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Essay
18 July 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Creating the enemy
How a risk-averse West has inflamed the terrorism it fears.

by Brendan O'Neill

In March 2004, following the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 civilians, I wrote an essay for spiked in which I argued that contemporary nihilistic terrorism has its origins in moral and political crises within the West, not in the hotheaded fanaticism of faraway lands. I argued that, if you strip away all the talk about a 'clash of civilisations', the real problem of terrorism - in terms of both its origins and the massive impact that such small-scale and disparate acts can have on our societies - begins at home, in the profound uncertainty about values today and in the West's obsession with risk-aversion. The four explosions in London that killed over 50 people on 7 July 2005, and the response to them, starkly illustrate the central points of the essay:

  • Today's terrorists defy political labelling:

    Despite the increasingly desperate attempts to link the London bombs to the war in Iraq, the truth is we don't know why these four young Britons killed themselves and many others on a sunny morning in July. Like Madrid, it looked like terror for terror's sake, the use of violence as an incoherent lashing out rather than as part of an ideological campaign. In the past, debates about terrorism focused on whether the means justified the ends; for terrorists in our post-political, post-ideological times, the means are the ends: the use of shocking violence for its own sake. In this sense, the bombing of London has more in common with something like the Columbine school massacre than with political violence of old.

  • Terrorists tend to be made in the West:

    It is widely believed that terrorism is a foreign threat. Indeed, US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a war against a foreign land - Afghanistan - in an attempt to destroy terrorism. The attack on London shows that the origins of terrorism are far closer to home: it was carried out by four young Britons, three of whom were born, raised and educated here and the other of whom was born in Jamaica and moved to the UK when he was a child. Some of the worst terror acts of recent years - including 9/11 and Madrid - were also carried out by Westernised and often middle-class young men. Terror seems to emerge from within our own atomised and alienated societies, rather than from 'over there'.

  • Al-Qaeda is a brand name of the West's own making:

    The London attack shows that the West's obsession with terrorism has helped to turn 'al-Qaeda' into an international brand name, under which anybody - even three lads from Leeds and their mate in Huddersfield - can vent their frustrations and make an instant global impact. As my essay pointed out, some experts doubt whether al-Qaeda even exists as a structured organisation. But by launching wars and reorganising life in the West around this tiny and possibly non-existent group, Western leaders made 'al-Qaeda' into a terrifying symbol of global terror. So, in recent years, various terrorist outfits and disgruntled individuals have been able to claim the al-Qaeda mantle, as a shortcut to grabbing the world's attention and scaring us senseless.

  • Society's response to terrorism determines its impact:

    However horrific their attacks, terrorists are incapable of changing societies. They can, as the London bombers showed, inflict terrible fatalities and casualties, but they cannot have a long-lasting impact - unless, that is, we allow them to. The impact of terrorism is inherently dependent on the institutional and moral coherence of its target society. And the problem today is that our fragile and disorientated societies often react to terrorism in a way that further exposes our vulnerability and, in the words of one author, 'amplifies the impact' of acts of terror.

    This can be glimpsed in the response to the London bombs: on the day of the attacks Londoners and the emergency services showed real resilience and solidarity; but more recently, various medical experts, media commentators and officials have claimed that such an attack will inevitably have long-lasting ill-effects on individuals and society. They risk turning our initial resilient response into a drawn-out obsession with possible long-term damage caused by the bombs. In short, fearful officialdom has effectively amplified the impact of the bombs. Such a response on the part of Western societies can also inflame terrorism. By advertising that we are terrified of these nameless, faceless bombers, we inadvertently encourage them to take a pop at us. This gives rise to a form of terrorism that thrives on tapping into and feeding off our fears.

  • The 'war on terror' is no solution:

    One question that should be asked after the London attacks is: what is the point of the 'war on terror'? In the face of disparate acts of terrorism that emerge from within our own societies - and which are carried out by individuals who live among us - the 'war on terror' is a deadly distraction. It internationalises what are in essence domestic problems. After London, our time would be better spent having a serious debate about our own societies than inflicting further hardship on societies in the Middle East and Central Asia.
In the spirit of having a full-on debate about contemporary terrorism, my post-Madrid essay is re-published below.

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On Thursday 11 March 2004, terrorists planted bombs on trains in Madrid which killed more 191 people.

Within days, eight million Spaniards had taken to the streets to 'march against terrorism'. Spain's Popular Party, which had looked set to win the general election, was voted out of office. The victorious Socialist Party threatened to withdraw Spanish troops from the 'disaster' of Iraq. US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair were 'fighting to prevent the coalition in Iraq from falling apart'. London Underground police announced that passengers on the Tube would be randomly stopped and their bags searched. And EU member states debated whether they should set up a 'European CIA' or install an 'anti-terrorism czar' in order to 'keep Europe safe' (1).

The Madrid attack was horrific. But how did a handful of terrorists cause such widespread fear and consternation throughout the capitals of Europe and the USA? How can terrorists provoke states to reorganise their security systems and to bunker down lest they become the 'next Madrid'? The answer is, they cannot - unless we allow them to.

Acts of terror, sporadic, inconsistent and generally low-scale attacks, carried out by isolated groups, cannot change societies. Some commentators referred to the Madrid bombings as 'Guernica revisited'. The planting of rucksack bombs on trains by a handful of individuals cannot be compared to the bombing of the northern Spanish town and Basque capital of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, when General Franco called in Hitler's Luftwaffe to drop 100,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries, destroying 70 per cent of Guernica and killing around 1,500 people, a third of its population (2).

Aside from casualties and destruction of property, terrorism can have little or no lasting impact - except that given to it by the response of Western society. The fallout from Madrid powerfully demonstrates that terrorism's impact is determined less by what the terrorists do, than by how governments and the public respond to it. How we experience terrorism depends on how we feel about ourselves, our way of life, our society and our values.

