Normality: Our best anti-terrorism weapon.

The enemy for the fanatic is pleasure, which makes it extremely important to continue to indulge in pleasure. Dance madly. That is how you get rid of terrorism.’

Salman Rushdie

I have just finished leading a major independent review for a Government department which focused on protecting national security.

One of the recurring issues in any endeavour which seeks to protect national security is how to balance the protection of the citizen from terrorism whilst maintaining our way of life in an open liberal democracy? In other words, to ensure that the very measures you take to help keep people safe aren’t in some way doing the terrorists prime task – to make us feel afraid.

This is a very difficult challenge in a world where we are under genuine and direct threat from forms of terrorism which glorify in the mass killing of civilians. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, republican terrorists committed many atrocities against civilians but this was not their primary purpose and proved counter-productive within their own communities where disapproval of such outcomes could be a very serious threat to their future capability. So, to some extent, measures were taken to avoid or reduce non security force casualties –  for example, a system of coded bomb warnings which allowed the police to identify the bombers credentials and evacuate an area.

But more recent Al-Qaeda and ISIS inspired attacks have no such restraint. Indeed their very purpose is to kill as many civilians as possible and sow fear and terror in the general population to create a belief that nowhere is safe. To demoralise us and force us to behave differently. That this brutality is ‘divinely ordained’ and death of the perpetrator guarantees a place in paradise adds yet another chilling dimension to an enormous security headache for our police and security agencies.

Building higher blast walls, having more CCTV and covert surveillance and stronger laws and more armed police can all help of course – but at a price. Slowly and almost imperceptibly the things that we hold dear (and consequently the terrorist hates) start to be altered. Civil liberties begin to suffer as the surveillance net widens. Heavily armed police officers standing at airports and railway stations become the rule rather than the exception and a feeling of general unease sets in which can make ordinary citizens feel anxious and helpless in the face of this faceless danger. This is the pernicious goal of the terrorist – the desired side effect of a threat which is very serious but which by itself could not achieve physically that which fear creates psychologically.

So at Sampson Hall we think the goal of any initiative to help defeat terrorism must always start from the perspective of ‘what can we do to help enable people to continue to live their lives as they want?’ This goal is an even more powerful slap in the face to terrorism than any amount of state action. In Northern Ireland where terrorism is sadly still prevalent in small toxic pockets of the Province, dissident Republicans are desperate to see the British Army back on the streets of the UK. Normality is their most formidable opponent as it undermines their message that the state cannot protect its citizens. Their ideology loses its potency if people continue to live their lives as they always have.  The response to a larger scale threat in Great Britain must therefore be first and foremost ‘muscular normality.’

What is clear is that the state alone cannot completely guarantee the safety of all its citizens from terrorism. In my view that is a quite dangerous fiction. Private citizens must become partners of the state and take some responsibility for their own welfare. In doing so, in becoming more aware of our surroundings and other people’s behaviour, in knowing what to do in the event of terrorist attack we can help promote a civic confidence which will greatly harm the capability of people who wish to destroy our way of life.

We can continue to live normally in this great country and feel we are doing our own bit to oppose and defeat extremist violence from wherever it comes. Police initiatives like project Griffin, profiled on Radio 4 this morning will help raise awareness in communities. At Sampson Hall we are developing a series of online training resources which help people go about their daily lives with greater confidence. Please follow the link to or contact us to find out how one of our experts can help you or your organisation further with security training and development.

Share this post