In a brilliant Beyond the Fringe sketch, Peter Cook, playing a commanding officer, tells one of his men: “I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.”
There is a danger of something similar happening as we try to frame a response to the murder of James Foley, the American journalist whose head was sawn off by a man with a London accent. The cry goes up: “Something must be done.” But it would be a pity if we allowed the despicable perpetrators of this sadistic stunt to bounce us into futile gestures.
That there is a threat to our way of life from British-born jihadis, no one who follows the news can deny. But an indispensable aspect of that way of life is the ability to distinguish between piety and extremism. Just as it would have been monstrously unjust to treat all Roman Catholics as supporters of IRA terrorism, so it would be monstrously unjust to treat all Muslims as supporters of ISIS.
Some of the bravest opponents of the IRA were Catholics, and some of the bravest opponents of ISIS are Muslims. It is always possible to say, from the comfort of the saloon bar or the computer keyboard, that more should be done to oppose terrorism.
But one way in which to oppose terrorism is to maintain our ancient liberties. Theresa May said in yesterday’s Telegraph that we need to stop people travelling from this country to fight in Syria and Iraq. The Home Secretary added that she has already toughened the rules regarding the use of the Royal Prerogative, which allows the Government to remove the passports of British citizens who want to travel abroad to engage in terrorism. So far, she reported, 23 people who were planning to travel to Syria have had their passports withdrawn in this way.
The Home Secretary omitted to add that it is far more important to stop people wanting to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS. We are engaged in a battle for hearts and minds. The last thing we should do is to act as recruiting sergeants for the terrorists, by suggesting that our quarrel is with Islam, rather than with the contemptible parody of that faith which ISIS seeks to impose.
Philip Hammond recognises this point in his piece today in the Sunday Times, in the course of which he says “we must also support the overwhelming majority of British Muslims who are moderate, law-abiding people with values and morals we all share as they stand up to extremist elements within their communities”. But the word “also” suggests this is something of an afterthought, which currently takes second place to ministers’ desire to show how active they are being.
The hearts and minds element in this campaign is actually by far the most important one. We must not imagine there is some purely military or administrative solution to the problem. Force and officialdom must be placed at the service of a patient, unglamorous, tough-minded strategy which proclaims the superiority, for Muslims as for everyone else, of the liberty under the rule of law which has developed over many centuries in this country, compared to the lawless and transient tyranny which the jihadis seek to impose in their new so-called state.
The more monstrous the behaviour of ISIS becomes, the stronger the coalition ranged against it will also become. Acts such as Foley’s murder hand the moral advantage to the terrorists’ opponents. The IRA was too intelligent to go around killing the people who were reporting on its activities. ISIS is in the process of demonstrating that it is an organisation with which only the more stupid kind of psychopath would wish to be associated.