Acts of terror on the scale of Madrid remain mercifully rare, particularly in the West. The 'spectaculars' of recent years can be counted on one hand: 9/11, Bali, Madrid (and now London). The majority of terror attacks have occurred in parts of the world where violence and instability are fairly common: Karachi, Riyadh, Istanbul, Mombassa and more recently postwar Iraq. Yet entire societies in the West are being reorganised around the terrorist threat. In the aftermath of 9/11, America set up a Department of Homeland Security to protect against terrorism, which employs thousands of people and spends billions of dollars each year.

Britain has drafted a Civil Contingencies Bill to 'improve the resilience of the UK'. The UK government, police and National Health Service carry out public 'disaster training' exercises, and in 2002 British nurses became the first in the world to get training in how to deal with bioterrorism. In the same year, the British government spent £28million on stockpiling millions of smallpox vaccines - not because there was any evidence that terrorists have access to smallpox, which was eradicated as a natural disease in the 1970s and now exists only in two high-security laboratories in America and Russia, but in the name of 'intensive planning, just in case' (3).

A similar 'just in case' attitude has informed American and European responses to terror threats, however real or unreal. Terrorism may be rare, but terror warnings have become a fact of life. Flights have been grounded on the basis of 'chatter', the communication levels between suspected terrorists. In January 2004, British Airways flight 223 from London to Washington was grounded numerous times and eventually had its number changed - even though some experts suspect that 'chatter' between suspected terrorists about Flight 223 was really chatter about United Nations resolution 223, which criticises Israeli treatment of Palestinians (4).

In May 2002, the US authorities placed the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty under heightened security after interrogating a detainee at Guantanamo Bay about al-Qaeda's future plans - though it later transpired that the detainee had been talking about things he saw in the 1998 Hollywood remake of Godzilla (5). In November 2002, UK home secretary David Blunkett issued a warning about terror scenarios, including the claim that terrorists might try to 'develop a so-called dirty bomb or some kind of poison gas'. Two hours later the warning was withdrawn and toned down, as there was little evidence for some of the wilder claims - though Blunkett defended his inclusion of the 'dirty bomb' warning in the original on the grounds that 'we can never be too careful' (6).

According to one report, in America 'discussions of security are now a necessary component of education, along with reading and writing' (7). The American Red Cross has developed a school curriculum called 'Masters of Disaster', teaching children what they should do in the event of a terrorist attack - including advice on 'How to fill in a family message card' should families become separated after a 'massive incident'. On both sides of the Atlantic, university courses have been given over to assessing the terrorist threat, managing the terrorist threat and 'Coping with Fear, Grief and Loss' in the event of the terrorist threat becoming a reality (8). In bookshops, the international relations shelves groan under the weight of books about terrorism - including titles such as 'The Great Terror War', 'The New Face of Terrorism', 'Why Terrorism Works', 'Terrorism and Tyranny' and 'Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction'. One such book argues that terrorism is 'the greatest threat facing humanity today' (9).

This is a massive overreaction. The Madrid bombers showed that terrorists can kill and maim large numbers of people and cause widespread grief - but what can they do to, in the words of some commentators, 'challenge civilisation' and 'threaten humanity', or, as Tony Blair put it, 'strike at the very heart of our way of life'? (10)

Even the terrorists' ability to kill remains limited. If the US State Department's annual reports Patterns of Global Terrorism are anything to go by, international terrorism (defined as acts of violence committed by anyone on America's list of outlawed groups, and involving citizens or territory from two or more states) remained a minor and static phenomenon during the 1990s. Then, international terrorism killed an average of 300 people a year, the majority of them in already violent parts of the third world - about the same number killed by US police forces each year in America (11).

Even with the large fatality tolls of 9/11 in 2001 and the Bali nightclub bombing in 2002, the number of attacks fell by 25 per cent per annum over the same period (12). The State Department records that in 1996, there were 296 attacks, the lowest annual total for 25 years, in which 311 people were killed. In 1998, there were 273 attacks, the lowest number since 1971, in which 741 people were killed - a large number of whom (301) were killed in the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In 2001, 3,457 people were killed by international terrorist attacks, 90 per cent of them in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and on the flight over Pennsylvania on 11 September; but the annual total of attacks was 346, a fall of 25 per cent from the previous year. In 2002, there were 199 attacks, a 40 per cent drop on the previous year and the lowest number in 40 years, in which 725 people died - over 200 of them in the Bali nightclub bombing (12).

Of course, the State Department's accounts should be viewed sceptically; like other Western institutions, it has its own, self-serving definition of terrorism. Yet still it records a falling number of incidents. On this basis - of unpredictable, rare and isolated acts of terror - whole societies are being overhauled. Some sensible commentators have pointed out that this overreaction could end up serving the terrorists' ends, by paralysing society. In the The Great Superterrorism Scare, Ehud Sprinzak argues: '[T]he level of rhetoric and funding devoted to fighting superterrorism may actually advance a potential superterrorist's broader goals - sapping the resources of the state and creating a climate of panic and fear that can amplify the impact of any terrorist act' (13).

But could there be more to it than this? Could the West's risk-aversion inflame terrorism, and even create it?

There is a relationship between fear and caution in the West and the rise of new forms of terrorism; between political and moral uncertainty in America and Europe and the outbreak of nihilistic, apolitical terror. The impact that terrorism has on society is determined by the authorities under target and how they deal with the threat, rather than by the terrorists' outrages. Today, it is a heightened sense of vulnerability on the part of Western societies that allows terrorism to have the psychological, and consequently even the physical, impact that it craves - and which encourages terrorists to target the West with further assaults and threats.

Making sense of senseless terrorism

A stumbling block in all discussions of terrorism is defining what the term means. As Charles Townsend, professor of international history at Keele University in England, notes: 'Both political and academic efforts to get to grips with terrorism have repeatedly been hung up on the issue of definition.' (14) The t-word is never a neutral term - it is both a description of certain kinds of violence and a moral condemnation; it contains connotations of criminality, cold-bloodedness and fanaticism, making it a much over-used term by governments seeking a quick and easy way to delegitimise their opponents.

