Peter Hitchens speaks sense on Terrorism

In the aftermath of three terror attacks in a short space of time in the UK, Peter Hitchens wrote this outstanding blog. I had to share in its entirety

“Here we go again, responding to events with emotion rather than reason. UKIP chieftains talk of internment. Columnists suggest the closing of mosques. Yet at the same time we praise ourselves for not panicking. Well, one or the other, but not both.

Peter Hitchens speaks sense, not for the first time
Peter Hitchens speaks sense, not for the first time

The police and the ‘security services’ so-called are currently taking a quite a bit of criticism for failing to pick up pretty blatant clues that the London Bridge killers were dangerous. I am ambivalent about this. These bodies often boast of how much they protect us, and I have never been convinced that these claims have much substance.

Maniacs of this kind are not under the direction of some spider-web of Islamist cunning. They are isolated, unorganized and unpredictable. Unless MI5 and the police have discovered how to read minds, they are always going to miss quite a few such things. Most of these people will never move beyond bluster and vanity. The art of knowing which is which from distant surveillance has not yet been developed. Control orders might have worked against them. I do not dispute it. But they might not, because someone always has to decide whether to use them or not, and that someone could get it wrong.

A real, knowledgeable old-fashioned police presence, on the other hand, might be more practically, immediately effective.

An example: the strange and menacing behaviour of one of the conspirators after he had hired the van with which he then committed murder was noticed by many of his neighbours. An old-fashioned beat constable would have quickly heard about it and might have been able to act.

And a proper enforcement of the drug laws which such people commonly break with impunity might have put them in prison where they could do no harm of this kind and might even (if my theory is right) have prevented them from taking the gruesome path they took.

The Prime Minister hints at measures to curb ‘extremism’ and to increase the power of the alleged ‘security’ services. (‘What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be the terrors of the earth’ King Lear Act II Scene IV – what a great pity it is that people don’t know Shakespeare any more). Mrs May has a long record of confusing surveillance and interference in private matters with the safety of the nation. See

People who have noticed that I oppose arming the police or putting soldiers on the streets have begun to make snarky (‘ so what do you think about that now, then?) comments on Twitter suggesting that perhaps I might now wish I had not said these things. I do not, for reasons I explain below, but which can be summarised as: Prevention is far better than reaction. Trial by jury is far better than summary execution. I agree that these are hopelessly British sentiments, but then I am hopelessly British.

And several volunteer special constables of the Thought Police stand ready to accuse me (me!) of being an apologist for Islam because I dare to mention the fact that Islam may be a necessary condition for many of these events, but it is not present in all of them, and it does not seem to be a *sufficient* condition for them either. You’ll have to read further for the facts on which I base this contention. Indeed, you’ll have to be in a frame of mind for facts and reason. If you prefer to get enraged, to generalize wildly, to condemn entire groups of people or call for easy answers, this isn’t for you and, honestly, I advise you to go elsewhere.


My purpose is not to excuse or exonerate anyone, but to seek practicable answers which might ameliorate this problem. I offer no solution.  I do not think there is one. You could spend every penny of our GDP on security measures and abolish all our remaining liberties and protections against unjust conviction, and there would still be horrors of this kind. Russia, which has elaborate and unrestrained secret police apparatus and scorns both old-fashioned liberties and modern human rights still, alas, suffers terrorist atrocities. There is no organic connection between being a free society and being vulnerable to terror. Nor is there any connection between abolish liberty and being safe. You just give up your freedom forever, and get nothing back.

There’s also a question of proportion.

More practical measures, such as putting strong steel bollards on the pavements of major bridges wouldn’t be that costly and might discourage some incidents of this kind, though I fear that those who wish to kill and maim will always find ways of doing so.

Terrorism is a form of crime which most people will never experience. It seems more immediate because it is intensively reported. But other crimes (which in my view may also be associated with illegal but undeterred and unpunished drug abuse, and which are not linked with fanaticism) are more of a direct concern for many.

