The UK has suffered three terror attacks in the last three months now. According to Theresa May, five other attacks were prevented in this time. My heart goes out to anyone affected directly or indirectly by these atrocities, but my focus in this piece is the public’s reaction to the attacks and the choices we face this week as a result. Some of these responses have been beautiful, and show that people will never be defeated. There are tales of bravery, self-sacrifice, love and camaraderie. There are tales of defiance that are humorous at first glance, but speak of a deeper resilience and a refusal to be cowed. On the other side of the spectrum, there is Islamophobia, frustration and anger.
A scroll through the London Attack hashtag on Twitter last night and this morning showed a lot of aggressive responses on social media. People were calling for closed borders, deportations, increased powers for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. One tweet expressed a wish for a UK version of Guantanamo Bay to house anyone suspected of planning terror attacks.
The fact that two of these attacks have taken place during preparation for a general election has polarised this debate further. The two types of response have been characterised as Right and Left, as though the differences can be explained on purely political grounds. The Right are blaming political correctness as well as the Left’s apparently squeamish refusal to engage in debate about immigration and ‘soft’ stance on international conflict. The Left see this as misplaced, bigoted and dangerous.
Many people were shocked by the attitudes to nuclear weapons that were shown during the Question Time Leaders Special on Friday night. Why would anyone be horrified that Corbyn wouldn’t authorise a nuclear strike? Surely that can only be a good sign? I could understand if they were frustrated that he was being open about it, if we perceive international conflicts in the nuclear age as a giant game of poker. But when someone who explicitly says that they won’t murder millions of people is vilified for that opinion, you know that the mood of the nation is not in a good place.
I understand why people are so fired up and aggressive. They are afraid. And people lash out when they are afraid, because they do not want to admit that they are afraid. It’s OK to be afraid; fear is a valid, sensible and instinctive response. But unless we recognise it, it is the path to anger, hate, and suffering, to paraphrase Yoda. It’s how we act on our fear that is important. A sensible response to fear is taking precautions. We lock our doors because we have a sensible fear of home invasion. But if that fear dominates, we might never leave the house. We would board up our windows, and keep watch for intruders. We might pre-emptively attack anyone who comes within range.
I’ve made a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale in the title, because it neatly encapsulates the choice that lies before us. Never before has such a decision weighed so emphatically during a general election. Both Corbyn and May have condemned the attacks; of course they have. But the choices we are facing aren’t just about Labour or Conservative, Left or Right any more. We may need to choose between Freedom From and Freedom To.
Fully securing Freedom From harm would entail forfeiting some of our Freedom To. We could change our laws to make this happen. We could give our intelligence agencies more power. We could give our police more authority to stop and search, and hold without charge. We could close our borders. We could enact Martial Law. We could keep the threat level at Critical for eternity. We could set up prison camps for suspects. We could declare war on Islamic State and bomb the Middle East to smithereens. We could do all these things. But that doesn’t mean we should.
If we were to do these things, we would be ushering in a totalitarian state out of fear. War is not without consequences, and those consequences are complex. There is a difference between justice and vengeance. We cannot sacrifice judicial process, or basic human rights in the name of national security. Our intelligence agencies do an outstanding job already, but some attacks are unpredictable, unplanned or relatively spontaneous. Unless Minority Report becomes real, we will never be able to prevent crime entirely.
We may not notice our Freedom To on a daily basis, but we would miss it if we lost it. We are free to speak, to write, to read and to argue. We are free to be innocent until proven guilty. We are free to assemble, to march, to rally and to offer dissent. We are free to vote or to abstain from voting. We are free to complain. We are free to socialise, to stay up until dawn, to dance under the stars. We are free to travel, and to explore. We are free to choose our own path, and to choose our clothing. We are free to like and to dislike. We are free to love.
If we apply the Freedom To versus Freedom From question to life, it becomes a different question. Do we want to live? Or do we just want to exist? A bird in a cage is free from harm, but it will never fly free. A life lost to terrorism is unspeakably tragic. But a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.
We are targeted for many reasons, and as a nation, we have played a part in creating some of these. But one of those reasons may be because we have Freedom To. And that’s not something we should give up without a fight.
Freedom To and Freedom From don’t match up neatly with Right and Left, as much as it would be simpler to believe this. But we do have a choice this week in the UK. Take a look at the manifestos for the parties, and ask yourself who would protect Freedom To versus who is pushing Freedom From. That is the real choice that we are facing. If we can’t have both, I know which one I prefer.