Sunday, 22 March 2009

Back on the warpath

Today the Observer carried an article "by" Gordon Brown - in reality, of course, penned by someone in the Downing Street press office, but it hardly matters, since a photo of our grinning Supreme Leader appears above it. It was about the threat from Al Qaeda - something that has not been quite at the top of the political agenda recently, what with the global economy nosediving and a country ruled by a reckless, spendthrift government staring national bankruptcy in the face. The only terrorists making the news for actually doing some terrorising have been Irish. The foreign secretary himself has written that the notion of a "war on terror" was a mistake, since "the more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common".

Now, though, we learn that "we are about to take the war against terror to a new level" - for such is the headline under which Gordon Brown's thoughts appear. As if on cue, a "suspicious package" is found at Gatwick Airport. On Tuesday there will be a publicity blitz concerning the government's strategy. As a taster, we're told that sixty thousand members of the public - shop workers and the like - have been on "terror prevention training". The BBC has the latest steer from the Home Office, that "the proposals would give the UK the most comprehensive counter-terror strategy in the world". Jacqui Smith pops up on a lunchtime politics show to stress that tackling terrorism "is no longer something you can do behind closed doors and in secret."

Indeed not. The danger there would be that the police and the security services would be so effective at disrupting the few terrorist plots that got beyond the fantasy stage, arresting the conspirators and putting them behind bars that people would begin to believe that the threat was, more or less, under control. This seems to be what is happening. "It is a measure of the challenge we face - but also our success in dealing with it - that in the last two years more than 80 terrorists who planned to kill British citizens have been convicted," writes Brown. And indeed it is a measure both of the size of the threat - minute - and the success that the security services have had - considerable - that there has been only a single successful Islamist terrorist attack in the past decade.

For a government that loves to justify each new restriction on civil liberties, from collecting details of all our travel arrangements in a vast (and vastly expensive) database to banning Geert Wilders (despite the unavoidable presence of the far more "dangerous" George Galloway), in the name of combatting terrorism, this record of success is potentially disastrous.

The "war on terror" Gordon Brown has in mind, though, is not so much a conflict as a state of mind. The attention is very much on the home front: it involves recruiting as many people as possible, people who might otherwise go about their lives without giving a second thought to terrorism, into the mentality of constant threat, inculcating a sense of common purpose in the face of an enemy that is elusive and is alarming precisely because of that elusiveness. This is where the new Citizen Army comes in. Sixty thousand people "trained and equipped to ...know what to watch for as people go about their daily business" are sixty thousand unpaid propagandists for the counter-terrorism industry. And the sixty thousand who have attended training courses are only the beginning. Everyone else is being reached by publicity campaigns: posters urging people to be on constant look-out for "suspicious" behaviour for example.

If there is such a thing as a Freudian grammatical slip, Brown's Observer article has one in its second sentence. After admitting that the only recent terrorist incidents of note have involved Irish irreconcilables, he says this:


We should be under no illusion that the biggest security threat to our country and other countries is the murderous agents of hate that work under the banner of al-Qaida.


Indeed, we should be under no such illusion. For illusion it most certainly is. There's a far greater danger of dying in a badly run hospital than in a terrorist attack. But exaggerating the danger to increase public fear is what this game is about. The rest of the article is full of this sort of Home Front language:

We must remain vigilant at all times...the strongest-ever counter-terrorist framework...risk that terrorists will abuse modern technology to mount chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks...the better we inform the public, the more vigilant the public will be...a global challenge...the threats we face are changing rapidly...the necessary changes, whether through greater investment, changes to our laws or reforms to the way we do things, to ensure that Britain is protected...the most fundamental human right of all - the right to life... terrorists will keep on trying to strike and that protecting Britain against this threat remains our most important job....


There are two irreducible facts about any campaign against terrorism in an advanced society: firstly, that the terrorists cannot "win", because their numbers are too small and the resources at their disposal negligible - at most, they can kill a few hundred; secondly, that it is impossible for the security forces to irradicate terrorist groups. Only the disappearance of the grievances, real or fantastical, that animate the minds of the terrorists can achieve that. And that is not something that can be achieved by propaganda campaigns or funding approved community groups. Either there must be real change in those aspects of foreign or domestic policy that annoy the terrorists and their sympathisers (as, arguably, happened in Northern Ireland - the "arguably", of course, referring to the "Real IRA"), or terrorism will have to be accepted as a price worth paying for the greater public good of continuing with the policies that the terrorists dislike.

There will always be a disagreement between those who believe that any price in loss of freedom or inconvenience to the general public is worth paying to eliminate even the slimmest possibility of a terrorist plot succeeding, and those who believe that the greater danger to our society comes from draconian measures taken to tackle terrorism themselves. The two positions are irreconcilable, but the balance between them will change with the perceived threat.

At at time when terrorism is uppermost in people's minds, there will be more support for the "safety before liberty" position; when there are other things occupying the public discourse, such as the economy, there will be more resentment of the inconvenience and the intrusion on ordinary life. For those committed to the security agenda - those whose careers depend on large slices of the public budget being devoted to counter-terrorism, at the expense of other things, including other "law and order" issues - it is thus incumbent to keep banging the drum.

This tactic has diminishing returns, though, as the shepherd boy in Aesop's story found out to his cost. Even many of the sixty thousand are likely to yawn their way through the anti-terror training, just as many yawn their way through diversity seminars or fire prevention classes. The comments that Brown's article has attracted on CIF have been almost universally hostile. Some of them were a little deranged, but then living in a madhouse is liable to send many otherwise normal people over the edge. The predominant emotions were anger, ridicule, above all disbelief. Reading them was like listening to a chorus of small boys shouting at the emperor: You've got no clothes, you've got no clothes. The war on terror has been rumbled. The game is almost up.

7 comments:

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Excellent analysis.

Best regards

Edwin Moore said...

'The comments that Brown's article has attracted on CIF have been almost universally hostile.'

Oh dear I'm afraid I was deleted after telling the horrible little son of the manse to go away - an irrational instruction of course, but what a horrible blog, a dangling bird feeder of stale nuts for the crows, tits and squirrels of Cif.

As Nigel says, this is excellent analysis - thanks Heresiarch.

The Heresiarch said...

Don't worry Ed, you can say what you like about Gordon Brown here!

quisquose said...

Yesterday my 83 year old father-in-law read the Observer article and mentioned the boy that cried wolf.

It's quite amusing that I read your article this morning and see the same fable get a mention.

I think Brown's tactics have been rumbled.

Wasp_Box said...

I agree with the above – excellent analysis. Brown’s piece is such transparent nonsense that one can only imagine that he holds the entire population of the UK in utter contempt. I will wager that we hear his trite little soundbite: “the most fundamental human right of all - the right to life” again and again. Someone should point out to him that only a generation ago a great many, very brave souls gave their lives to protect our freedom. Freedom that this cowardly little shit is trying to remove.

Anonymous said...

I assume "Brown"'s article was part of the softening-up process for the council "Fear Factor Targets" which the government is about to release?

Alan said...

Well I read the Cif thread and I'd have to say that some of the comments were more than a "little" deranged. I basically agree with your analysis but I do think the government's position is a little more worthy of sympathy than most posters on Cif do. Imagine if the government were to do what the posters presumably want - stop talking about the terrorist threat, and reverse the security measures which are supposedly justified by it - and then there was another successful attack. Would all those posters then be supporting the government against the inevitable outrage, pointing out that this was unfortunately the price we have to pay for our freedom? I wonder.