Take these facts, from page two of ‘The Times’ of London of today, 7th June: Two teenagers in London have been fatally stabbed in the last four days. The number of teenager murders in the capital has already equalled that reached in the whole of 2016. That is to say 12 teenagers have been murdered so far this year, nine of them stabbed. All 12 of those killed in London last year were killed with knives. These numbers fluctuate greatly. In 2007 27 teenagers were murdered in London. In 2008, the number rose to 29. The figure then dropped to 15 in 2009, rising to 19 in 2010.  I would also echo the words of Sir Simon Jenkins in the London Evening Standard yesterday (6th June) ‘Londoners are sensible enough to accept there are things that can be done, and things that cannot. The three knife attacks in London in four years should be seen in context. Their severity is nowhere near that of the IRA campaigns of the 1970s and 1990s, when there were fatal explosions every other month. In today’s London some innocent person is stabbed to death every week – in one week in April there were six deaths.’

I have no information on comparable crimes elsewhere in Britain, but I suspect there are some. Likewise I suspect that the levels of unprosecuted but quite severe violence (on show in the casualty departments of our hospitals on Friday and Saturday nights).

So …shall we have a war on extremism, more powers for the state and the police, and a renewal of the failed ‘war on terror’, maybe a bit of internment?

Shall we, in the same spirit, look narrowly at everyone who dares to think originally about recent horrors and accuse them of being terror sympathisers or apologists?

Or shall we perhaps wonder if we have got our policy on terrorism right? After all, we have been doing more or less the same thing about terrorism for years. And it has not worked at all. It is still wearily true that it is a matter of when, not if, the next one of these ghastly events takes place.


  1. We have given terrorist outrages huge publicity, which their culprits hoped for and which future culprits of similar acts will expect. Would they be so keen to do these things if they could not expect this sort of reaction? Do we really aid the cause of counter-terrorism by giving them this treatment?
  1. We have treated these events as assaults on the nation. As Sir Simon Jenkins says, we have ‘nationalised’ what are in fact sordid and despicable crimes, and magnified them into major politico-military events. There was even talk of postponing the general election after this latest crime.

How does this benefit us?  I am not minimizing these acts of violence. I am as grieved and distressed by them as anyone, and wish it was not necessary, in the current fevered atmosphere (see below and above), to say so. But it is. And, while they are terrible for those directly affected, they are not a threat to our national integrity, to our political stability or the economic functioning of our nation. Why then do we act as if they are?

I do not stop reasoning, or seeking facts, because I am grieved or angry. Nor should you.

  1. We have showered the scene with adjectives. We have been rude about the dead criminals, who are no longer in a position to be affected by our obloquy. And we have assumed without hard evidence that they are acting as part of a great conspiracy or under orders. On this occasion, because they are dead, we have not vowed to hunt them down.

It was never a very persuasive threat or promise. In the past such ‘vows’ have often come to nothing, or, worse, ended in the adjective-splattered culprits, not only not being hunted down but being released early from prison, promised effective immunity from prosecution,  given jobs in government or in one case having dinner with the Queen,  dressed in white tie and tails. On this occasion, happily, this last outcome is at least impossible.

  1. We have responded on the assumption that these crimes are part of a wider conspiracy, detaining large numbers of people in melodramatic swoops.

Well, maybe this time there will be something in this. But in the case of the alleged Islamist Khalid Masood, culprit of the Westminster murders, I think all those subsequently arrested in police swoops have now been released without charge.  I have not recently checked how many of those detained after the Manchester horror have been charged or are in custody. But I suspect that there will be few, if any.


And apart from some unverifiable and unsourced ‘leaks’ to various media, there has still been no hard evidence that Masood was anything other than a crazy violent person. He doesn’t seem to have needed a political or religious pretext for violence on several other occasions

Then again, perhaps he sought to dignify his pathetic personal failings by merging them within a greater cause.

This important problem emerged in the case of the Leytonstone knifeman (Remember ‘You ain’t no Muslim, Bruv!), clearly long bereft of his reason, but still, amazingly, treated by some parts of the state machine as if his motivation was political.

Please read this, partly to see just how very far out of his right mind this person was

But also not least for the psychiatrist’s quoted remarks about the habit among unhinged violent persons of identifying themselves with larger violent causes.

This, wholly distinct from real political commitment, is not unknown among crazy people. If Masood really *did* say the untraceable things attributed to him about Allah, then it may well have been as significant (i.e. not at all) as the Leytonstone stabber’s remarks about Syria, a place |I doubt he could find on a map unaided.