In order to avoid getting 'hung up on the issue of definition', which deserves an essay of its own, this essay will use the popular, though often unsatisfactory, definition of terror: violence used by non-state groups for political, ideological or other purposes.

As many have noted post-Madrid, we face a new kind of terror, very different from the political violence of the past. A Daily Telegraph editorial described the bombings in Madrid as 'Europe's introduction to the new terrorism', a terrorism that is 'pitiless, nihilistic and so contemptuous of human life' (15). The Scotsman wrote of 'the new nihilists of terrorism', who carry out 'acts of random murder against innocent civilians' (16). Others, too, noted that where political violence was traditionally directed against political or military figures, policemen or economic targets, today there is a 'grisly competition' among terrorists to see who can massacre most civilians (17).

Over the past 150 years, terrorism has taken many different forms: whether revolutionary, Romantic, nationalist, religious, 'white', 'red' or, in more modern times, 'green'. Groups used violence for political or ideological ends, as a means of demoralising their opponents, winning concessions or taking over territory. In recent decades, the Irish Republican Army's violent campaign was aimed at getting British forces out of Northern Ireland and bringing to an end the partition of Ireland; the Palestine Liberation Organisation used force against Israeli forces, or executed 'spectacular' incidents on the international stage, such as hijackings, in its campaign for a Palestinian homeland.

Such violence was conducted within defined political structures - the targets were mostly political, military or economic. Groups claimed responsibility for their attacks, and frequently publicised their political goals in order to situate their use of violence within a broader campaign.

Today's terrorist is a different animal entirely; he defies political labelling. What we witnessed on 9/11, and in Bali, Madrid and elsewhere, was terror for terror's sake, the use of violence as an incoherent lashing out rather than as part of an ideological campaign. In the past, debates about terrorism tended to focus on whether the means justified the ends, whether the use of violence was necessary, or understandable, as a means of achieving certain objectives. For today's terrorist, the means are the ends - the use of shocking violence for its own sake.

That such groups do not claim responsibility for their attacks demonstrates that they are not political acts. Indeed, when the perpetrators (or people claiming to be the perpetrators) do claim responsibility, often on behalf of al-Qaeda, it is usually another attempt to induce angst, the equivalent of throwing a hand grenade into international media and political circles.

Some terrorism experts doubt whether a group like al-Qaeda has any organisational or political coherence - indeed, whether it even exists. Adam Dolnik of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore notes that the US intelligence community first used the term 'al-Qaeda' in the aftermath of the US Embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, as a 'convenient label for a group that had no formal name'. He argues that America's obsession with this thing it called al-Qaeda helped to blow bin Laden out of proportion, by 'transforming this little-known jihadist into a household name and, in some places, a symbol of heroic defiance' (18).

This all-out focus on a group that probably doesn't exist has helped to create an international brand name, allowing other groups and individuals to make an impact today by claiming a link to the largely mythical 'al-Qaeda'. The only political coherence that al-Qaeda, or whoever, has, is that which has been projected on to it by the West.

Contemporary terrorism is also far more casualty-heavy than the political violence of old. Freed from responsibility to a distinct community, and with no grounding in any ideology or political principles, today's terrorist has fewer constraints on his actions. In the absence of conventional political or moral structures that could define and direct a violent campaign, the new terrorists appear to have little compunction about killing scores of civilians. The unthinkable becomes thinkable, and, as we saw in Madrid, doable. As terrorism expert Jonathan Tucker argues, because today's terrorists 'are not motivated by political ideology on the far left or right', they are more likely to be 'extremists…with an apocalyptic mindset' (19).

An understandable response to such terrorism is to treat it as other-worldly, as an alien force that goes against everything civilisation is about. Conservative newspaper columnist Barbara Amiel said of the Madrid bombers, 'They inhabit a different moral universe from us…. They partake of the satanic nature of the terrorist culture' (20). In his book Terrorism: Past and Present, Phillip Steele argues that, 'When all is said and done, most men, and especially men from non-Western cultures and less-developed areas, are capable of taking great pleasure in great evil' (my italics) (21). The uncomfortable truth, however, is that contemporary terrorism is the creation of some of the same corrosive forces, globally and domestically, that impact on the rest of us.

For all the focus on men from non-Western cultures, in fact some of the most shocking terror attacks of the past decade have emerged from within the West. Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bomb killed 168 in Oklahoma in 1995, was a former US soldier and a veteran of the first Gulf War. So was the elder of the Washington snipers, John Allen Muhammad, who was sentenced to death in mid-March 2004 on charges of terrorism, for his part in terrorising Washington DC in October 2002 and shooting dead 10 people.

The 9/11 attacks were organised by fairly well-to-do Saudis, most of whom had lived or been educated in the West. Young Asians from quiet English towns have volunteered to blow themselves up in Israel or to fight with the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, against US forces. British racist David Copeland used nail-bombs to kill three people and injure 139 in a gay pub and among black communities in London in 1999; fellow British citizen Richard Reid tried to blow up a flight to Los Angeles with a shoe-bomb in December 2001.

The new terrorism is not something from 'over there', executed by weirdo Arabs and Johnny Foreigners who 'do things differently', or by some all-powerful group called al-Qaeda. This kind of terrorism has its origins in problems within Western societies, rather than in political battles in the third world.

Homegrown terrorists are moulded by similar shifts and trends influencing terrorists in other parts of the world. Over the past 10 to 15 years, there have been some dramatic shifts in Western societies. Traditional consensuses over fundamental values have been eroded; there is widespread doubt about what is right and wrong, moral or immoral. There have been political shifts too; we live in what some refer to as a 'post-ideological' age, where political life is no longer oriented around competing visions between Left and Right.

