The election that British Prime Minister Theresa May called for June 8 was supposed to focus on the forthcoming negotiations for the country’s departure from the European Union, triggered by last year’s Brexit referendum.
But, as another British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, once replied to a journalist when asked what might happen that might change his government’s focus, he replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”
The “event” in this case was the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester on May 22 and, not surprisingly, it has now become an issue in the campaign.
On that evening, a suicide bomber struck a rock concert attended by thousands of fans in a stadium in Manchester, blowing up himself and 22 others. Many more were seriously injured.
Issues like terrorism, radicalization, and immigration benefit May’s Conservatives, especially as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has in the past said positive things about militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
He already has had trouble convincing skeptics that he has the leadership qualities to lead a campaign against extremism.
A day after the attack, May announced that up to 5,000 soldiers would be deployed on the streets amid fears that the bomber might have had accomplices preparing further attacks.
May added that troops would replace police officers at large public events including sports venues and concerts.
The bomber was known to police. In fact, two of his friends had some time ago contacted the government’s anti-terrorism hotline to share concerns about him.
So, as in so many similar cases, the bomber’s accomplices were quickly arrested after raids on homes by the security forces. In other words, the authorities had connected the dots long before – but couldn’t do anything about it.
It also became apparent that he was in league with a larger group, based in Libya but with an active cell in Manchester. As well, according to reports, nearly 900 Britons are thought to have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State over the years and many are returning home.
It has become de rigueur for political leaders to repeat the refrain that terrorism is impossible to fully prevent, as if it were analogous to tornados, lightening strikes or traffic accidents. With resigned fatalism, they talk about the “new normal.”
Yet at the same time, what follows each attack is an increased growth of an entire apparatus of counter-terrorism, with police checkpoints, security cameras, the interception of phone conversations and e-mails, and much more. Thousands of people now are part of this apparatus.
Imagine if 50 years ago – think the Beatles! Carnaby Street! Swinging London! Bobbies without guns! -- someone had told us that the British military would be out in the streets and that there would be CCTV cameras watching every street corner. (I lived in England while a PhD student between 1975 and 1980 and to me it still felt very much like the sixties.)
You’d be forgiven for assuming a coup d’état had overthrown the government, the Queen was in jail, and Britain had become a dictatorship run by a junta.
At the rate things are going, Western democracies will either become virtual police states, or find themselves eventually governed by far right political forces -- call them fascist if you will.
If the latter, they will use massive repression and violence to counter terrorism, using nets that will swoop up the innocent along with the few who are actually guilty.
Either way, civil liberties will become only a memory. Not a pleasing prospect, is it. For all the talk about how terrorists won’t change our way of life, they already have, of course.