Who is surprised? That is one question I have most wanted to know since the video was released of the murder of American journalist James Foley. The politicians keep expressing it. And interviewers have kept asking people whether they feel it. But who can honestly say that he was surprised to learn that the murderer of the American journalist turned out to be a "British" man?
American journalist James Foley (left) is shown kneeling beside the British jihadist who murdered him moments later (Image source: Islamic State video)
Did anyone really still think that a British Islamist would not be capable of doing this? Why wouldn't he do it in Iraq or Syria if his allies had already done it in London? After all, it was only last year that two other Islamists beheaded one of our own soldiers – Drummer Lee Rigby – in broad daylight in London. And it is only twelve years since another Londoner – Omar Sheikh – arranged the abduction and decapitation of another American journalist, Daniel Pearl.
What is shocking is that expressions of "shock" seem to be regarded as an adequate response. Prime Minister David Cameron has pronounced himself "appalled" by the act, and made clear that he "utterly condemns" it. As though anyone should ever have expected him to think otherwise. But this is to a great extent what government policy is reduced to in Britain, as in the United States. Politicians briefly break off their holidays in order not to do anything much, but to be seen to be doing "something." And they then make sure to stand in front of the cameras and say how opposed they are to "something." It is the denigration of people in positions where they actually could do something, to the level of the commentariat.
The question, as written here before, is not how sorry any one political leader feels about such savagery, but what they are going to do about it. And here in Britain, we are in something of a bind. We can deal with fringe details. But we are incapable of having the real debate or taking any real action that is needed. In lieu of such action, the political classes are left floundering, desperate to cling to any point, however unimportant, in order to look as they are acting.
So in the wake of the release of the Foley murder video by ISIS, the British Labour party's Shadow Home Secretary attempted to take political advantage of this affair. The truth is that the Labour party seized on this debate because it was the debate they knew best, and the one they are most comfortable going round and round on. Even the remarks of the former Conservative party Security Minister -- Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones -- who was reduced, on the BBC's Today program, to suggesting that the solution to tackling ISIS is to engage more in social media campaigns against the group. Neville-Jones is regarded as somewhat hawkish. But that even people of such stature are reduced to this, reveals something important.
Atrocity after atrocity is perpetrated by Muslims radicalized in the UK, and the debate over what to do about it remains bizarrely circumscribed and ineffectual. Surely somewhere in the conversation and response should be the expression of a desire for a strategy against ISIS which has at its base the utter eradication of the group -- wholesale battlefield victory against them, killing their members and leadership in their entirety. Would that not be a desirable objective? I have yet to hear a mainstream politician suggest this or even talk in these terms. Indeed, there has been debate in the UK press suggesting we should hope that some of these ISIS killers come back to Britain, realize that jihad was all a phase and then head off to university for the start of a new term.
And then there are the longer-term objectives. Since writing about it in this place, a number of other media have finally picked up one of the most concerning statistics to show the failure of integration at which we are staring in Britain: that more British Muslims are fighting together with ISIS than with the UK Armed Forces. This is just a tip of the problem. On a BBC show after news of the murder of James Foley, I found myself discussing these matters with young British Muslims. All condemned the act. One – the Ahmadiyya Muslim in the group – was superb in his utter abhorrence of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam and his repeated and sincere expressions of pride in Britain and British achievements in the world. But among the others? Well one of them -- a nice and nicely presented young man said that this was totally abhorrent because "a non-combatant should not be treated like this." "Well sure," I was forced to say. "But why only non-combatants? Is there a time when even 'combatants' -- or anyone else -- should be treated in this way? And who is to say who is a combatant and who not?"
Even more concerning was a young woman from Nottingham who spent as much time as possible talking about the "alienation" and "rejection" which a lot of young Muslims feel. It was repeatedly pointed out to her that there isn't a young person of any religion or background who does not feel alienation at some point. The vital question then, is not just whether such a sense of grievance is justified, but whether there are people seeking to manipulate and then play into such grievances and what extremes some individuals might urge vulnerable minds to as a result. A snapshot of my fellow guest's own thinking was available in her own condemnation of the murder. The beheading of James Foley was terrible, she stressed, because among other things "we don't know what [his] views were."
Here again a little peep-hole into a mainstream and radical world view becomes possible. What if James Foley had not been -- as he appears to have been -- a man with a deep desire to bring out the terrible stories and sufferings of the region, but someone who was ambivalent to them? What if he had been the most pro-intervention bomb-them-all-to-hell right-winger? Or a member of the Republican Party? What if he had been a Zionist? Or a Jew?
There are poisonous attitudes and lies going around unmolested in this country. And they are one of the causes of the repeated international shame that is coming down upon us. These ideas -- hatred and suspicion of the actions of Britain, America, Israel and our other liberal, democratic allies -- act as the background music to radicalization. This music plays to exactly the sort of people who are going out to fight with ISIS and exactly the sort of people who think that although they might condemn a beheading in this circumstance, it isn't always a cut-and-dry issue.
The BBC is reporting about the voice of James Foley's killer: "Some experts think the accent sounds like the man comes from London, as it is a mixture of multicultural speech patterns often heard on the streets of the city."
It certainly does sound "like the man comes from London." And as I recall saying after the last decapitation performed by a British man, the unspoken British deal on multiculturalism appears to come to light at such moments. The deal -- the acceptance and accommodation -- appears to be that mass, uncontrolled immigration has brought us all sorts of benefits, including a greater variety of food and cheap labour. The downside is that we have to put up with, among other things, a bit more beheading than we have been used to. But much of the political class appears to be content with this bargain. I beg to differ. As horrors like those of this week mount, a great many more people might feel that way too.
 The Shadow Home Secretary said the problem was the government's watering-down of Control Orders -- which had been brought in by the former Labour government. Control Orders give the state the ability to put someone under 24-hour surveillance or house arrest, necessitated by the then Labour government's unwise signature of the European Convention on Human Rights. True, the coalition government – under pressure from the Liberal Democrats in the coalition -- very slightly watered these Orders down to satisfy critics. But this has nothing to do with this case. So far as anyone knows the murderer of James Foley is not somebody who slipped any surveillance measures in the UK. And rather obviously a TPIM or Control Order being slapped on an individual -- however British -- is no use if that particular individual is at present beheading American journalists inside the no-go-zone of the Islamic State. That this was the best the Labour opposition could come up with is telling.