The political response to the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich crime sent a confusing signal. In the UK, terrorism is treated as a crime and it is the responsibility of law enforcement to prevent, detect and pursue terrorist offences. The brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks on Wednesday was a shock to the nation, but it also conjured an unfortunate political response.
For what other serious and violent crime does a prime minister cut short a foreign visit, convene (and even chair) the cabinet office briefing room (popularly known as Cobra), and make statements to the assembled ranks of domestic and international media? The immediate reaction energized the sensationalist instincts of the media, fed speculation and added to the foment. The convening of Cobra sent the message that this was a crime too big for the police to cope with on its own.
By being so quick on the draw, this aberration in well-established procedures relating to the pursuit of terrorist crime may well reinforce rather than mitigate the aim of terrorism, which is to disrupt the normal governance of the country and even the maintenance of good international relationships.
For example, what subjects were not discussed between the UK and French premiers on Wednesday as David Cameron upped sticks and flew home, that could have brought future benefits in other areas? What was the opportunity cost of the disrupted political discourse in Paris?
Another consequence of instant strategic level political involvement in response to this sort of terrorist crime is to raise the likelihood of replica attacks in the future.
In the longer term, it will be useful to analyse the influence of crowdsourced imagery on how the response was geared up. Did graphic images delivered quickly from the scene via smart phones catalyze a disproportionate response, before timely inputs by law enforcement professionals could make sense of what was being seen on the multiplicity of media channels?
However, a key question arising from Wednesday is the matter of convening Cobra. The UK government did not convene Cobra for single attacks during the mainland IRA campaign of the 1980s and 1990s. Convening Cobra (which is a decision made by ministers rather than civil servants or the emergency services) for this single crime could undercut the police's primacy in the antiterrorism response role, if it is now perceived that the management of a terrorist incident and its operational aftermath automatically becomes a political (ie central governmental) responsibility, whatever the scale of the crime.
Who, in the future, will be responsible for the immediate actions if the police anticipate (perhaps wrongly on occasions) that Cobra will be convened after every such event? What information will Cobra be requiring from police command structures, even while those same structures are trying to concentrate on Kipling's 'six honest serving men': what, why, when, how, where and who? In major incidents that require the use of Cobra's unique power of national-level co-ordination, there is considerable appetite for its members to dive down into the tactical detail of what is happening at the scene, rather than concentrating on the big picture. This propensity can disrupt the emergency services' well-rehearsed response mechanisms, including the vital role of informing and reassuring the public. Who should appear on the TV as the calming influence with vital advice to citizens – will it be a police officer or politician?
Furthermore, in UK national emergency management doctrine, there is a system whereby the most appropriate (and, for most types of emergency, a predetermined) department of state takes ownership of the national response and chairs Cobra when it is convened. For the phenomenon of crime (and thus terrorism), the lead department is the Home Office, and Cobra meetings would thus be chaired by the home secretary. But, in this case, it was the prime minister who decided to chair. What precedent does this set for the country's emergency management doctrine?
No matter how base and disgusting the crime, the Woolwich site is in essence just that – a scene of crime – and the responsibility for the response was and is the preserve of the police. Other underlying issues, such as the co-ordination of repudiation statements by leaders of ethnic and religious communities does not need a meeting of Cobra.
Yes, this sort of activity requires co-ordination, but once Cobra (whose brand relates to national-level challenges of immediate nature) is convened for crimes such as the one that unfurled in Woolwich, then the wrong signals are being sent; first, to the public, who might become increasingly frightened rather than reassured, and, secondly, to the plethora of wrongdoers in society who want to make their respective points at the highest levels possible. The two criminals this week probably achieved political level recognition of their crime well beyond their expectation.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian's Comment is Free.