Sarah Sands: The danger in our midst now is the amateur terrorist

Sarah Sands
Attack: a gunman at Orly airport in Paris grabs a soldier from behind: AP

The French gunman shot by soldiers at Orly airport in Paris on Saturday fitted a profile. Zied Ben Belgacem, who put a gun to a soldier’s head saying he wanted to “die for Allah”, was Paris-born, a thief and drug taker who was radicalised in prison. He reportedly went on the attack with a copy of the Koran, a gun and a container of petrol. His father said: “My son was not a terrorist. He never prayed and he drank. But under the effects of alcohol and cannabis this is where one ends up.”

Parents tend to be indulgent towards their children, and we do not know the full influences on Belgacem, but the lack of clarity on cause-and-effect raises a new danger. We still expect terrorists to be part of an organised network but we are witnessing the rise of, as it were, the amateur terrorist. Those who are attracted to nihilism, who are unhinged either by drugs or other kinds of alienation, and who think they might blow people up in a crowd just for the hell of it.

There has been a category discussion since crimes by Right-wing extremists were classed by the Home Office as terrorism. Was Jo Cox’s murderer less of a terrorist because he had no named network behind him? He was tried for a crime but his admiration for the Nazis led to his classification as a terrorist. Thomas Mair was an evil man united to a cause. There was not choreography but there was inspiration.

It certainly makes the public feel safer if violent attacks are not classed as terrorism. When a London teenager knifed an American tourist to death in Russell Square last August the city was put on high alert. A police officer heard Zakaria Bulhan calling “Allah, Allah, Allah” but this was not considered relevant to the case. The plea of diminished responsibility was accepted, the killing attributed to an episode of paranoid schizophrenia. London returned to normal.

To those who live among intense and perpetual violence, Western distinctions can seem a bit simplistic. A woman academic I met on a recent trip to Afghanistan said to me that if a bus of soldiers is blown up, or university students attacked, it doesn’t much matter whether it is regarded as a crime or terrorism. The victims are still dead. It is the climate of violence which is the deeper problem.

An advantage that London has over Paris is that stretch of water. We have much better control over guns than mainland Europe. But we are not protected from disturbed individuals who have access to crude devices and are fuelled by drugs, rage or fantasies. Counter-terrorism teams have no doubt that the internet can influence an abnormal mind to do terrible things. If you’re watching child sex online, what does that do to you? Beheading videos dehumanise those who watch them. Of course they do.

If we are dealing with deranged individuals rather than groups as the next terror threats we all need to be vigilant and responsible. That goes for tech companies such as Google and Facebook, which can no longer stand outside nations and societies. They are stakeholders like the rest of us. We are in this fight against terror together.

It’s no longer cool to rebel. Be clever

The gifted London architect, Amanda Levete, who is responsible for the V&A extension, revealed on Desert Island Discs that she was a rebellious young woman before she became the darling of the Establishment. She observed that in her youth it was fashionable to turn your back on education but now it is cool to be clever.

It is true that everyone is smartening up. A benign effect of technology is the respect for brains. I used to boast about my St Trinian’s approach to education but am po-faced about it these days. Funnily enough, the tech-inspired new generation of schools are as laissez-faire as I used to be.

Pupils can learn what they want, when they want. This is a philosophy shared by the best and the worst of schools. If it is indeed cool to be clever now, the future of education is going to be very exciting indeed.

Respect to the multitaskers

The next editor of The Evening Standard is a busy man and there is a political row going on about his multitasking. On Friday, Radio 4’s PM programme sent reporters to ask Standard vendors and readers what they thought about George Osborne being an MP as well as a newspaper editor. They picked the wrong people.

London practically invented the plural economy — true, many work to keep their heads above water. A forthcoming book on Generation Z and their working habits reveals a free-thinking approach to work. Generation Z have a “DIY attitude” to job skills, thanks to YouTube. Seventy-five per cent of those surveyed said they wanted jobs “where they could serve multiple roles at once”.

I was proud of the phlegmatic verdict of a vox-popped Londoner to Osborne’s Renaissance career: “If he can manage it, good luck to him.”

* I shall be vacating my office in just over a month, so I am starting to take down the framed front pages of the past few years, so that the new incumbent can choose his own. “May to be PM” is one I might hurriedly remove, as well as the dramatic news picture of David Cameron and Samantha Cameron leaving Downing Street.

Another memorable front page on the wall is Handshake of History, the day Martin McGuinness met the Queen on Wednesday June 27, 2012. It happened to be the day that Tony Blair was guest-editing the newspaper.

Peace and politics, like journalism, is all about timing.

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