Crazy non-political people *do* attack innocents on the streets with knives. There was such an incident in Russell Square in London last year

which was initially reported as an Islamist outrage, until even police officers and media obsessed with believing this had to abandon the belief.

They also do it with cars, as happened recently in Marbella.


It also happened not long ago in New York City

These episodes surely illustrate that militant Islam and terrorism are not *necessary*, let alone *sufficient* conditions for such attacks. They suggest to me that, even if these elements *are* involved*, the role of drug-fuelled insanity is also important.   It is tempting to wonder if the huge coverage given to the Nice and Berlin incidents may have entered the seething minds of those responsible for those in Times Square and Marbella. I am not myself aware of a long history of motor vehicles being used as weapons in intentional mass murder, and it has often struck me that the role of the car in the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby (and of another soldier murder in Canada) was played down in the reports of this horror.

What about ‘Islamic State’, so quick to announce that it is to blame?  I believe it got the identity of the killer wholly wrong when its tame news agency first claimed responsibility for the recent Champs Elysees killing in Paris, suggesting wrongly that the killer was from Belgium. It has also been known to claim responsibility for events with which it has later turned out to have no conceivable connection. See first 1.

And then 2.

I’ve pointed out before that there have also been wholly non-political beheadings, in London (Mrs Palmira Silva murdered in September 2014) and Tenerife (Mrs Jennifer Mills-Westley murdered in May 2011).

These events are just as horrible for the victims and their families as are those officially classified as ‘terrorist’.  But they do not lead to anything like the same level of controversy or consideration. No calls for internment or suppression of extremism follow them.

Indeed, any suggestion that mental illness might play a role tends to be met with scorn. No such suggestions emerged in the years before the current wave of Islamist terrorism, during which there were several sad cases of innocent persons randomly murdered by mentally ill patients who had been left to fend for themselves ‘in the community’. Mentioning this is often met with angry ripostes from lobbies who claim such speculation is unfair on the mentally ill. Nor, despite the horror, do they get anything like the same amount of media or government attention.

Actually this has been a matter of public concern since the very distressing case of Jonathan Zito back in December 1992, and I discussed it at length here in 2013 :

Is it possible the huge publicity for the Nice and Berlin attacks, in which a vehicle was used as a weapon (in both cases by a low-life criminal with a history of petty crime, violence and drug abuse), has encouraged thoughts of imitation in various twisted, seething and unbalanced minds?

In which case what about the vast prominence given to the Westminster Bridge attack? Was it wise? Did it advance any good cause?  Of course these things have to be reported, and discussed. But as if they were major acts of war?


On the question of armed versus unarmed police, first, shouldn’t we be wondering more about why nobody spotted these dangerous lunatics much, much earlier? See above. It is all very well saying that the police were very quick to reach the scene, and that a policy of ‘shoot-to-kill’ was justified by the outcome.

It’s an attractive conclusion. Who is not pleased (despite the absence of a formal death penalty) to see murderers dying for their crimes?

But is it the only possible one? A lot of damage can be done in eight minutes, as we now see.  It is of course a good thing that they were killed before they could do any more damage.  But something very deep in me would prefer that they had been captured, arrested and put on trial, a process from which we might have learned important things which might have enabled us to act more effectively in future.  I agree that this would be more acceptable if we still had an effective death penalty, since it si clear that even Guardian readers and the BBC have no real objection to these killers being killed by the state.  But I can say that I have urged this for many years.

But these are two totally different and (I suspect) mutually exclusive forms of policing. If we choose to have an armed and armoured force of street soldiers which waits for horror and reacts to it by shooting the perpetrators, we cannot (in my view) also have a force which seeks close and friendly contact with the people of this country, and by befriending them and earning their trust, prevents many of these events long before they happen.

It is still my view that unarmed officers, patrolling alone, always did and would now do more in the long run to protect us from crime and disorder of all kinds happening in the first place, than phalanxes of armed and armoured officers, loaded with weapons.

Next, the very brave officer who stood up to the knifemen without a firearm, and the Romanian chef who whacked one of the murderers over the head with a crate, show that unarmed people are not powerless in the face of such a menace. I just wish there had been more.

