Ed Barker was George Michael’s saxophone soloist, and is a former Parliamentary researcher.
Khalid Masood was not a ‘terrorist’. There is a temptation to use words like ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ – for the reasons that I set out on this site in the aftermath of the Tunisian beach shootings. We are sometimes made to feel that, if we don’t use those words, we are somehow not showing the appropriate degree of respect and remorse for the victims.
I was in Parliament during Wednesday’s attack on Westminster. I and those around me were not afraid or intimidated. Concerned, yes. Keen to know more about what was going on and what we were expected to do, certainly. But by no means afraid.
So I’d like to take this moment to offer my sincere and deep condolences to the victims, their families and friends. I’d also like to thank the security services, the police and Commons authorities for all the work they do in keeping us safe – especially PC Keith Palmer, the brave police officer killed in the line of duty as he protected the Palace of Westminster.
By inflating the importance of these actions with damaging and self-defeating labels, we are doing the victims a disservice. When we describe Masood as a ‘terrorist’, we hand a propaganda victory to those who wish to do us harm; we do their dirty PR work for them ,and we give them the best recruiting tool in the book.
I’m not alone on this. The Guardian’s, Simon Jenkins, said recently that the BBC has ‘aided and abetted terrorism’ with the prominence and tone of its coverage of last week’s killings, and that we shouldn’t surround these incidents with the ‘tremendous clutter’ of politics, Islam and religion. He said that these events should be treated as crimes, as we did those of the IRA and PLO. Giles Fraser has called on us all not to ‘give these people the oxygen of publicity’ – and didn’t want to discuss the incident any further, with that in mind.
I was delighted to see the respected MP, Dominic Grieve, whom I worked for when he was Shadow Attorney General – now chair of the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee – omit any reference to terrorism in his contribution to a debate on Thursday. He spoke instead of the ‘senseless and hideous acts of violence and evil’.
In 2015, David Cameron, criticised the BBC for using the term ‘Islamic State’ – further to the campaign led by Rehman Chishti, the Conservative MP. It was said to be ‘inappropriate’ to call the organisation ‘Islamic State’, ‘…because it is neither Islamic in the true meaning of the word nor, indeed, is it a state.’ So I would argue today that it is wrong to call Masood a terrorist because he neither ‘intimidated’ us, nor was he ‘religious’: nobody can possibly be religious in the true meaning of that word if they carry out mass murder.
So let’s not fall into the trap of promoting ideologies which can be put on our agenda as a result of mass murder. Once you commit serious violence, you don’t deserve to have your ideas debated or seriously considered by anyone.
And horrendous though Wednesday’s incident was, it was not on the scale of 9/11 or 7/7. I was frustrated that the Metropolitan Police said, during the moments after the attack, that it was treating it as a terrorist incident ‘until we know otherwise’. If we are going to start deploying this term ‘until we know otherwise’, it really does start to unravel further the term’s utility in our public discourse.
When the Commons decided not to support military action in Syria in 2013, it became clear that, since the Iraq War, we’ve come to understand that military action against this type of enemy – however worthy its motives – can ultimately prove to be counterproductive. Bombs and bullets kill people, of course – but they certainly don’t kill ideas or messages. In fact, they help them to spread further and faster. We need very quickly to come to the same realisation when it comes to the words we use to describe these people.
The security services and the police did such an excellent job on Wednesday; they took difficult decisions in fraught circumstances where information was incomplete and the picture unclear. I’m not for one moment arguing that they should do their jobs any differently. They should continue being as thorough in finding links, monitoring suspects and intercepting plots as they are at present. But those of us who use words have a chance to disincentivise the spread of these evil ideas by changing the language we use.
Politicians are often heard saying that we will never be defeated or intimidated by terrorism. By announcing that an act of violence, like the one we saw last week, is ‘terrorism’ we are admitting that our enemies have been victorious in terrorising us. People that stab policemen and run over innocent civilians are murderous thugs – and that’s the end of it. We owe it to the victims, their families and friends, to Britain and the entire civilised world to stop giving our enemies the stamp of victory they seek.