The death of Sir David Amess was indeed devastating for many, and we can all agree that this gentleman did not deserve this ending. Since his death, I have been following the report of this tragic murder, as the media has attempted to follow the life of the murderer, asking if there was anything the security services could have done to prevent this. When tragedy occurs, there is understandably the need to blame someone directly, or something. However, as this is a highly sensitive issue for many, it requires careful consideration when we dive into why these events happen, and how we can effectively prevent it. Throughout, I seek to be sensitive to the death of Sir David Amess as he was a much-admired politician who dedicated much of his life to public service, being the Member of Parliament for Southend West for over 20 years. This article will explore the UK Prevent programme in terms of the criticisms it has faced recently, central to which is the controversial debate of the extent to which the state should monitor its population in order to identify who may be a threat. Though I will not attempt to reach a definitive conclusion, I will explore answers to the following questions: is the UK’s Prevent programme to counterterrorism effective, and who is suspected to be a threat?
One of the most significant contributions to this debate comes from Tarek Younis, who centres the discussion of political extremism in the context of the UK’s counter-radicalisation policy. As the murderer of Sir David Amess was arrested under the Terrorist Act, it has led to discussions about the efficacy of the Prevent programme. The academic literature highlights that the “PREVENT counter-radicalisation policy” is deemed “particularly controversial in its attempt to identify pre-criminals”. Indeed, Younis goes on to emphasise that the criticisms have been raised by “a large number of Muslim groups, unions, and human rights organisations”, which provides room for different actors and groups within society to meaningfully discuss the state’s future approach to counterterrorism. In light of the horrific murder of Sir David Amess, Frank Gardner at the BBC reported that “the government is facing a difficult dilemma over its controversial counter-extremism programme called Prevent”. According to the Metropolitan Police, however, suspicions are not raised entirely because of someone’s religion, stating that: “no individual is targeted by police because of their culture, faith, race or religion”. Yet, there are some who would strongly contest this – as Younis states there are “Muslim community activists who say it unfairly demonises and profiles Muslims”. Multiple sources therefore criticise the Prevent programme as Muslims are unfairly believed to be a threat.
Academics across disciplines have analysed the approach of states in regards to counterterrorism policy. Younis highlights the concerns between “how and why Muslims are marginalised through counter-terrorism across the global North, as it relates to the wider web of Islamophobia”. Importantly, the way in which we perceive threats is of particular interest as it has implications for the actions taken by states, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy: “the threat of terrorism is associated with Islam and radicalised Muslims in public consciousness”. In cases where a terrorist attack occurs, the media narrative is typically rooted in religious grounds; extremism, however, is not limited to a specific religion. This should be acknowledged by states in the Prevent programme as well as in other contexts such as the media, and it highlights that the Metropolitan Police statement is not entirely true. Ultimately, believing it is only Muslims that pose a threat is racist, and should not be allowed. It is not a stretch to say that when a person of colour carries out a terrorist attack, it is immediately labelled as such, while attacks carried out by a white individuals are excused, with politicians such as Donald Trump attributing these attacks to the individual’s poor mental health. If states such as the UK are satisfied with letting suspicion be based on race and religion, the system cannot adequately look for burgeoning political extremists.
Furthermore, the ability to determine who is a threat is dependent on individuals within society. For example, Frank Gardner at the BBC states: “The programme relies on a wide range of people in society – teachers, council workers, NHS employees – to perform their ‘civic duty’ by reporting an individual’s suspected radical opinions or behaviour to Prevent officers in the local police force.” Therefore, to some extent, the responsibility is placed on individuals within society to report someone they perceive to be a threat. Understandably, this is incredibly difficult, particularly if it is based on suspicion alone; if someone is believed to hold radical beliefs, this does not allow the security services to make an arrest if there is no evidence to suggest they are planning an attack. However, in the case of Sir David Amess, the murderer is suspected to “have targeted two other MPs”. This therefore questions the efficacy of the Prevent programme, and gives evidence to suggest that this assassin was a substantial threat, yet sufficient action was not taken. Conversely, since the killing of Sir David Amess, The Telegraph reports that the threat level to MPs was being raised to “substantial“, demonstrating the will of the security services to prioritise the safety of MPs and prevent future attacks. The rise of political polarisation suggests that the re-evaluation of the Prevent programme should be a priority for the government, otherwise we risk a society that will become more polarised, and chances are, more violent.
However, the ability to entirely understand the causes of political extremism and the most effective ways to prevent it is somewhat elusive given the complexity of the topic. Such scrutiny is vital, however, to find solutions, and most importantly to save lives. Since the death of Sir David Amess, discussions surrounding the Prevent programme have become more prevalent, with this article drawing attention to current flaws such as the extent to which someone being suspected of being a threat is tied to religious belief – particularly if you are Muslim – suggesting a core difficulty the Prevent programme faces, being highly reliant on members of the public to report individuals they believe to be a potential threat.