Indeed, though a confirmed coward myself, I have been more heartened by these and other episodes where individuals stood up against these people than by anything else in this episode. They remind of the West London restaurant staff who fought like tigers against so-called ‘rioters’ in the great London disorders of a few years ago, and drove them off.

I was, by contrast, oddly distressed by pictures of innocent people being hurried from the scene with their hands clasped behind their heads like surrendered PoWs. There was a similar upsetting scene in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris yesterday, of tourists with their hands raised. I am sure I shall be told there is a good practical justification for this. I just think that if I am ever made to do it, I will feel dreadfully ashamed.

Two, armed police and soldiers cannot be everywhere even if they are permanently sent out on to the streets to do nothing else. Terrorism is about surprise. What is more, having no actual military purpose, it does not much care where and who it strikes.

They will not attack where they are expected.  Either the terrorists hope to die and will attack anyway, doing grave damage in the brief minutes before they are shot, or they will attack where there are no police or soldiers.


But proper unspectacular (unarmed, preventive) police patrols of the old sort would have revealed long term, neighbour and family concerns about almost all the known culprits of almost all known terrorists in Europe. Practically without exception they come from a low-life petty criminal milieu, in which drug abuse is regarded as normal

With no very great hope of success I point out here yet again (and anyone who doubts it may check my writings and YouTube appearances on this subject ) that I am not a defender of Islam or Islamism and what I say is not intended to excuse those who believe hateful things and propagate those beliefs.

I just think that while some sort of fanatical commitment *may* (see above) be a *necessary* condition for *some* outrages, I am not as sure that it is a *sufficient* condition. We know for certain that one of the Southwark butchers, Khuram Butt, was beyond doubt a user of cannabis. I personally have little doubt that serious investigation into his two accomplices, Youssef Zaghba and Rachid Redouane would be found to have a similar drug abuse history, going back to their schooldays, if the authorities and the media were interested enough in the subject to find out. Zaghba is said to have been ‘increasingly angry’ as a young man, a description often applied to those who, after normal childhoods, are introduced to drugs.   In the world in which such people live, this decriminalised drug is so commonly used that few would even think it remarkable, and criminal records rare.

I was struck by a particular report in ‘the Guardian’ on Tuesday, in which a London surgeon, sadly used to dealing with stab wounds, remarked on the unusual force of the wounds inflicted by these merciless human horrors on Saturday night.

This seemed to me to suggest a level of cruelty and ruthlessness way beyond the ability of a normal person, even a normal criminal.

What is the source of this? Some people will say ‘fanaticism’, and I will agree with them that it is a necessary condition in this kind of killing. But is it a sufficient one?  Well, how capable are you, or how capable do you think you would be, of real, homicidal violence, even in a cause to which you were committed? I am a former fanatic. I espoused a set of beliefs with homicidal implications. I am not a pacifist, and am ready to defend myself with force. But I was as incapable then, as I am now, of driving a steel blade into a human being.

Can I make a small point here? People sometimes say that drunken individuals are also known to be violent.

This is quite true (and is one of the reasons why I opposed the relaxation of the licensing laws and why I wish to see them restored to their pre-1985 toughness) but it misses the point. And I think others may be suffering from a similar misunderstanding.

The worry about cannabis is not necessarily to do with the immediate intoxication it causes, but the long-term mental illness with which it is correlated. This illness, whether connected with the drug or not, can and does appear (and persist) in individuals who have ceased to use the drug.

And the longer we refuse to think about it, and acknowledge it is an element to be investigated and understood, the more we will be experiencing repeated Groundhog Days of murder, followed by angry speeches and pledges of action, followed soon afterwards by another murder, followed by almost identical angry speeches and pledges of action….

Reflex, after all, has failed over and over again. These events keep happening despite decades of doing what we always do and saying what we always say. Wouldn’t thought be a good idea for a change? Or do we fear it?  If so, why? Does thought require us to revise easy, simple opinions, or perhaps to sacrifice some pleasures we thought were innocent, and may not be? Does it require politicians, police chiefs and ‘security’ services to do something rather more difficult and unglamorous than what they do now?  Well, those are not good enough reasons. But they will not change unless we prefer thought to emotion.”