Discussing an appropriate response to terrorism just a few days before a general election is far from ideal. Perhaps that’s why so much of what has been said and written since Manchester – and even more so since the London Bridge attack – has been of so little value.
So here’s an attempt to contribute to the debate as if there were no election on the horizon.
In my view, there are two essential elements to any successful counter-terrorism strategy: first, to identify and monitor those who are likely to plan and launch terrorist attacks, and if necessary to arrest them before they execute their plans; and second, to do everything possible to minimise the number of potential terrorists who are tempted to plan and execute attacks in the future.
This approach, incidentally, applies equally to terrorists motivated by jihadi zeal, or by Irish republicanism, or by extreme nativism and nationalism (eg Thomas Mair, who murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox in west Yorkshire, or Jeremy Christian, who is alleged to have killed two men who intervened to stop him screaming anti-Muslim abuse at two teenage girls in Portland, Oregon).
The identification and monitoring of those likely to launch terrorist attacks is the job of the security services and the police. It is also, of course, the responsibility of relatives, friends and neighbours whose suspicions are raised. (In both the Manchester and London Bridge cases, it appears that family members and neighbours had done exactly that – and we need to know much more about why their suspicions were not acted on.)
If more resources are to be made available to confront the terrorism threat, surely it makes more sense to use the extra cash to recruit more intelligence analysts and more specialist anti-terrorism police officers, who can sift through the mountain of material already available and make better-informed decisions about where the main threats lie.
So far, I have seen nothing to suggest that more armed police on the streets would do anything to prevent more attacks – and the responses to the Westminster and London Bridge attacks suggest that the armed police we do have are already extraordinarily good at their jobs.
Nor do I believe that they need extra powers. The problem is not that they aren’t able to find the potential terrorists, but that they don’t have the resources to analyse the information that they have to act effectively and in time.
As for reducing the numbers of new terrorists, surely the priority must be to work much more imaginatively – in schools, in prisons and in social service provision – to counter the alienation and anger felt mainly by a tiny minority of second generation immigrants who are lured by the siren call of jihadi recruiters.
It should not be forgotten that the deluded young men who become mass murderers are also committing suicide – so we need to understand much more about why they are so angry and devoid of hope that they are prepared to die while killing as many others as they can.
It is complex and difficult and will take time. But somehow, Western liberal democracies will have to learn how to encourage vulnerable young men to value their lives – and ours -- more than their, and our, deaths.