I disagree strongly with much of what Enoch Powell said but his opinion about terrorism was accurate and has, certainly in the case of
, been vindicated. He said that terrorism was a form of warfare which could not be prevented by laws and punishments but by the aggressor's certainty that the war was impossible to win. Northern Ireland
There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, although certain elements are usually quoted, including the causing of death or serious injury, attacks upon civilians and the taking of hostages. The intent of trying to force others – usually governments – to do or not do something is also usually mentioned. What is common ground is that terrorism includes, obviously, the intent of inducing a state of terror. It might be obvious, but this essential element is ignored in purported attempts to deal with it. Terrorism is primarily a psychological attack. If we are serious about defeating terrorism it can only be done if the psychological effect is neutralised. Once people are no longer afraid there is no longer any meaning to terror.
It is true that governments have a duty to protect their populations against threats of violence, but, as in other areas such as censorship, ‘protection’ is all too often used as an excuse for repression. The threat of terrorist attacks is real but its importance and extent is wilfully exaggerated. Also exaggerated is the long term nature of the struggle against terrorism. It can be defeated realistically if those who would wish to carry out such attacks can see the pointlessness of their action.
It is foolish to speculate, as many in the ‘Muslim world’ do, about conspiracies involved in the destruction of the New York World Trade Centre. What is certain is that this relatively minor attack has been an enormous opportunity for governments to assert control over their populations which they would have not been able to get away with before. It has been an effective human rights watershed. The extent of the undermining of legal protection and the extension of state control since that event is staggering. The so-called liberal democracies have led the field with more openly unsavoury demagogues clinging gratefully to their coat tails.
There is no ‘war on terror’ but a complicity in terror in which the interests of the desperate and demented perpetrators of the outrages coincide with those of oligarchic governments and the megalithic news industry. It is, quite simply, not in the interests of governments to stop terrorism. It is in their interests to keep their populations in a state of fear and institute ever more draconian measures in the guise of ‘protecting’ them. The effect of surveillance, mega databases, long-term detention and so on, is not just undermining freedom per se but has the more important psychological effect of inducing a feeling of powerlessness and apathy. The external threat – indeed the internal threat of ‘terrorists in our midst’ – is extremely useful.
The interests of government, particularly in the post Reagan/Thatcher neo-con era, coincide with the interests of the market. The doctrine of consumerism applies equally to the news media. Consumerism depends on the manufacture of desire: of demanding ever more, ever newer, ever better. The manufacture of anxiety is an important part of this: the adrenalin must be kept flowing; life must be lived in the fast lane. Quiet contemplation, analysis and discourse, satisfaction and gratitude are the enemies of the market. 24 hour news depends on disasters and threats and constant re-hashing and pseudo-analysis: images repeated endlessly and rapidly. Terror helps to drive the news market and the news market helps induce the need for comfort in the form of consumer goods.
It would be foolish to be against information about what is happening in the world per se, including information about attacks on our society. There can be no true democracy without accurate and detailed information. To argue against news is to argue against motherhood and apple pie. News should be a resource which we can gather and analyse calmly and intelligently. It should not be screamed at us. We should be selective and actively boycott the trash we are served up on our television screens. The lack of balance is demonstrated by the fact that the high incidence of death and injury from violence in the Middle East and
South Asia is commonplace and barely reported. It is the very rarity of attacks in the West that makes them newsworthy.
As with so much about consumer society, we must learn to refuse.
The terrorists are not, proportionately, as large a threat to the general population as the threats to physical and psychological well-being presented by the stresses of consumerist society.
There are real and constant dangers from suicide attacks in
Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Palestine. These are ravaged societies where the structure of normal society has broken down – to the continuing benefit of the military industrial machine of the ‘liberal democracies’. That is where the ‘terrorist threat’ is greatest. If we are truly serious about eliminating terrorism in those countries then we must de-militarise them, allow them time to re-cover, grasp the religious nettle and deny its strangle-hold and instead provide open and free access to classrooms and universities. First empower the people’s minds. Governments cannot be trusted. This empowerment must come from the people themselves. These are not endless wars – unless you want them to be.
The threat to western – and most non-western – countries from terrorism is proportionately minute. The terror – the psychological impact – of the threat is maintained at the highest level where the actual physical threat is least. That is where terrorism needs concerted action – and not by disproportionate state terrorism which has been the self-defeating response so far.
Although Powell was right in saying that laws and punishments cannot prevent terrorism, that doesn’t mean that the force of law should not be employed as with any other crime. The danger of talking about terrorism in terms of warfare is that all’s fair in love and war – anything goes. If crimes are not investigated and punished according to the norms of the law and short-cuts are used then that will increase resentment and promote further outrages. Terrorism is not a special case. Treating it as such gives it special status and empowers the terror.
The way to defeat terrorism is to refuse to be terrorised; either by the terrorists or by government and news media.
The way we are treated at European and North American airports is disgraceful. Our privacy is invaded and we are subjected to the most humiliating outrages. It is time we boycotted air travel and demanded the reinstatement of more civilised surface travel by boat and train. It is time too to boycott the fast 24 news media. We don’t need to be screamed at.