A French court was right to overturn the burkini ban, but that is not the only foolish response to terrorism
A TERRORIST drove a lorry into a crowd on Bastille Day, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds. This atrocity took place near a beach. So a number of French seaside towns decided to ban Islamic swimwear in public (see article). This is an idiotic policy, and a French court was right to overturn it. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy, a former French president who launched his campaign to regain the Elysée last week, wants to change the constitution and impose a nationwide ban on burkinis. Why?
As a measure to prevent terrorism, such a ban would be useless. Muslim women who wear modest swimsuits do so because they like swimming but would prefer not to expose lots of flesh. They are not hiding weapons under their burkinis. More important, giving officials the power to order women to disrobe is an affront to human dignity. Does anyone seriously imagine that this power would not be abused? It is as if Mr Sarkozy wants to turn a drunken rugby chant into government policy. A burkini ban would also alienate moderate Muslims, whose co-operation is desperately needed if France is to gather intelligence and foil actual terrorist plots. The notion that the burkini is a form of “enslavement of women”, as Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, put it, and so offensive that it is likely to cause disorder, is preposterous.
Strip-searching, without the searching
Alas, the burkini ban is not the only noxious response to jihadism that Western leaders are mulling. Mr Sarkozy wants all suspected Islamist militants either to be put into detention camps or made to wear electronic tags, regardless of whether they have committed a crime. He would also ban headscarves and Muslim prayer from public places. He claims to be defending laïcité (secularism). Liberté, apparently, can go hang.
The prospect of a contest between Mr Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen to decide who can bait Muslims more in the run-up to next year’s French presidential election is distressing. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has called for a ban on immigration to America by foreigners from countries racked by terrorism, urged the murder of terrorists’ families and vowed to deploy forms of torture “tougher than waterboarding”.
Politicians make such promises because they think voters want to hear them. Some clearly do, partly because they have an exaggerated idea of the danger that terrorism poses. A recent poll finds that 77% of Americans who follow the news believe that Islamic State (IS) is a serious threat to “the existence or survival of the US”. Mr Trump agrees. If America doesn’t get tough on terrorism soon, he has said, “we’re not going to have a country any more—there will be nothing left.”
Nonsense. For America (and most other countries) terrorism is a real threat, but not an existential one (see article). In the seven months that included the San Bernardino and Orlando shootings, Americans were nearly 300 times more likely to die in a car crash than a terror attack. Even in the past year, a French citizen was three times more likely to be the victim of an ordinary murderer than of a terrorist. Groups such as IS aim to spread fear. Using hyperbolic language about their power helps them achieve this aim. Ill-judged “security theatre”, such as sending heavily armed soldiers to patrol French beaches, may make people feel more anxious than safe.
IS will eventually be evicted from the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria. The end of the “caliphate” will reduce its power to inspire terrorists in the rest of the world, but not eliminate it. Western security services have proved (mostly) effective at preventing large, complex attacks. Stopping lone wolves is much harder: anyone can rent a lorry and crash it into a crowd. So the spooks will have to remain vigilant.
But it is no disrespect to IS’s victims to suggest that counter-terrorism policy should be measured and judicious. The aim should be to stop the largest number of attacks with the minimum intrusion into people’s lives. That means spying on suspects, but not locking them up without charge or harassing the communities from which they come. Over-reacting, as Barack Obama put it, can undercut “the essence of who we are”.