Comment: Cameron ‘terrorist sympathisers’ remark bodes poorly for his security approach

The comments are troubling in the light of the government's new surveillance powers


David Cameron’s comments about those who stand against British airstrikes in Syria, and his reluctance to apologise for the remarks, epitomise concerns about the Conservatives’ ability to deal reasonably and wisely with the threat of terrorism.

The prime minister reportedly referred to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other opponents of the proposal as ‘terrorist sympathisers‘ on the eve of the Syria debate.

During the early stages of the debate on the following day, whilst tellingly not attempting a denial, Cameron repeatedly refused to apologise for his comment.

Are we now expected to trust that this government will be reasonable, sensible, balanced and accurate in its actions at a difficult time for the UK, when its leader musters such an unreasonable, ludicrous, unbalanced and inaccurate reaction to a basic democratic challenge to his stance?

The UK, along with many other states, faces a dangerous and tumultuous period, with fears over the threat of terror attacks having increased dramatically in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Whilst prudence and resoluteness are obviously crucial, proportionality and consideration are equally essential in the fight to maintain the liberal-democratic way of life that forms the foundation of our society.

This duality of vigilance and restraint, and attempts to find balance therein, is at the heart of current debates over the wisdom and implications of amending the government’s investigatory powers. It also has a huge role to play in precisely how the UK and its armed forces reacts internationally to the threat and power of ISIL.

Included in the concerns of opponents to mass data collection and analysis is the assertion that fundamental privacy rights, cornerstones of Western-liberal ideology, are unacceptably compromised (or shattered) in the interests of security.

Meanwhile, sceptics of the moral and practical justifications for air assaults in Syria worry that strikes cannot be sufficiently surgical to target only the chief enemy or to avoid intangible negative consequences on the ground.

Supporters of both point to, of course, the priority of preventing terrorists’ attacks and limiting, or even destroying, the fanatics’ ability to grow and develop as an organisation. However, fewer of those backers would remain in place were the maintenance of security to come at the cost of suffering a desperately over-suspicious and invasive state, or in the event of airstrikes proving to be highly destructive to non-combatant, innocent people.

Unfortunately, though, for both detractors and supporters of the Conservative Party’s recent moves, it has just become significantly more difficult to trust that the government is capable of showing the appropriate restraint required in such trying times.

David Cameron has implied that he now sees anybody who disagrees with him on this issue as a security threat. The possibility of the government using sensitive digital information in a responsible manner that minimises  collateral damage now looks slimmer than ever. 

Cameron could not find within himself enough precision to avoid telling an influential committee that its members ‘should not be walking through the lobbies with … a bunch of terrorist sympathisers’. He also could not muster the decency to apologise for his mistake. 

This does not inspire much hope that his government will exercise proportionality and accountability during this difficult period.

David Maher is a journalist and member of the Green party

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