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Feminizing How We Handle The Terror Threat

On Sunday morning, like millions of others who live in Britain, I stumbled groggily into my kitchen to hear the news that there’d been another terror attack, the second in two weeks, this time in London. Since then, there have been only-too-familiar waves of shock, horror, and mourning. And because the attacks occurred in the run up to the June 8th general election, there’s been a particularly vigorous and highly politicized debate around the nature of the government’s security strategy. Prime Minister Theresa May took a tough line, declaring “enough is enough,” saying that “there is far too much tolerance of extremism in this country,” and calling to give the police and courts the tools they need to clamp down on it. Her opponent at the polls, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn was bolder: “We must be brave enough to admit that the war on terror isn’t working.” Even so, he called for more police on the streets. For any Western politician these days, suggesting anything other than arming up in the wake of a terror attack is tantamount to political suicide.

And yet, there’s a growing argument for a new feminized strategy to tackle terror, which up to now, has been framed as a macho, military problem. I saw this hyper-militarized side to the so-called War on Terror a few weeks before, as I wandered the aisles of the Security & Counter Terror Expo, London’s annual showcase for policing and anti-terror gadgetry. Sponsored by Britain’s Department of International Trade, the expo boasted an impressively global, if overwhelmingly male, crowd. The testosterone fairly wafted around the stalls, and as I wandered, I kept wondering whether there might be a kinder, gentler alternative to all this high-priced, high-tech gadgetry.

The stands’ salesmen sold everything from conceal carry pistols and leg holsters to hand-held x-ray machines. I overhear a snatch of conversation between two men in suits. “It’s good business,” said one to the other, “but you really don’t want to be in that business.”

Indeed it is good business: by conservative estimates, the world security industry is worth an estimated $300 billion, according to Time Magazine, and annual global military spending is about 700 times bigger than the United Nation’s regular budget. But all the overseas wars waged and borders controlled clearly aren’t working: between 2000 and 2015, terrorist incidents rose nine-fold. In addition, the whizzing and buzzing gadgetry shown off at the Expo aren’t much use like the most recent attack in London, where the violent extremists managed to kill seven people, armed with nothing more high-tech than a van and some knives.

As the Islamic State urges Europe-based extremists to carry out such attacks, it is, I think, time to rethink the securitization model pushed by arms merchants and hard-line politicians. Or rather, it’s time to rethink what investing in security means, and to see a society’s long-term security as something community-based and grown long-term, rather than guarded by men in khaki and blue. In short, I’m arguing for what might be seen as a ‘feminization’ of the world of counter-terror, much as we’ve seen a feminization of the world of work and business. This new framework sees strong communities with empowered citizens as crucial, and that decent education and future for young people as a powerful deterrent to the lure of extremism.

I’m not naive: I know we live in a world where we need intell, airport security checks, judicious anti-terror legislation, and well-resourced police. But unsupported by robust education systems and other social services, the classic macho notions of what ‘protection’ looks like–wars, walls, and arms–often end up contributing to an escalation of extremism rather than its diffusion. Talk to those who’ve worked with terror recruits in Europe and Asia, and they’ll point out that they often share difficult personal lives with under-developed critical thinking skills. Support youth and families, and educate people to think critically and push back on the spurious claims of extremist recruiters, and you may take away some of the key conditions terror recruiters thrive in.

It’s a long-term and laborious road, to be sure, but the shoot ’em or lock ’em up approach simply hasn’t worked. if your goal is quelling terrorism, jail-time can actually be counter-productive. Prisons in the US and Europe have long been key hot-spots for radicalization by Islamic extremists. In the UK the Prison Officers Association found that extremists were actually applying for jobs at prisons in order to recruit inmates. Simply putting a suspect in prison might be a short-term solution, but in the long-run, it’s a huge security risk, argues Daniel Koehler, the director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies. “They might come out very angry, very frustrated, and very, very radicalized,” Koehler told PBS’s Frontline. Moreover, the extremist can easily infects others: “When you arrest one, you create three other extremists.”

In the debate about how to handle the terrorist threat, there’s a growing strain of argument for ‘soft’ approaches, from support to families and communities to deradicalization programs for former extremists. Across the world, networks of mothers of violent extremists have sprung up, supporting one another, and working to prevent extremism in their own communities. Some officials are reframing solutions to extremism by foregrounding families, not jails. Recently, when the UK’s Security Minister, Ben Wallace, visited Dewsbury, hometown to a bomber in London’s 2007 attacks, and to several ISIS recruits, he spoke not in the language of criminality, but young people’s vulnerability. Instead of talking about state surveillance, he talked in terms of mother love: “Mothers can understand their child’s frustrations,” he said. “They can show their child there is an alternative to the tricks used by groomers…”

It’s a new and controversial paradigm, to talk of mother-love and supporting youths as weapons in the war on terror. It doesn’t boost the bottom lines of arms companies. Nor does it placate people who want the sort of instant sense of security promised by ‘law and order’ leaders. But given the new dangers of low-tech, lone wolf terrorism, this new ‘soft’ model may prove strategically smarter, in the long run, than dropping bombs from drones.


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