When a man is brutally murdered, a detective will ask what the motive was. A criminologist will try to identify the social, cultural, political or economic conditions behind that motive. They do not do this out of sympathy with the killer, or to try to blame others. They simply want to understand why it happened so they might then stop it from happening again.
Last month, a man was murdered in Woolwich, and his killer was videoed admitting responsibility and explaining his motive. "The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying everyday", he said. According to the courageous cub scout leader who confronted the attacker, he explained that "I killed him because he killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan."
As his words clearly demonstrate, anger about British foreign policy was a significant motivational factor for the carrying out of this barbaric attack. But many commentators and political figures seem unwilling to accept that our policies overseas might have helped motivate the attacker. Boris Johnson said it was "wrong to try to draw any link between this murder and foreign policy or the actions of British forces." An article by James Bloodworth in The Huffington Post strongly downplayed the importance of foreign policy as a motivational factor for terrorism in the West, claiming that "it is modernity in all its variety and colour that they really have a problem with." Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian "don't rest your argument (against Western foreign policy) on the threat of blowback violence. For...in today's world horror can come from any direction." This received the approval of Times columnist Oliver Kamm, who re-tweeted the article and criticised those who had sought "to explain terrorist atrocities."
But is this a rational and sensible response to a serious security threat? A responsible person would ask why the threat exists and what we can do to reduce it. After the riots in 2011, the responsible among us asked what the social, economic and cultural conditions were that fostered such anger and criminality. The responsible among us are asking the same questions today, not out of sympathy for the murderers, but as a service to the British public, so that we might reduce the chances of it happening again.
The intention is not to shift blame onto others. The attackers who carried out the murder of Lee Rigby are 100% responsible for what they have done. Our governments might be responsible for creating some of the grievances that helped motivate the attack, but they are not responsible for the attack itself. But it is impossible to argue the former without being accused of believing the latter. After Natalie Bennett called for Britain to "stop regarding ourselves as the world's policeman" if we want to reduce the threat of terrorism, the headline ran 'Green Party leader blames Woolwich attack on UK acting like world's policemen.'
But the suggestion that our policies in the Muslim world increase hostility towards us and raise the threat of terrorism is not just coming from the critics of British foreign policy. It is also the conclusion drawn by countless intelligence reports, academic studies and leading members of the intelligence-gathering community. It was, for example, predicted in 2003 by the Joint Intelligence Committee that invading Iraq would increase the threat from groups like al Qaeda, which were "by the far the greatest threat" at the time. The former head of the MI5 confirmed that they had been proved right in 2010, stating that the threat had been "substantially" increased by our involvement in Iraq. Across the Atlantic, sixteen US government agencies released a highly authoritative report in 2006 that came to the same conclusion: Iraq had led to an increase in the threat of terrorism on US soil. A high-level study by Peter Borgen and Paul Cruickshank released a year later found that the rate of jihadi terrorist attacks had increased by a factor of seven, and again cited Iraq as the cause.
These findings, and countless others, indicate that our policies in the Muslim world are in fact undermining national security and endangering the public, when they are supposed to protect us. After Wednesday's tragic events, another example of terror motivated by foreign policy and fuelled by a twisted worldview, we must ask ourselves an important question: are our policies in the Middle East worth the consequences they have for national security?
For our own protection, we must discuss the security implications of our actions, not because the consequences are our fault, but because it would be irresponsible not too, perhaps dangerously so. And it should be of serious concern to the entire British public, menaced by the threat of terrorism, that so few among our political, media and intellectual elite want to have that debate.