In a climate of political and moral uncertainty, 'political' protest and action take new and different forms; without the political framework of the past, and freed from any consensus over how to behave, it often takes the form of individuals or groups kicking against the drift of events - against modernity, or capitalism, or whoever happens to be in power. Various disgruntled groups often appear to be striking out with no clear purpose. Anti-capitalism, the most popular form of radical action today, targets coffee shops or McDonald's or Gap stores, in sometimes violent protests. Anti-abortionists shoot doctors; animal rights activists send threatening letters or plant bombs under vivisectionists' cars. At the more extreme end, some individuals and groups crash aeroplanes or blow up buildings.

Globally, a similar climate of corrosion and uncertainty has shaped contemporary Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda and other borderless outfits came out of shifts in the world order over the past 10 to 15 years, when the sovereignty of nation states has been undermined and state authority, particularly in the third world, has been weakened. This process has given rise to non-state or 'trans-national' actors, who exploit the weaknesses of collapsed states and are not bound by responsibilities to a state or community.

Where a more political era gave rise to politically-motivated violence, today's anti-political, morally uncertain climate has given rise to a scrappy, indiscriminate use of force. An international order based around sovereign norms and nation states gave rise to political violence linked to national liberation movements. Today, when Britain and America are calling for the formalisation of intervention into other states' affairs as a rule of international law, when armies, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations frequently move across borders into sovereign state territory, when we live in what one writer calls a 'hypermobile globe', there are new international groups, which think nothing of moving from failed state to failed state in order to plot and execute attacks (see Cross-border terrorism: a mess made by the West, by Brendan O'Neill).

What both homegrown and global terrorists have in common is that they operate outside of traditional political and moral structures; they tend to view issues in black and white, in simple terms of Good vs Evil. Such violence is best understood, not as a movement for political change, as we might have had in earlier political eras, but as cultural reactions against modernity.

Many argue that it is precisely the nihilistic nature of the new terrorism that makes it especially threatening to our way of life; that contemporary terrorism is more dangerous than old-style political violence because it doesn't play by the rules. Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College London, draws a distinction between Britain's experience of IRA attacks in the 1970s and 80s, when terrorism 'made more sense', and our experience of the threat of al-Qaeda terrorism today. 'It is extremely hard for anybody to learn from a campaign like al-Qaeda's', he argues, 'because of the sheer variety that is possible in the nature of the attacks' (22). According to Tony Blair, we must constantly be on our guard against terrorism, because it is 'unknowable' and can emerge at any time (23).

But it could be argued that terrorism today poses less of a threat to the West than traditional political violence. Where al-Qaeda-style terrorists have shown themselves willing to kill British civilians, the IRA's 25-year campaign posed a direct threat to the legitimacy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; in its effort to expel British forces from Northern Ireland, the IRA threatened to undermine the entire British state. Where the 9/11 hijackers killed 3,000 Americans in New York and Washington DC, the Viet Cong, denounced as terrorists by successive US governments in the 1960s, helped to defeat US forces in Vietnam, undermining America's claims to moral authority on the world stage and delivering a body-blow to American confidence at home. The new terrorists can execute horrific attacks; but unlike political movements of old, they cannot strike at the heart of Western political legitimacy.

New forms of terrorism are certainly emerging. However, the problem today is not that the terrorists have become all-powerful, but that society feels powerless to deal with the threat they pose. The same corrosive process that has given rise to new forms of violence also allows that violence to have a disproportionate impact. Terrorists are not more threatening; rather, the West is more easily terrorised.

How society determines terrorism's impact

Historically, a distinctive feature of political violence is that it often seeks a psychological rather than a strictly physical impact. Violent groups use 'spectacular' or destructive attacks as a means of striking fear and disorientation into a target society; often unable to effect change by force of arms, the terrorist seeks to undermine society's sense of security. As Joseph Conrad wrote in The Secret Agent in 1907, 'A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive'. Consequently, the impact of terrorism is inherently dependent on the institutional, moral and cultural coherence of its target society. However spectacular the terrorist act might be, whether it impacts on society is determined by quite different forces, distinct from the terrorists' intentions or actions.

In 'Why Marxists oppose individual terrorism', written in 1909, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky condemned isolated acts of terrorism carried out by anarchists, syndicalists, nihilists and others. He noted that a central problem with such violence, as distinct from violence used in a political conflict, was that it could have no lasting impact on society - except disorientation, and that impact cynically given to it by the authorities. Terrorism is 'very striking in its outward form (murder, explosions and so forth)', wrote Trotsky, 'but absolutely harmless as far as the social system goes'. Where 'a strike, even of modest size, has social consequences', the 'murder of a factory owner produces a change of proprietors devoid of any social significance' (24).

Trotsky noted that the success or otherwise of individual terrorism was determined, not by the terrorists' audacious but shortlived acts, but by the coherence of the elite under attack. 'Whether a terrorist attempt, even a "successful" one, throws the ruling class into confusion depends on the concrete political circumstances', he wrote. In Tsarist Russia, Trotsky noted that the beleaguered authorities were likely to use the aftermath of terrorist attacks as a means of enforcing tighter security measures. The instantaneous and shocking impact of the terrorist attack gave way to the longer-lasting response of the ruling class: '[T]he smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut…. Only the police repression grows more savage and brazen.' (25)

Others noted a similar phenomenon during what Charles Townsend refers to as the 'second age of terrorism', in the 1960s and 70s, 'the age of the "groupuscules", the tiny, fissiparous radical activist groups which spread across Western Europe' (26). These groups, including the infamous Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, came out of the defeat of the left in the late 1960s, in particular the collapse of the student protests and strikes that swept Western Europe, most notably France, in 1968. Their emphasis on 'pure terrorism' - the use of 'loud, shocking events as a means of striking the system' (27) - expressed this legacy of defeat, capturing a distaste for mass politics or for creating political movements.

One of the most successful of these groupuscules was Italy's Red Brigades, formed a year after Italy's 'hot autumn' strikes of 1969 and consisting of radical students and workers. The Brigades were driven by revulsion of the Italian Communist Party and its 'historic compromise' and formation of a coalition government with the fragile ruling party, the Christian Democrats. In the mid- to late 1970s, the Red Brigades executed thousands of attacks; their biggest coup was the kidnapping and eventual killing of former Italian prime minister and prominent Christian Democrat Aldo Moro in 1978. Italian ministers worried that support for the Red Brigades, especially among students, had become 'shockingly large' (28).

