The news that a terror suspect, Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, had slipped past surveillance because he was wearing a burka has continued to make headline news. The media clearly has a love-hate relationship with the burka which some people would argue is based more on hate and is evident in the manner in which this story was reported.
A number of sensationalist headlines were splashed over the news after the incident, for example, the Daily Mail headline read: 'Theresa May under pressure over tagging controls after terror suspects goes on the run leaving London mosque in a burka' which could clearly have had a full stop after 'terror suspect goes on the run'. Indeed, the Sun went with a much more hyper literalism to the story as they wrote: 'Terror suspect on the run after disguising himself in a burka'.
The Mirror on the other hand was intent on proving the link between him and Samantha Lewthwaite also known as the White Widow. There headline read: 'Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed: Burka fugitive is fanatical follower of White Widow.' Similarly, The Daily Star argued: 'Burka fugitive connected to the White Widow'.
However surely the most important question here was not why he was wearing the burka? I am doubtful the media would have made such a big deal of this had he disguised himself wearing a mask or wore a Spiderman suit. I think that story would have probably had less impact. I can just imagine it now: 'Terror suspect wears mask to evade surveillance'. It just does not have the same impact when you can use the word 'burka' in the headline. This has also allowed some parts of the media to continue to make 'lazy' assumptions that the burka, multiculturalism and identity are issues that are part of a wider symbiotic relationship.
The broadsheet papers went down the same path with headlines from the Guardian such as: 'Police search for missing terror suspect who escaped in burqa'. The Independent wrote: 'Terror suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed on the run after changing into burka on London mosque visit' and the Telegraph went with: 'Counter-terrorism police hunt missing suspect disguised in burka.'
Each of the news stories were accompanied with images of Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed in a burka. In some of the stories such as the Daily Mail article half the online page was dedicated to two images of him dressed in this burka and the London Evening Standard had a large photo of him dressed in a burka alongside its main headline.
I can already hear many of the reverberations from this incident ringing in my ears. Critics arguing that the burka should be banned and we told you so. Indeed, questions have already been raised about how much information the mosque knew regarding his escape. But that goes away from the real story hear which should be about how counter-terrorism legislation such as Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (T-Pims) and indeed its predecessor control orders breached people's civil liberties?
The political point scoring has already started with Labour claiming that T-Pims are a failure. But don't forget control orders under Labour were no better. We were told they were needed to prevent future terrorist activity. However, it is clear that while control orders attempted to "control" terrorist suspects and prevent further atrocities, they also had the potential of breaching the rights and liberties of individuals. They infringed the right to private and family life, the right to freedom of thought, the right to conscience and religion, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of movement, the right to freedom of association, and the right to a fair trial. They also can cause a great amount of psychological and mental distress. For example, Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a terrorist suspect, held under a control order in 2005 stated, "I only want to kill myself. I don't want to kill anybody else. I am not a danger to anybody else, but this government has made me a danger to myself. It is just as bad to be free with a control order as it is in Belmarsh prison or Broadmoor hospital."
So whilst I don't want to downplay the threat from terrorism I think the debate about why and how Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed escaped wearing a burka is counter-productive. Instead what we should be talking about is the wider issue here of counter-terrorism legislation, local communities and the impact upon civil liberties.