driven by any skewed religious ideology.

We must not let this sort of fear affect our lives, nor let our politicians whip us up into such a state of frenzy and hysteria that we will hand over our freedoms and liberties to them.

What we do know about him is that he was a petty, violent criminal with a short fuse. In truth, I'm not interested in him in the slightest. The only names and lives I'm interested in are those who were killed or injured - they're the ones we should be remembering, not some depraved skuzzbucket.

How we should have reported his act of terrorism is up for debate but what shouldn't be up for discussion is how we can reduce or dilute our freedoms and liberty or a knee-jerk reaction by way of new laws. But that is exactly what is happening as Theresa May convenes her Cobra security meetings in Downing Street.

I remember my first assignment in London as a reporter in the 1970s visiting Downing Street. Accompanied by the Westminster press chief parliamentary correspondent, we walked into Downing Street unchallenged and were able to go right up to the door of Number 10 where a uniformed constable was standing armed with nothing more than a smile.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in power when the gates and security were first introduced, turning the famous street into a no-go area and we can see the security measures set in place around the Westminster Parliament today. This is a direct result of terrorist attacks over the last three decades and it is a shame we have reacted in such a way.

We must not give in to the politics of fear. In America I know there are swathes of citizens who wake up frightened and go to bed frightened because of the psychological impact of 9/11. The Bush Administration reminded them of 9/11 on an almost daily basis and any time new security measures were suggested US President George W Bush invoked the memory of 9/11 to ensure an easy ride for his legislation. 

The only way we can stand up to terrorists is to refuse to change our lives because of them and we must get that message through to our politicians as well.

We must not let this sort of fear affect our lives, nor let our politicians whip us up into such a state of frenzy and hysteria that we will hand over our freedoms and liberties to them.

I am full of admiration for the way in which Norway dealt with its own version of 9/11 when an extremist from the far right killed eight people by detonating a bomb on 22 July 2011 in Oslo before shooting dead another 69 at a summer camp on the island of Utoya. He was put on trial in August 2012 and convicted of mass murder and terrorism.

There was no special court, no over-the-top security. He was treated like an ordinary common criminal which seemed to offend his ego because the message was clear: "You are no one special and you are not going to disrupt our lives again." And nor has he been allowed to intrude on the lives of Norwegians since. 

The only way we can stand up to terrorists is to refuse to change our lives because of them and we must get that message through to our politicians as well. Stop trying to instil the politics of fear or introduce more security and restraints on our freedoms and liberties because of the actions of those who want to strike terror into the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens.

I do not want to see armed police looking like RoboCop patrolling our streets. Instead of building more barriers and walls we should be tearing them down - how can we enjoy our democracy, freedoms and liberties if we wake up scared, go to bed scared and have our everyday lives monitored by a Big Brother-style state which wants to screen our computer and telephone networks and our every day movements?

Picture courtesy of Gerry Martin

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