Yet the Red Brigades' impact was a consequence of the weakness of the Italian state, rather than of any clear strategy or mass support on the part of the Brigades. It was the fragmentation and disorientation of the Italian capitalist elite in the 1970s, then one of the most insecure states in Europe, that allowed the Brigades to appear as an overbearing threat and which heightened the impact of their campaign. For all of the authorities' fretting, in fact the Brigades were no match for Italian state forces; by the late 1970s, the state had imprisoned 3,000 Red Brigades suspects and enforced legislation that allowed it to detain terrorist suspects incommunicado for 48 hours and to delay trials for 12 years.

The Brigades were not a coherent or mass political movement. According to one history, they 'relied on pure terrorism mainly as a result of political weakness and marginality' (29). Rather, the Brigades - much more so than the IRA at the same time, whose military campaign was far more politically oriented - were able to tap into and exploit the distinct political and economic weaknesses of the Italian state. As one perceptive account notes: 'In a political sense, the threat [they] posed was minimal. Only the level of public discontent and the weakness of the state go some way to explaining the genuinely alarming impact that their terrorism had.' (30)

Political elites with a strong sense of purpose are likely to be resilient in the face of terrorism, even able to turn terrorism to their own advantage - either by enforcing new authoritarian measures or, as British governments did in response to the IRA's campaign in the 1970s and 80s, by attempting to resuscitate a sense of nationalism around anti-terrorism. More fragile and disorientated societies, however, react to terrorism in a way that further exposes their vulnerability and, in the words of Ehud Sprinzak, 'amplifies the impact' of acts of terror - as we can see today.

Terrorism and society today

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the response to terrorism has been informed by the contemporary 'culture of fear' and the politics of risk-aversion. Many argue that it was 9/11 itself that instituted this climate of fear, impacting on the public's perception of risk and giving rise to a powerful sense that we live in an out-of-control world. The events of 9/11 may have further consolidated the contemporary virtues of precaution and risk-management, but they existed long before September 2001.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the politics of fear and caution have come to dominate Western societies. Where political life previously consisted of debates and disagreements about what kind of society we wanted to live in, today it tends to focus on issues of safety and perceived risks to our health, environment or 'way of life'. The exhaustion of the political traditions of Left and Right has had a profoundly disorientating impact across Western society, shattering the consensus upon which basic questions of politics and morality have been decided throughout recent history. Faith in what were traditionally considered 'Western' values or institutions, from democratic politics to medical science, from the church to the monarchy, has been steadily eroded. Gaining agreement on any issue, from genetic modification and abortion to the role of the family and the issue of recreational drugs, has become increasingly fraught and subject to arbitrary considerations.

We live in an era of great uncertainty, in which political leaders stand isolated from the public and unsure of what they believe in, and individuals have a weakened sense of community, solidarity or identity. This is enough to put society in a constant state of powerlessness and vulnerability - even without terrorist attacks.

A loss of nerve at the top of society, and a sense of fear at the bottom, has given rise to today's peculiarly cautious climate, where risks to society and individuals can easily be blown out of proportion and increasingly dominate public debate. As old political and religious systems have lost their purchase on society, risk-aversion and precaution have emerged as the organising principles of contemporary society. As Frank Furedi, author of Culture of Fear, has argued on spiked, society has become 'uncomfortable with managing change and dealing with risks'. 'Ideas about safety and controversies over health, the environment and technology have little to do with science or empirical evidence', argues Furedi. 'Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability.' (31)

At every step, this inability to cope with uncertainty, the tendency to overblow risks, and the focus on human vulnerability, has informed how society has interpreted and dealt with the threat of terrorism - and this has been decisive in determining the impact that terrorism has had on both society and individuals. At a time when society finds it difficult to negotiate risk, terrorism can appear more disturbing and frightening than it is; when society doesn't do well with change, particularly unpredictable and unknowable change, terrorists tend to be viewed as a much bigger threat than they really are. That terrorism, or the threat of terrorism, has been managed through the prism of risk-aversion is no mere academic observation. This approach to terror has had a destabilising and paralysing impact, spreading the psychological and even physical effects of terrorism far beyond the initial impact of individual terrorist acts.

Consider 9/11. The consequences of the attacks for sections of New York and for the employees of the Pentagon were profound, killing nearly 3,000 people and causing grief to many more. On its own, 9/11 caused great destruction; yet combined with the response of the authorities, the attacks became more powerful still, impacting on many for months, and years, after the event.

First there was the idea that, on top of the deaths and injuries, chemicals and toxins from the collapsed World Trade Center might have made survivors, emergency service members and other New Yorkers ill. In the months after 9/11, rumours began to circulate about a 'World Trade Center cough' - a vague collection of symptoms including colds, asthma, nosebleeds, headache, hoarseness of voice, chest tightness, flu and of course coughing. There remains little evidence for the existence of a 'WTC cough'. Rather, the creation of yet another illness, a post-catastrophe syndrome, chimed perfectly with our risk-averse times - where it is assumed that individuals are fragile beings and that the impact of disasters on both physical and mental health can last for years, if not forever (32).

The consequence of the scrabbling about for a post-9/11 syndrome is that even those who survived the attack without injury have been included in the 'victims of terrorism' category. One study found that New Yorkers who became ill naturally in the months after 9/11 believed that they were made sick by the collapse of the WTC. Already, a $12million federal screening programme has examined thousands who survived the attacks; at the start of 2004, $4million more was made available to examine a further 4,500 survivors (33). Over two years after the event, New Yorkers are still being examined for signs of physical damage caused by 9/11 - investigations that can surely only compound some people's belief that they were as much the victims of terrorism as those who were injured or killed.

