It didn’t take long for the UK’s security chiefs to start the scare chorus. Within days of the horrific, terrifying killing of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Jewish shoppers and police in Paris, the head of M15 said an attack on British soil was “highly likely” and that the agency needed more power in its fight to counter terror.
Just ahead of a “terror conference”, jointly hosted by the US and the UK, and including officials from the 20 countries that form the coalition against ISIL, a former UK security chief said that his nation’s existing terror laws were “no longer fit for purpose”.
British Chancellor George Osborne assured that security services would be given “whatever they need”, as security chiefs worried that, while they had already foiled several terror plots, they could not “hope to stop everything”.
As has happened before, warnings over impending attacks and the need for more powers of surveillance came as people are terrified by events across the Channel. We are still utterly shocked by those Paris killings. We want to feel safe. We are collectively too stunned and too scared to say; hang on, so the same state that illegally spied on us on the epic scale recently revealed by Edward Snowden, now wants more spying powers? It’s pretty much the mechanism described in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, as applied to rolling over our civil liberties instead of selling off state assets.
You can’t really blame security officials for trying to amass as many powers as they possibly can; that must go with the turf.
But that doesn’t mean that we should sign off on those powers speedily and without question – which is precisely what sections of the British government have been trying to do.
Days after the attack, British Home Secretary Theresa May revived a Communications Data bill, already squashed in 2012 and nicknamed the “snoopers’ charter” which would, among other things, let authorities trawl through social media messages and force date companies to store more of our information.
It was supposed to be shelved until after the general election in May – but on Monday, attempts were made by some Lords to sneak it into effect, by attaching it as an “amendment” to a counterterror bill currently fast-tracking through parliament.
The plot was foiled amid horrors over the machinations of a powerful “security lobby”. Meanwhile, the counterterror bill itself contains measures such as “exclusion orders” to prevent UK citizens (suspected of fighting with ISIL) from coming back to Britain. There’s also a clause about schools and universities helping to challenge extremist views and prevent people from becoming radicalised, which sounds very much like censorship in academia.
The bill has been slammed by rights groups and campaigners as “draconian” and “like something out of the Stasi”.
Along with the grave issue of signing away so many freedoms, there are some bad sums behind the bill. First, forcing Facebook and Whatsapp to share access to our data isn’t just a dictatorship level of snooping; those involved in the Paris atrocity weren’t off-radar; they were known to security services – so how would more surveillance help here? As one Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert puts it, the “haystack” of information available about all of us is getting bigger and bigger, but; “We need better ways to identify the needles, not ways of collecting more hay.”
The other bit of dodgy arithmetic is ignoring the huge sums of trust and goodwill that are lost each time the UK further marginalises and monitors its own Muslim citizens.
The other bit of dodgy arithmetic is ignoring the huge sums of trust and goodwill that are lost each time the UK further marginalises and monitors its own Muslim citizens. How is the fact that the government is entertaining the idea of making some British Muslims effectively “stateless” (in contravention of international law) supposed to be received among that wider population?
It is no great revelation that strong community relations are both a valuable resource and a cornerstone of counter-radicalisation. The idea is to work with communities, so why does the British government keep managing to find new ways to alienate instead?
None of this is to suggest that the threat of terror is any less real or serious – and ISIL has said that more attacks in Europe are coming.
But, so many years into the war on terror, we desperately need a review and a different approach. Perhaps we could start with some honesty about British foreign policy as a recruitment fuel for violent radicals – saying it out loud, and definitely debating it openly at universities, to stop the sentiment going underground and getting manipulated by deadly extremists.
We could look at some of the policies put in place by, say, Denmark – where returning fighters are rehabilitated and put to use as a counterterror resource.
Tackling terror could of course involve more people and resources allocated to security agencies. But what it shouldn’t take is so speedily signing off on more powers of surveillance – and certainly not to agencies that have yet to account for abusing the powers that they already possess.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.