Freedom, prosperity and safety are all part of what makes much of Europe such a charmed area of the world to live in. Sadly, as Norway discovered last weekend, such comfort can also lead to a dangerous level of complacency that needs to be addressed if such societies are to prevent a repeat of the horrors of Oslo and Utola.
It must be clear by now that such horrific terrorist attacks can occur almost anywhere and need to be adequately prepared for. Hopefully nowhere in Europe will ever again get itself into a position whereby it takes over an hour to react to an attack in progress because an essential component of the response team (for example, a helicopter crew, as appears to have been the case in Norway) is on holiday and no cover is in place. Correcting such failings is a relatively straightforward case of better contingency planning. But stopping these incidents happening in the first place presents a more complex challenge.
There is undoubtedly a problem with a minority of people in Europe feeling severely alienated from the realities of modern society and taking refuge in potentially violent political or religious extremism (or both, in the case of the right-wing Christian fundamentalist Anders Breivik in Norway). As the example of Breivik demonstrates, such extremists are not necessarily a product of economic deprivation and social exclusion but are as likely to come from comfortable backgrounds. Nor, as previous outrages such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings showed, are they restricted to the fringes of one religious group. Ultimately, identifying why some people become like Breivik may never be feasible. The task in the immediate term must be to limit their numbers and reduce the risk that they pose.
In the UK, the government should extend its already effective counter-extremism work beyond its current focus on violent Islamism. The Home Office’s “CONTEST” strategy is based on actions to “pursue” and “prevent” terrorism and to “protect” and “prepare” against it. At its heart are painstaking, coordinated police and intelligence work and initiatives to isolate extremists from the wider community. This approach has proved successful in foiling planned attacks and tackling the rise in extremism over recent years and provides a useful model which should be drawn upon to tackle potential terrorism from other sources. The most urgent new focus is right-wing extremism, which has been on the rise in the UK for several years and whose threat can no longer be ignored after the horrors of Norway.
Of equal, if not greater, importance is the need to change the political environment and debate. Now that overt racism has become the hatred that dare not speak its name, “multiculturalism” has become the latest code word used by racists to spread their poison. Responsible politicians should avoid pandering to them and stop making nonsensical speeches about multiculturalism’s supposed failure. Such speeches do nothing to improve the governance of society and, as the likes of the BNP and Breivik’s old friends in the EDL have been quick to point out, embolden the extremists by making them believe they are setting the agenda and gaining mainstream support. As the Norwegian case graphically illustrated, Siv Jensen, the leader of the right-wing Progress Party, of which Breivik had been an active member, almost certainly did not intend to provoke mass murder with her anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric. But she and others like her do bear some responsibility for creating an environment which enabled a maniac like Breivik to believe he was acting in the interests of his country.
Debating whether multiculturalism should exist is, in any case, pointless. It is a done deal. The world has already globalised and cultures will continue to cross-over with each other. Multiculturalism is nothing more sinister than a variety of cultures existing alongside and overlapping with each other, in a spirit of mutual respect. It is no coincidence that the two most economically successful cities on earth, New York and London, also represent the pinnacle of multiculturalism - because it means expanding the range of available talent and ideas as far as possible. On a lower plane, it has increased the variety and quality of our food, football, fashion, music and potential lovers exponentially. Most of us have benefitted from all of this in some way – even some EDL members love a curry - and the successful societies of the future will be the ones who embrace this reality and find ways to make it work for them.
Draining the swamp in which extremists have been allowed to thrive will require a firmer application of the UK’s existing laws against promoting terrorism and incitement to violence. Those who propagate malicious falsehoods in order to demonise different people in our society should be prosecuted more aggressively. This should apply to newspaper editors and politicians too. Hiding behind “free speech” is no defence in this regard. We have never had such a thing as absolute free speech – democracy imposes an element of responsibility too and speech likely to inspire hatred and violence has always been, rightly, curtailed.
The onus falls on everyone in society to raise their voice a bit more often to correct that borderline racist in the pub or that colleague spreading bigoted nonsense about Muslims or immigrants at work. Once the terrible grief has eased in Norway, one of the conclusions may well be that the “it couldn’t happen here” complacency of a civilised country that did not prepare properly and was too tolerant of the sentiments of the likes of Breivik was a factor in failing to stop the horror of last weekend. Well, it did happen there. And it could happen here too if we do not take adequate steps to prevent the growth of extremism in all its forms.
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