History Shows That Simon Jenkins's Call to "Downplay" Our Reaction to Terrorism is Naïve

Sir Simon Jenkins, a former editor of The Times, opines that "The scariest thing about Brussels is our reaction to it." [, 24 March 2016]. Jenkins is right to caution against over-reacting to terrorism, but under-reacting is even more dangerous.

Sir Simon Jenkins, a former editor of The Times, opines that "The scariest thing about Brussels is our reaction to it." [The Guardian, 24 March 2016]. Jenkins is right to caution against over-reacting to terrorism, but under-reacting is even more dangerous. The media frenzy over every terrorist incident must indeed delight the terrorists. Maximum publicity is exactly what they want in order to cow - to terrorize -- the population. They must rub their hands with glee every time one of their exploits becomes "Breaking News" and dominates the news and the talking heads for days.

Morbid Curiosity

The media can of course defend their obsession on grounds of public interest - in both senses of the term: first, that it is in the public interest to be kept informed, but secondly just simply pandering to the public's morbid curiosity.

The media can also get on their high horse about holding the government and security services to account, but revealing that the authorities are in disarray plays straight into the hands of the terrorists. And the authorities are themselves far too open about the progress (or lack thereof) of their enquiries in pursuit of suspects. Terrorists watch television too!

The one big exception to all this is where the media assist the apprehension of terrorist suspects by publishing their photographs and asking members of the public to turn them in. In this respect at least the media play a valuable role in combating terrorism.


Simon Jenkins boldly declares that: "We know that, in reality, life in Britain has never been safer." If that appears to be so, it is only by virtue of the brave efforts of our security services in nipping terrorist plots in the bud. In October 2015 Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, revealed that six planned attacks had been thwarted in the previous 12 months. [The Independent, 16 November 2015[. Nothing daunted, Simon Jenkins cites with approval an academic's opinion that the threat to democracy is not the "limited danger of death and destruction", but the danger "of provoking ill-judged, extravagant and counterproductive state responses". Tell that to the innocent victims of terrorist atrocities: "The murder of your loved ones was the inevitable result of a limited danger, but don't worry we still have our democracy!"

Besides being callous, this attitude is naïve and also short-sighted. With or without media hype, the danger of terrorism will inevitably affect people's behaviour, making them increasingly distrustful of their neigbours and afraid to board a plane or even a train: a lockdown mentality will pervade the land.

"The Kerensky Syndrome"

Moreover, under-reacting to terrorism, as Jenkins suggests, will only embolden the terrorists further. This is what I call "the Kerensky Syndrome". Alexander Kerensky was the democratic socialist Prime Minister of Russia after the "February Revolution", the first revolution of 1917. His relaxed liberal policy and weak government gave an opening to Lenin and his Bolsheviks to seize power in the misnamed "October Revolution" later that same year, resulting in nearly 75 years of Communist rule. Kerensky himself was lucky enough to escape to America and spent the rest of his life puzzling over why democracy had failed in Russia. He never realized that the cause was his own government's weakness in the face of Lenin's ruthlessness. A similar pattern can be detected in the fall of Germany's liberal democratic Weimar Republic in the face of Nazi terrorism. [See Michael Arnheim, Two Models of Government, 2016].

Rights vs. Rights

Simon Jenkins concludes his piece: "The menace of Brussels lies not in the terror, but in the reaction to the terror. It is the reaction we should fear. But liberty never emerges from a Cobra bunker." This is the expression of an oft-repeated fallacy - the belief that human rights and national security are at opposite poles and have to be balanced one against the other. It is a fallacy reiterated by British judges who repeatedly thwart the implementation of security legislation. The real conflict is not between human rights and national security but between human rights and human rights -- the rights of special interest groups including terrorist suspects against the rights of the majority. Most people recognise, for example, that being subjected to tight security, although not always pleasant, is as much in their own personal interest as in the national interest. The term "national security" is really just shorthand for the individual human rights of the overwhelming majority of law-abiding and peace-loving citizens. [See Michael Arnheim, The Problem with Human Rights Law, Civitas, 2015].


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