Monday, February 20, 2006

Terrorism and Response

Simon Jenkins is a well-respected commentator and columnist for the Sunday Times. Some of his thoughts about the UK and US governments' response to the threat are contentious in the extreme – but deserve an airing.

Almost nothing is known about the organisation we call Al-Qaeda. This lack of formal structure and purpose can be its most precious asset. Nothing is likely to cause more concern and alarm than the unknown. This plays right into Ben Laden's hands (provided he's still alive – we can't even be sure of that!). By overplaying the fear of attack, Western governments – UK and US in particular - are doing the terrorists work for them. The danger is that over zealous governments will destroy the very freedoms they purport to hold most dear in the mistaken belief that to defeat terrorism you must use fundamentally anti-democratic methods. This must be a mistake. This must be resisted.

Jenkins begins with the contention that, “On any objective measure, terrorism in the West is a trivial crime.” Essentially, none of the attacks on the West attributed to Al-Qaeda (no matter how ill-founded) has led to a systematic attack on people or property. They could most accurately be called random and infrequent. This type of terrorism is not new. The IRA and the Basque terrorist organization, ETA, carried out similar campaigns for many years. What was “new” was the attack was on the continental US – the last time that happened was in 1913 when in the early morning darkness of March 9, 1916, guerrillas of the Mexican Revolution under General Francisco "Pancho" Villa attacked the small New Mexico border town and military camp at Columbus, New Mexico. 17 soldiers and civilians were killed. Before that you have to go back to the 1812 attack by the British on Washington to find a comparable event. Seen in this paranoiac light, Jenkins comment does not seem so controversial.

Jenkins view that, “Vigilance is important but only those with money in security have an interest in presenting Bin Laden as a cosmic threat.” may be closer to the mark than we like to admit.

Indeed if ever there were a case for collective restraint it is in response to terrorism. The word refers to a technique, usually a bomb, not an ideology. A bombing is an anarchic gesture calling for police and medical services. It becomes a political weapon only if publicised and answered with hysteria. A killing is so staged as to cause over-reaction, violent response, mass arrests and a decay of civilised values. Bin Laden’s intention in 2001 was to portray the West as scared, emotionally vulnerable, over-reactive, decadent and careless of liberal values. The West has done its damnedest to prove him right.

I'm reminded of FDR's famous assertion, “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” When and if Al-Qaeda convince the majority in the West that almost any measure is justified in the cause of combating terrorism, they will have won the war without really engaging in a battle. Bush and Blair are doing their work for them.

There never was a “terrorist threat” to western civilisation or democracy, only to western lives and property. The threat becomes systemic only when democracy loses its confidence and when its leaders are weak, as now. Terror attacks are for the police. For George Bush and Blair to demand a “long war” against Bin Laden and, by implication, a long suppression of civil liberty is ludicrous. Western civilisation is not some simpering weakling that cowers before a fanatic ’s might, pleading for leaders to protect it by all means, however illegal. It has been proof against Islamic expansionism since the 17th century. It is not at risk.

If Simon is right – and I suspect he is - the real danger to be confronted is far closer to home. If we allow the Bush/Blair axis to set the agenda and erode civil liberties in the name of protecting us from Al-Qaeda, we will be guilty of not only foolishness but criminal negligence.

Let Simon have the last word, “Bin Laden is not going to win and never was. But Bush and Blair are giving him an astonishing run for his money.”

Read the whole of Simon's article at,,2088-2047134,00.html

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