Some psychiatrists claim that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was widespread after 9/11, not only among survivors but also among those who watched coverage of the attacks on TV - apparently up to 17.5 per cent of Americans suffered from symptoms of PTSD in the weeks and months after the attacks. Professor Avi Bleich, director of the Lev-HaSharon Mental Health Centre in Israel, who has studied the impact of terrorism on Israeli society, has expressed surprise at the claim that 17.5 per cent of the US population allegedly showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress after 9/11 - when only 9.4 per cent of Israelis, following three years of terrorism since the start of the second Intifada in 2001, appear to display such symptoms (34).

The question of whether terrorism causes stress clearly has little to do with the level of the terrorist threat. The idea that terrorist incidents induce widespread trauma is more prevalent in the USA because the politics of risk-aversion is more developed there than it is in Israel.

Here we can see how the authorities' risk-aversion, the focus on notions of human fragility and vulnerability, compounded the effects of 9/11, far beyond New York and Washington and long after September 2001. In effect, al-Qaeda's shocking attack acted as a detonator for some deeper problems in American society; the hijackers succeeded in their specific aim of killing large numbers of civilians, but it was American society's inability to deal with risk and uncertainty that allowed the attack to have repercussions beyond its initial impact. Where the terrorists executed the attack, American society amplified it.

Terrorism's grip on contemporary society cannot be explained by the actions of terrorists, not even by actions as horrific as 9/11 or Bali or Madrid. Rather, terrorism has exposed deep-seated crises in Western society - its inability to deal with risk, the absence of moral consensus, ideas of victimhood and fragility, a lack of vision or purpose. 'Terrorism' - in the sense of that thing we have become obsessed with over the past few years - is best understood as a reflection of deeper domestic problems, rather than an alien threat from far away.

This can be seen in the aftermath of Madrid, where the ruling party was voted out, large sections of the EU hotly debated security and safety, and Britain and America fretted over the survival of their coalition in Iraq. All of these shifts are the result of a sense of uncertainty that already existed in Europe and America; the Madrid attacks simply lit the powder-keg.

Risk-aversion does more than exacerbate attacks - the intense fear of and focus on terrorism can act as an invitation to the terrorists. By granting terrorism the psychological impact it desires, Western elites create a situation in which terrorists can have maximum impact with minimum effort.

How vulnerability inflames terrorism

In recent years, terrorism has been successful insofar as it has grasped something of the Western mindset, to the extent that it has judged, whether consciously or unconsciously, what is likely to have the biggest impact on fearful Western societies. Our highly risk-averse societies can give rise to terrorists who glory in taking risks, who constitute themselves in direct contrast to the Western states they love to hate. The dodgy statement claiming responsibility for Madrid, from the previously unheard-of Abu Dujan al Afghani, who described himself as al-Qaeda's military commander in Europe, declared: 'You love life and we love death.' This suggests that at a time of intense individual vulnerability in the West, terrorists are adopting more explicitly risky and casualty-heavy tactics. In the absence of political or ideological motivations or mass support, contemporary terrorism thrives on tapping into and feeding off the fears of target societies. Consider some of the most striking terror incidents of the post-9/11 period:

Terrorism as theatre

On 23 October 2002, 20 Chechen terrorists seized a theatre in Moscow, taking the 700 theatre-goers hostage; they warned that the siege would continue until the Russian authorities agreed to withdraw all of their troops from Chechnya. It is fitting that this terror attack took place on the stage - far from being a traditional Chechen strike against Russian power, it appears to have been entirely staged for a fearful international audience.

The Chechens exploited the global panic about terrorism that was widespread in late 2002, two weeks after the Bali bombing, in an attempt to, in the words of one Russian account, 'raise international awareness' of their demands. They communicated effectively with the outside world, judging what images were most likely to impact on Western audiences; after inviting TV cameras into the theatre, they pushed their female suicide bombers to the fore, complete with Islamic headbands and their fingers on the button, clearly recognising that these women summed up everything Western audiences fear about the 'embittered few' 'over there'.

Holding Washington hostage

On the homefront, too, fear and vulnerability can provide individual actors with the means of impacting on entire communities. The snipers in Washington DC unleashed their campaign of terror in late 2002, shooting dead 10 people aged from 13 to 72 over a period of a month. The impact of their campaign, terrible and indiscriminate as it was, was exacerbated by a disproportionate response from the DC authorities and public; car parks and petrol stations erected temporary walls to protect customers from the mysterious sniper, while some DC-based officials refused to visit certain parts of the city while the snipers were at large.

This climate also served to encourage the snipers, who demonstrated an intuitive grasp of the public's fearful psychology. The snipers sought to intensify their campaign by targeting the most vulnerable points of public opinion; so when the Montgomery County Police Chief attempted to reassure the public by claiming that Washington's schools were safe, the snipers responded by shooting dead a 13-year-old boy as he arrived at school - and later confirmed that they did this to show the authorities they were serious. That two individuals with a couple of rifles and a second-hand car can hold the American capital hostage for a month demonstrates how society's inflated sense of vulnerability can empower opportunistic killers.

In March 2004, John Muhammad Allen, the elder of the snipers, was sentenced to death in Virginia for terrorism. The reason Allen was charged with terrorism and not multiple murder is because he was judged to have put the local population in fear; in effect, he was tried not only for the acts he committed, but also for the public's perception of those acts. Under Virginia law, a murderer can only be sentenced to death if there are aggravating factors, one of which is torture - and prosecutors argued that Allen had subjected the people of Washington to psychological torture, on the grounds that DC citizens were scared witless every time they left their houses while the snipers were on the loose (35). The snipers' trial highlighted the role of public fear in amplifying acts of violence today.

