David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has written a piece for The Sunday Telegraph about how Britain should respond to the “Islamic State” which has taken control of parts of Iraq and Syria. It’s perfectly sensible, in the main, and most people probably agree that it’s in our national interests to take steps to overcome the poisonous strain of religious extremism that is building a home in the lawless regions of those two weakened states.
But something in it caught my eye. Cameron said in his piece about the steps he’s taken to combat terrorism on these shores:
Here in Britain we have recently introduced stronger powers through our Immigration Act to deprive naturalised Britons of their citizenship if they are suspected of being involved in terrorist activities.
This was proposed in January of this year, and it is a relatively minor, I suppose, expansion of the powers that the Home Secretary has to deprive people who have acquired British citizenship of that status if “satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good because the person, while having that citizenship status, has conducted him or herself in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom”. Previously they couldn’t do it if doing so would render the person stateless; now they can. It won’t, probably, affect all that many people.
But there’s something unsettling about it. We live in a country that has suffered precisely two deaths (a Ukrainian student stabbing a Muslim man to death because “he wanted to start a race war”, and the Woolwich murder of Drummer Lee Rigby) from terrorism since 8 July 2005. For comparison, roughly five people die in Britain per year of bee and wasp stings.
Of course, I’ve chosen 8 July 2005 for a reason: if we included 7 July 2005, the number of terror-related deaths in Britain would be 58. But even if we take that as part of the average for the last 10 years, it would still give us a score of Hymenoptera 50-ish, terrorists 58. We do not consider ourselves in imminent danger from social insects. We are not expanding legislation to deal with the growing threat of bumble bees. As the security expert Bruce Schneier said, of America’s response to terrorism, while in a country of millions of people thousands of horrible things will happen every day, “The chances that one of those horrible things will be that you’re subjected to a terrorist attack can, for all practical purposes, be calculated as zero”.
Yes, I know, part of the reason that terror is so rare may well be that our police and intelligence services are vigilant and use the powers given them by the legislature. But those powers are working. We are not dying in droves. There is no need, as far as I can tell, to expand the Home Secretary’s powers to include rendering someone stateless without trial. The very fact that the Government can deprive citizens of citizenship on the basis of suspicion and the Home Secretary’s satisfaction is pretty uncomfortable anyway: a sidestepping of innocence until proven guilt.
Oh but even one death is too many! No it isn’t. We do not think that the prevention of any death whatsoever must be our utmost goal: we are happy with a trade-off between, for instance, motorway speeds and motorway safety which allows us to get places faster but means that some number of people will die every year. That is exactly how it should be. We are always balancing risk with convenience, liberty with security.
And yet for some reason, when it comes to terror, we seem unable to do that. Partly, that’s because of the “availability heuristic“, but partly it’s also, I would suggest, because of political opportunism: politicians can look strong in the face of a “generational” or “civilisational” or “existential” threat, and can abrogate more powers to themselves as they do so.
The Prime Minister is right, no doubt, to want to intervene militarily in the clusterflip that’s going on in the Middle East. But tying it to a threat to Britain, unless he’s also going to launch a new War on Hornets, is silly and unnecessary.