Within a six week period, the West has been victim to three violent attacks: the Boston Marathon bombings, the savage attack on a soldier in London's Woolwich district, and the seemingly copycat knife attack on a French soldier in Paris. Suspects are being held in custody for all three attacks and legal proceedings are underway, so it is legally inappropriate to comment on the alleged perpetrators of these crimes. But we can say with certainty that, thanks to the successes within the so-called war on terror, we have now entered a period in our history where terror attacks committed by organized cells are less likely to occur in the West compared to assaults by lone wolf individuals.
This is a nightmare scenario for counterterrorism agencies in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere, all of whom are confronted with an age-old conundrum: how can you stop an assassin when you don't know his name, his target, and the timings of his intended attack? This problem is compounded by the fact that many lone wolves are individuals who've never committed a crime before, let alone a terror attack.
Given that the profile of many of these lone wolves is that of a radicalized young male Islamist, many politicians and citizens on both sides of the Atlantic are arguing that agencies like the FBI and Britain's broad equivalent, MI5, should focus their efforts on identifying and monitoring individuals who are undergoing the process of radicalization. The argument here is that, though radicalized individuals can't be arrested simply for holding anti-libertarian views, they can be pounced on by surveillance teams the moment they pick up a gun or a meat cleaver and walk into a crowded city.
Aside from the gargantuan logistical effort that would be required to put tens of thousands of angry young men on 24/7 surveillance, an effort that would require our domestic security services to have their budgets and staffing increased ten-fold, I believe this tactic would be counter-productive and question whether it has a place in libertarian societies.
Most angry young men, whether radicalized or not, talk the talk but don't have the stomach to walk the walk. That's because, in their hearts, they know right from wrong and don't want to get in trouble. But putting such citizens into a position whereby the state is telling them that they are potential "criminals" and are being watched, will produce a feeling that they are being ostracized and victimized. By way of recent historical comparison, we have seen in the West how the police victimization of law-abiding young black people can ultimately produce violent backlashes that could otherwise have been avoided.
There is also the more complex philosophical issue of how far our democratically elected governments should be allowed to intrude in our lives for the sake of our personal security. Can a state diminish the freedom of law abiding citizens in order to protect itself? Yes it can. Should it do so? Not if it wholeheartedly believes that its principals of liberalism and egalitarianism must be protected at all costs and serve as a noble example to the rest of the world. However, we live in the real world and Western legislation pertaining to the surveillance of its citizens has always needed to take an awkward, meandering path that balances the practical need for security alongside the principals of liberty. But we are now at a point where lone wolf attacks committed by homegrown terrorists are in real danger of prompting opinions, debate, and ultimately new legislation that tips the balance toward the imperative of security versus the freedom of a law abiding individual.
When I was a kid, like many other male teenagers at the time, I went through a brief period of being a rebel without a cause. I broke a couple of windows, got in a few fights, and did other naughty stuff. I did so because I wanted to prove my somewhat misplaced sense of "masculinity" to my peers. Nothing came of it, because I grew up and understood what it really meant to be a man. The problem we're seeing now is that radicalized angry young men are rebels with a cause, and that cause can make a tiny percentage of men commit abhorrent acts of violence.
We need agencies like the FBI and MI5 to continue their excellent work in combating terrorism. We need legislation that enables them and other agencies to do their job, yet doesn't force them into a position of acting like an oppressive state's secret police. That way, we'll get some of the lone wolves. But most of them will slip through the net.
The best tactic that democratic societies can adopt to combat radicalized, homegrown terrorists is to confront the cause itself and expose it for what it is: a factually incorrect, intellectually flaccid, bundle of vitriolic nonsense. We need to be proud of our history, heritage, compassion, multiculturalism, liberalism, politics, arts and literature, and of the stuff that we've made with our bare hands. I've spoken to former radicalized men who thankfully never made the transition into terrorist, and instead turned their back on radicalism for the simple reason that they matured into responsible adults. They all told me the same thing: nobody sat down with them years ago and systematically and coherently dismantled the extremist propaganda they'd been fed and replaced it with the truisms of the democratic country they lived within - truisms that include the fact that if a citizen disagrees with something his government is doing, he can lobby, protest, express his opinions freely, and ultimately vote against his government at the next election.
Politicians, religious officials, community leaders, and you and I can all play a key role in delivering this message. We should do so for the sake of everyone in our communities: everyone including mixed-up radicalized young men who've not yet become lone wolves.
Matthew Dunn is a former MI6 operative who spent years combating terrorism, while operating deep cover in hostile overseas locations. He is the author of Spycatcher series of espionage novels, including the forthcoming SLINGSHOT (published 25 June 2013, HarperCollins/William Morrow).