Messages that terrorise

One of the 'weapons' used by al-Qaeda leaders in recent years has been…the audio cassette. Individuals claiming to represent al-Qaeda have handed tapes to the media, usually to al-Jazeera, with recordings of statements allegedly made by Osama bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. Their motivation for doing this is clear - at a time when mere warnings or rumours are enough to bring an American or British airport or bridge or city to a standstill, the tapes are guaranteed to have a disproportionate effect on the target society. It remains open to question whether al-Qaeda retains the capacity to launch big attacks on the scale of 9/11 in the West; but it doesn't need to, when taped messages are enough to cause disruption. Indeed, such tapes now merely take British and American fears and throw them back at British and American society. An analysis of recent tapes allegedly made by bin Laden shows that he often simply repeats potential scenarios for attack already pre-emptively raised by fearful politicians and commentators in the West.

Messages don't even need to come from known terrorists in order to terrorise these days. On 17 March 2004, the French dailies Le Parisien and Le Monde received a letter from a group calling itself 'Servants of Allah, the Powerful and Wise One', threatening violent attacks in France unless the government repealed its ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in schools. The authorities said the letter was from 'an unknown Islamic group', and that it did not 'bear the marks of usual Islamic extremist writings' - but, in the aftermath of Madrid, the French authorities said they would nonetheless 'take the threat very seriously' (36). Who needs to plant backpack bombs, when a letter is enough to terrify a European state?

Attacking the West by proxy

There has been a rise in sporadic attacks in various parts of the third world over the past two years - including in Mombassa, Casablanca, Riyadh and Istanbul. One motivation for these attacks is the desire to have an effect in the West, by proxy. As many have pointed out, such attacks, particularly those in Riyadh, understood to be the birthplace of al-Qaeda, point to a certain weakness on the part of Islamic terrorist groups; one commentator describes these assaults as 'akin to a man knocking down a gnome in his own garden' (37). Yet in our terrorism-obsessed world, their impact is instantly globalised - managing to impact on the West's fragile sense of security as well as on life and property in third world cities.

This can be seen in the attacks on the British consulate and the British bank in Istanbul in November 2003. These were clearly aimed at Britain rather than Turkey, and their impact was swift: the UK Foreign Office advised Britons not to travel to Istanbul, and Britain has since unveiled a multimillion-pound plan to examine the security of its 230 overseas missions and to make fortifications as necessary. After the attack, the front page of the Daily Express declared 'BRITAIN UNDER ATTACK', and did not mention the words Istanbul or Turkey until page two (38). When attacks over there can have such an effect on nervous elites over here, there is little to stop terrorists from detonating bombs in far-off cities as a means of scoring some psychological points against the West.

In all of these instances, the caution of the West serves to encourage the terrorists, creating new forms of terrorism that explicitly exploit our deep concerns. Western society is effectively issuing an open invitation to terrorists to terrorise us some more. In May 2003, when Washington issued warnings against travelling to Malaysia on the grounds that there might be a terror attack, then Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad accused the USA of being 'afraid of its own shadow'. It is hard to disagree - and it is a fear that can have a destabilising impact on world affairs, inflaming terrorism that exploits the West's insecurities and weak spots. Many individuals, particularly in the third world, are paying a high price for the West's unfocused, risk-averse response to the threat of terror.

Why the 'war on terror' won't stop us being terrorised

If the obsession with terrorism reveals more about crisis in the West than it does about threats from abroad, what are we to make of the 'war on terror'? Since 9/11, America and Britain have been fighting a war against terrorism overseas and at home. America has effectively built a wall around its borders with the Department of Homeland Security, while Britain has instituted new measures to increase 'national resilience'. Abroad, America, supported by Britain and others, has launched a far-reaching war against terrorist elements wherever they reside (in up to 60 nations, according to President Bush), because America is now 'menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few' (39).

The war on terror is best understood as the internationalisation of the West's domestic crises. It is clear from the nature of the war on terror, from its very title, that it is not a traditional counter-terrorist operation. In the past, there were 'campaigns against terrorism', small-scale, focused and usually secretive operations to destroy terrorist outfits. Western governments with a 'terrorist problem' most often dealt with it by doing two distinct things - by privately seeking to disrupt or destroy the terrorist group, and publicly stating that 'life must go on'.

The war on terror transforms the targeting of terrorist movements into an international military campaign, and as some commentators have pointed out, the notion that you can declare 'war on a concept' is nonsense (40). The war on terror is less about pummelling the terrorists, than an attempt by the elites of America and Europe to cohere themselves around a new Mission Against Evil.

European and American politicians tried, and failed, to re-state this global mission in the aftermath of Madrid. Tony Blair declared, 'We will do whatever is necessary to defend our way of life and defeat this terrorism'. But he had little to say about what exactly our way of life is, about what we are defending and why. He could only define Britain's mission in direct contrast to the terrorists' mission (whatever that might be): 'We will match their determination with our own. We will be as resolute as they are fanatical, as strong in defence of good as they are hell-bent on doing evil.' (41)

This echoes President Bush's definition of the war on terror at the end of last year. 'Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides', said Bush, 'between those who seek order and those who spread chaos' (42). In his speech on the first anniversary of the war in Iraq, on 19 March 2004, Bush cited the mysterious man who claimed responsibility for Madrid: 'On a tape claiming responsibility a man is heard to say, "We choose death while you choose life". We don't know if this is the voice of the actual killers, but we do know it expresses the creed of the enemy. It is a mindset that rejoices in suicide, incites murder and celebrates every death we mourn.' Where the terrorists define themselves against the West, Bush and co define themselves against the terrorists.

Both Blair and Bush seem able to state their political and moral vision in negative terms only, by contrasting themselves to nihilistic terrorists. Britain and America may not know what they are for or where they are heading, but they are certain of one thing - they are opposed to bloody acts of terror that kill scores of innocent civilians. But who isn't - apart from the terrorists? The West's mission turns out to be driven by the most basic moral statements, rather than by anything approaching a political vision; by public announcements that British and American leaders are anti-terrorism, anti-murder, anti-what-happened-in-Madrid.

