“At least in London they weren’t afraid to have it”, writes Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker this week. “It” is a debate on the causes of and solutions to terrorism, and what precisely the word means. The British are used to terrorism — it has been used against them for centuries, and has followed them whenever and wherever their imperialist ambitions have taken them, including the notorious Boston Tea Party, where the terrorists were the people of the nation that, today, is afraid to have the debate. Why are they afraid? Because they know that there are few answers, and the ones they do come up with they won’t like. Better not to think about it, just prepare for it (but how?) and lash out with vengeance when it happens.
But let’s start with the definition of the term. Terrorism means, simply, the use or threat of force or violence to intimidate, to strike fear or to coerce action. Some dictionaries add the word “unlawfully”, but I think that addition is both unnecessary and problematic. So the regular behaviour of the world’s despots and their thugs is terrorism. Saddam Hussein was clearly a terrorist. So were and are the Taliban leaders. So are most of the third world’s governments, many of which we in the West recognize and treat as legitimate, and in many cases support with arms and other military assistance that facilitates their terrorism. The government and the muttawa’a (religious vigilantes) of Saudi Arabia, who hate each other but live in an uneasy truce, are both terrorists, as are the Ku Klux Klan, and those who threaten and bomb abortion clinics and assassinate doctors. The US Department of Homeland Security is (perhaps inadvertently) a terrorist organization — it certainly terrifies me, when I fly into the US, to know that they have unlimited rights to arrest, indefinitely detain and deport people to countries which then torture and murder them, based on nothing more than the personal judgement of any one civic official. Police forces everywhere in the world that depend on intimidation and harassment of people to keep order are terrorists. Indeed, in many cities and countries civil order would break down without the constant fear of crackdowns by officials — terror of authorities is used where respect for law is absent, and that it the case in at least parts of every country in the world. And in institutions like cults, schools, churches, and even many families, the threat of force (such as detention, corporal punishment, humiliation and expulsion — which inflicts shunning, one of the most effective forms of psychological violence to our naturally social species) is often omnipresent. Terrorism is everywhere, constant and unavoidable.
It is customary to ‘draw the line’ at terrorism that is aimed deliberately or recklessly at civilians or at officials and military personnel deemed to be well-intentioned, but here once again we get into trouble. If you are sufficiently desperate or ignorant that you see civilians as complicit in the support of terrorism against you, you could argue that suicide bombing is as much an anti-terrorist act as the overthrow of the Taliban. And who is to judge whether the actions of one group or state or military force, whether those actions be military, political, social, legal, or economic, are ‘well-intentioned’? The sanctions against Iraq during the reign of US-installed and US-supported Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of civilians (by depriving them of medicines and other essentials of life). How can we fail to see why millions perceive the installation of Saddam and the later sanctions against the Iraqi people when we changed our minds about him (let alone the subsequent invasion and occupation of the country) as terrorist acts?
If you are a believer that many or most people are weak and prone to behave badly if not kept in line, this line is not hard to draw. It is simply the line between ‘good’ (people who terrorize others with good intentions or because they have no other alternative) and ‘evil’ (all other terrorists). It then becomes simple to define only the terrorist acts of ‘evil’ people as terrorism. The terrorizing actions of ‘good’ people are simply necessary. The irony, of course, is that, as the cartoon above shows, it is not at all uncommon to have opposing groups each seeing their actions as necessary and the other’s as terrorism.
For those of us who do not have such a jaundiced view of human nature, this distinction is much harder to make. When Bush says “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” he’s trying to herd everyone into accepting this conservative and negative view of humanity. And he believes it. He and many other conservatives simply cannot fathom how other ‘good’ people could commit such an act. They are either insane or evil, and the conservative mind is not terribly fussed about which (as their proclivity for executing the insane demonstrates).
And here’s where the debate in the UK, where conservative thinking is less rampant than it is in the US, comes in. Indeed, the heading of Gopnik’s article is ‘Not Scared’, which suggests that the attempt to “intimidate, strike fear or coerce action” did not work and will not work in that country. Gopnik says the debate there is between
the old right and the old left against the Thatcherite right and the Blairite left. And, while in America the argument that a war on terror might not be ìwinnable,î or that the terrorists might not be madmen but shrewd and calculating militants with a clear cause, has often seemed almost unsayable, everyone in London was either offering it or offering a refutation of it… The antiwar left (and right) did not hesitate to blame Blair and Bush for what had happened in London… As early as Friday morning, journalists like Tariq Ali, in the Guardian, were saying flatly that what had happened had happened because Britain was in Iraq. The United States and Britain began the war in Iraq with the certainty, the argument goes, that they would cause many civilian casualties in pursuit of their political goal, and that the response, however brutal and inhumane, is part of the normal calculations of organized violence. Against this argument is the view that the new kind of terrorism is essentially nihilist and apocalyptic, and that Iraq is only a kind of inchoate excuse.
