UK PM Theresa May Offers More Bad Ideas on Fighting Terrorism

UK Prime Minister Theresa May Continues to show how not to respond to terrorism in the wake of recent attacks in Manchester and London.

First, she advocated for cracking down on the Internet, and now she has suggested that human rights laws could get in the way of security measures she’d like to pursue.

May’s particular problem with human rights laws appears to be that they prevent the government from detaining people before they have actually done anything wrong–or at least before the government has sufficient evidence to prosecute them.

So if the government suspects a person is up to something, but they can’t prove it and/or no laws have actually been broken, they cannot prosecute them.

Incidentally, this is how it should be. It’s actually quite odd that the issue is being framed as a question about “human rights laws”, which make it sound as though this is a fringe or novel concept. In fact, it’s a pretty central idea. Individuals cannot be arbitrarily detained or have their rights restricted by government without due process. That due process, to be meaningful, necessarily involves the government presenting evidence against them.

Of course, governments don’t like these inconvenient steps. And since it is often the case that the people that become terrorists were investigated by authorities previously, these legal hurdles provide an excellent scapegoat–“Well, we could have protected all of you if we’d been allowed to summarily detain people without charges, just as a precaution,” or so the argument goes.

To at least some marginal degree, this claim is likely true. A proper police state probably would be safer from terrorism–and you would be probably be personally safer if you never left your house, never traveled, etc. It does not follow, however, that these are desirable courses of action or desirable policies. A free society entails risk, and it’s worth it. Moreover, most of us willingly subject ourselves to far more probable risks than terrorism in our day-to-day lives.

The problem with May’s solutions is that they start from the implicit premise that total security from terrorism is possible. This is plainly untrue–and obviously so. Total security would imply that the government has been able to anticipate every possible attack and every would-be attacker in advance and implement the correct countermeasures to address them. That’s what “success” would require. Meanwhile, “success” for an attacker just means finding any single vulnerability and exploiting it. There’s an asymmetry here that’s impossible to overcome if any freedoms are to be preserved.

Thus, any policy that has that goal in mind is doomed to failure. And undoubtedly, each time a new measure fails, it will be a justification for even more extreme measures, and the cycle repeats.

A far more mature solution would be to honestly discuss the relatively small risk that terrorism presents in Western countries like the UK. Terrorism is a tragedy that claims several innocent lives when it occurs. But by itself, it is not an existential threat to society, no matter how many politicians claim otherwise. A better domestic approach to terrorism would require acknowledging this and admitting that a world with total security is probably impossible and certainly undesirable.

Until that conversation happens, political leaders like May will ironically continue multiplying the damage caused by terrorism. The terrorists kill innocent victims when they attack; then the government reaction takes away liberties and erodes the rule of law–creating more innocent victims in the process.

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