This has severe limitations for the political elite, as Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar discovered after the Madrid bombings. In between the attacks and the elections, Aznar sought to mobilise Spaniards with the slogan 'For the victims, For the constitution, For the defeat of terrorism' (43). As with Bush and Blair's pronouncements, these are vague notions with which to inspire the public. Aznar's attempts backfired badly; within three days of the attacks he was voted out of office, even though his party had been projected to win comfortably.

The problem for Aznar, Bush, Blair and the rest is that they are attempting to overcome internal problems through an external focus; they are seeking to forge a consensus around fighting terrorism, when there is little consensus on much else in the domestic sphere. Because their starting point is a lack of consensus, in the shape of political crises and uncertainty at home, the war on terror, however loudly it is declared, does little to resolve their problems; in fact, it exacerbates them. The focus on terrorism as the gravest threat facing humanity has the effect of encouraging the terrorists, while at the same time exposing a hole at the heart of the West.

The real problem of terrorism, in terms of both its origins and its impact on contemporary society, begins at home, in the struggle for moral consensus and moral authority. Instead of launching wars in far-off lands, surely what our societies need are debates about what we stand for and why; about the values we hold dear and wish to pass on to future generations; about our vision of the Good Society and how we might achieve it. Such debates might help to move us away from the deep moral uncertainties that can give rise to nihilistic violence, and make us more resilient against those who execute such violence.

But that is one battle that the establishment has long lost the will to fight. Those of us who are interested in progress and opposed to terrorism should have no truck with the war on terror. It is in our own societies, rather than in misplaced wars abroad, that we might discover some solutions to the contemporary malaise.

Some argue that the Spanish response to the Madrid bombings showed us the way. According to one British commentator: 'Eight million people stood together in rain-soaked Spain...and re-committed themselves to democracy, solidarity and liberty.' Of course, showing solidarity with the victims is an understandable human reaction to terrorism, but is it enough to build a sense of purpose? The Spanish protests looked less like a defence of democratic values, than an incoherent statement of empathy and angst, an expression of confusion and uncertainty. Protesters raised their hands in the air in a gesture of resignation; they marched in silence; some carried placards declaring 'We have no words'. If we are going to make our societies more resilient, we need a clearer sense of what we are for, and how we might fight for it.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Terrorism web emerges from Madrid bombing, Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, 22 March 2004; Spanish pressure on Blair, BBC News, 16 March 2004

(2) Guernica revisited, The Muse, Canada, 18 March 2004

(3) Mass smallpox vaccination prepared, BBC News, 9 October 2002

(4) Heathrow terror puzzle, Owen Bowcott, Steven Morris and Andrew Clark, Guardian, 3 January 2004

(5) Artificial intelligence?, John Prados, American Prospect, 9 September 2002

(6) Terror warning: revised statement, David Blunkett, BBC News, November 2002

(7) Feeding fear: the new security culture, Katherine Lemons, Patricia Purtschert and Yves Winter, Alternet, 3 December 2003

(8) 9/11 spurs jump in terrorism courses, Mitchel Maddux, BG News, 2 March 2004

(9) The Great Terror War, Richard A Falk, 2002; The New Face of Terrorism, Nadine Gurr and Benjamin Cole, 2000; Why Terrorism Works, Alan M Dershowitz, 2002; Terrorism and Tyranny, James Bovard, 2003; The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction, Walter Laqueur, 2000

(10) Blair vows to fight terror menace, BBC News, 13 March 2004

(11) See Cincinnati tops list of police killings of blacks, Lynn Hulsey, Dayton Daily News, 28 April 2001

(12) Patterns of Global Terrorism archive, US State Department

(13) The great superterrorism scare, Ehud Sprinzak, Foreign Policy, Fall 1998

(14) Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townsend, Oxford University Press, 2002

(15) Europe's introduction to the new terrorism, Daily Telegraph, 12 March 2004

(16) The new nihilists of terrorism, Scotsman, 12 March 2004

(17) Jihad on the cards, Tony Karon, Time, February 2004

(18) See Does al-Qaeda exist?, by Brendan O'Neill

(19) The proliferation of chemical and biological weapons materials and technologies to state and sub-state actors, Jonathan Tucker, Monterey Institute of International Studies, 7 November 2001

(20) Let us pray by all means, and then pass the ammunition, Barbara Amiel, Daily Telegraph, 15 March 2004

(21) Terrorism: Past and Present, Philip Steele, Prentice Hall, 1992

(22) Author's notes from Communicating the War on Terror, Royal Institution, London, June 2003

(23) Blair vows to fight terror menace, BBC News, 13 March 2004

(24) 'Why Marxists oppose individual terrorism', Leon Trotsky, 1909, printed in Against Individual Terrorism, Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder Press, 1974

(25) 'Why Marxists oppose individual terrorism', Leon Trotsky, 1909, printed in Against Individual Terrorism, Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder Press, 1974

(26) Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townsend, Oxford University Press, 2002

(27) Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townsend, Oxford University Press, 2002

(28) Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townsend, Oxford University Press, 2002

(29) Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townsend, Oxford University Press, 2002

(30) Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townsend, Oxford University Press, 2002

(31) See Epidemic of fear, by Frank Furedi

(32) See Choking on the facts, by Howard Fienberg

(33) Health effects plague WTC rescuers, CNews, September 2003

(34) Author's notes from Communicating the War on Terror, Royal Institution, London, June 2003

(35) See 'Where is bin Laden strongest? In your own head', by Mick Hume, The Times (London), 25 November 2003

(36) France alarmed by mystery letter, BBC News, 17 March 2004

(37) The attack in Kenya is al-Qaeda's cry for hype, Tim Hames, The Times (London), 29 November 2002

(38) See Turkey warned of more attacks, The Age, 21 November 2003

(39) US national security strategy, US State Department, September 2002

(40) See Bali high noon, Flak magazine, 14 October 2002

(41) Blair's pledge to beat terror threat, David Ottewell, Manchester Evening News, 13 March 2004

(42) President Bush address United National General Assembly New York, George W Bush, White House, September 2003

(43) See After Madrid: a strange sort of solidarity, by Mick Hume

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