Guest editorial: Fight terror, but not online freedom
In her speech in the wake of the latest terror attack on Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May laid out a simple and direct strategy to bring the grinding ordeal of global Islamist terrorism to an end.
Although she got a great deal right in laying out her approach, May also touched what must, to any American, be a political third rail: not cultural sensitivity, but online freedom.
May was correct to interpret the latest attack, carried out by van with knives and phony explosive vests, as part of “a new trend” sowing fresh fear and chaos. “Things need to change,” May noted, capturing in a phrase the weariness — but also the active frustration — of millions in the West, and well beyond.
She also correctly observed that Islamist terrorism “will not be defeated by the maintenance of a permanent defensive counterterrorism operation, however skillful its leaders and practitioners.” As the radical Islamist war “becomes more complex, more fragmented, more hidden, especially online, the strategy needs to keep up.”
May offered two basic approaches to keeping up with the times.
The first points back to the deep cultural history of the West, which recognizes both individual rights and responsibilities. Those who reject the institutions protecting life, liberty and property in the Western tradition must not expect a recoiling response or the politically correct embrace of even the most radical and violent subcultures which seek to undermine our own.
Retaking this stand “will require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations,” May allowed, especially in Europe. But, especially in the United States, mainstream liberals have painted themselves into an ideological corner, where it has become all but impermissible to challenge illiberalism so long as it is “nonwhite” or leftist.
Americans also tend strongly, and rightly, to disagree with the other main approach to victory that Prime Minister May described.
Railing against social media and messaging platforms that offer terrorists safe harbor and unfettered communication, she called for “international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.” For Americans still smarting from the NSA revelations, any plan to globalize online surveillance and censorship will be met with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
But how are governments supposed to know, much less agree on, what counts as “extremist” content? Who is supposed to ensure that enough of such content — whatever that benchmark would be — is caught up in various surveillance filters and dealt with properly and expeditiously? The whole structure, scope and size of the internet seems to mock such old-style bureaucratic schemes.
Instead, the United States and its allies and partners must “keep up” strategically by targeting explicit enemies online, rather than euphemisms like “extremism,” which are liable to be overgeneralized. While some will chafe at the larger “security state” this approach implies, in this case, it spells relatively less of a “surveillance state.”
Battling radical Islamic extremists more effectively online doesn’t need to come at the cost of our cherished freedoms. But if we remain too squeamish about standing for who we are, we’ll pay that cost and more.
Orange County Register, June 6, 2017