So, says Gopnik (after a bizarre and ill-reasoned dismissal of a BBC documentary’s argument that almost all terrorism is largely spontaneous and uncoordinated, and an equally bizarre dismissal of the legitimacy of George Galloway’s argument that some kind of terrorist reaction to Britain’s involvement in Iraq was inevitable), the British are debating whether the acts of the subway bombers were psychopathic and nihilistic, or shrewd and rational. He concludes that they were both.
When I read this I was stunned. Could it be that even staffers on the most informed and informing magazine in the US still don’t get it — that they really believe terrorists are either insane or evil? This is a profoundly conservative argument, and it is precisely Bush’s argument, the only difference being that the British at least respect the distinction between insanity and evil, and offer different solutions depending on which motivated the behaviour.
It’s hard to believe that Gopnik cannot see that the BBC documentary has it exactly right. There are conceivably as many as a billion people on this planet who, out of desperation or ignorance, see the West as the cause of their plight (with some justification) and who see attacks on the West as counter-terrorist activity, as necessary to end the terrorism that they perceive they are suffering from. You saw them cheering in the streets of Palestine the day after 9/11. This billion people is neither a ruthless, coordinated and evil group of shrewd schemers, nor are they a billion insane, nihilistic and deranged madmen. No one could organize that broad and intense hatred. And if there’s a billion people all suffering from the same form of madness, we need to think about our definition of insanity.
And, although he showed a deplorable lack of tact, George Galloway also has it exactly right. When you have a billion people who hate you, many of whom live in your midst, and many more of whom hear your Prime Minister with his arm around George Bush making preposterous excuses for attacking Iraq and killing thousands of civilians on top of the hundreds of thousands already killed by Saddam when he was the West’s ally and by the cruel sanctions imposed by the West, on the basis that it posed some kind of imminent threat to the West, some of those billion people are going to do what their Western counterparts, the American conservatives, did: take up arms against the perceived enemy. Any way they can. Why is this so hard to understand?
As many of you know, I live in Canada, a country that refused to send troops to Iraq despite fierce American threats (including some from the former US wingnut ambassador that met the above definition of terrorism), but which did put troops in Afghanistan, a country that outside of its capital city remains anarchic, destitute, and unimaginably brutal. Canada still has troops there. Canada also supported the sanctions against Iraq and has largely supported Western positions on most issues in the Third World including the Middle East. Canada has a large number of immigrants from the Middle East, many of whom are as vocal in their opposition to Canada’s foreign policy as the radicals from whom the London subway bombers came. I believe it is less likely that Canada will be the victim of a major terrorist attack, by anyone, for the simple reason that we are a smaller, less visible and less strident nation in our public policies. I believe, however, that it is absolutely inevitable that Canada will eventually be the victim of an attack of some kind, for precisely the same reason it was inevitable in the UK. After the London bombings the head of the Toronto subway system laughed that it wouldn’t happen here because the terrorists would first have to be able to find Toronto. The idiot should have been fired on the spot for that remark.
I also believe that there is absolutely nothing we can or should do about it. The British have been trying to be vigilant about terrorism for centuries, and are one of the most prepared nations on the planet, but they were unable to prevent either the bombings of two weeks ago or the ‘warning’ repeat occurrences that happened today. Canada is much less prepared than Britain, and we will handle the situation very badly when it occurs. The way we should handle it is not, as a Canadian government minister said after the London bombings, to step up preparedness and work ourselves into a frenzy of higher vigilance, but, when it happens, by showing, as the British did, that terrorism won’t work — by getting on with our lives, and picking up the pieces exactly as if it were a natural disaster — because that is precisely what it is.
The only way to prevent terrorists from attacking us is by doing much more to show the billion people who hate us that we care about them, by investing in their schools, their hospitals, their infrastructure, their know-how, and the institutions that, if they could be made to work effectively, would make life for this billion people immeasurably better. That also means we need to respect their culture, as long as it does not harm others, and not impose our culture and values on them.
It’s interesting that, six pages further into this week’s New Yorker, James Surowiecki laments the ineffectiveness of foreign aid, but urges us (no conservative, he) to carry on with it, trying our best to use distribution mechanisms (like NGOs), moral suasion, and audits to ensure the aid actually does get to the billion people who need it, especially in the forms I mentioned in the previous paragraph. He concludes:
Humility is no excuse for paralysis. In 2002, President Bush created the Millennium Challenge Account, which is designed to target assistance to countries that adopt smart policies, and said that the U.S. would give five billion dollars in aid by 2006. Three years later, a grand total of $117,500 has been handed out.
Compare this to the amount we’ve spent on war against Third World countries that have failed to improve the people’s lot. Tells you something, doesn’t it?
Cartoon by Wiley Miller from the wonderful strip Non-Sequitur.
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