Leader: Ever watchful for threats to liberty

09 September 2009

IN innumerable speeches since the end of the 18th century, liberty has been reckoned at a high price: eternal vigilance. This week’s price was a little more exact, if not so exacting: the foiling of the transantlantic bomb plotters and their subsequent trials have cost every person in the UK £1. This figure does not include any calculation of the time and revenue lost by the disruption to the airlines since 2006. It would be a small price to pay for saving so many lives were it to be a one-off occurrence, but it must be deduced that there are others besides those convicted on Monday who wish to do this country harm.

One striking fact to come out of the trial was the trigger for the plotters’ militancy. In 2003 and 2004, the ringleader Abdulla Ahmed Ali visited refugee camps set up in northern Pakistan in response to the US campaign against al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. He was appalled by conditions there, and disheartened by the failure of the protests against the involvement of Britain in the war. The campaign in Afghanistan was, of course, triggered by the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.

It is hard not to draw conclusions about the circular nature of violence, and puzzle over the means at our disposal to break the cycle. The rule of law is one method, in that it introduces an element of objective judgment into an emotive and antagonistic relationship; but, for it to work, both parties have to recognise the neutrality of the judiciary — a difficult concept for those who have no experience of it. The application of mercy is another means, but since this is necessarily a risky, one-sided gesture, it need not be reciprocated, and can easily be misinterpreted, as the Scottish administration has discovered.

In the long term, policitians must tackle the political and religious pressures that encourage too many people, in the UK and overseas, to give tacit support to acts of terrorism. Muslim religious leaders have a big part to play. Abdulla Ahmed Ali was right to be indignant at the displacement and neglect of thousands of Afghan civilians. Where he went wrong, it appears, was to allow radical Muslims in the mosque he attended to warp his judgement to the extent that the murder of innocent air passengers seemed a fitting response. Just as the bombs that he and his conspirators intended to plant were potent combinations of innocent ingredients, so the mixture of a commitment to Islam, political disaffection, and righteous anger, innocent in themselves, produced something explosive in the plotters. As long as there are people willing to abuse liberty by fomenting violence, the price of policing them will continue to rise.

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