Homing in on terrorism

The pro-war lobby is trying to scare us into supporting the attack on Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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In the run-up to war, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair are talking up the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the civilised world. But at home, their officials are flagging a different problem: al-Qaeda, and the risk of terrorist attack in the West.

America’s Department of Homeland Security has launched Operation Liberty Shield, to ‘increase security and readiness in the United States’ (1). The ‘terror alert’ has been upped to orange (high risk), and the authorities are encouraging people to be ‘cautious and vigilant’. Tom Ridge, the secretary for homeland security, says these measures are a response to ‘credible information’ about a potential attack: ‘Bin Laden himself has said in recent weeks that American military action in Iraq would be a rallying cry…to attack American interests at home and abroad.’ (2)

In the UK, the Home Office has launched a website telling members of the public what they should do in the event of a terrorist assault. ‘The threat from terrorism remains real and serious’, says the website, advising people to ‘go in, stay in, and tune in’ if terrorists attack (3).

Why the sudden re-focus on al-Qaeda? The flurry of statements about potential attacks is less a response to new, specific intelligence about the al-Qaeda network, than a cynical attempt to ratchet up support at home for war in Iraq. Having failed to convince us of the moral case for war, US and UK officials appear to be falling back on fear in an attempt to win our backing.

The Department of Homeland Security has picked a curious time to launch a ‘shield’ against al-Qaeda. Just days before Tom Ridge said bin Laden and co remained a serious threat to the USA, especially now that war is imminent, other, anonymous US officials argued that al-Qaeda is pretty much a spent force.

On 13 March 2003, CBS News reported: ‘The training tapes they left behind still look scary and the voice of Osama bin Laden has never been more threatening, but privately several senior US officials conclude that al-Qaeda has effectively been defeated.’ (4) The Boston Globe claimed that ‘the United States is within reach of dismantling the leadership of the al-Qaeda network’, reporting one official as saying ‘the tide has turned’ for bin Laden (5).

The officials admit that their belief that al-Qaeda has ‘effectively been defeated’ (however true or untrue that may be) has been kept away from the public. According to CBS News, even though senior officials are convinced that ‘if al-Qaeda does strike again, it will never be with the power it once had’, such news had been ‘carefully shielded from the public’. One official said the authorities did not want to ‘overplay their optimism’, and continued to recognise the usefulness of having al-Qaeda as a potential threat (6).

Now the Department of Homeland Security appears to be playing that useful al-Qaeda card in relation to the war. Despite claims that al-Qaeda is over, Ridge and his security men talk up the threat of terrorist attack as something that ‘all Americans must guard against’. In the absence of a convincing case for invading Iraq (and with little public enthusiasm for invading Iraq), US officials appear to be seeking new ways to create a sense of in-this-together Blitz Spirit.

Across the West, from the war-talkers themselves down to the rest of us, there doesn’t seem to be much stomach, much less passion, for the coming war. Neither side in the war debate, whether anti or pro, has offered a particularly convincing case. Rather, the majority of people seem to have a shoulder-shrugging approach to the war instead of any really strong feelings about it.

A Gallup Poll conducted in the USA on 17 March 2003 found that 30 percent of the American public ‘disapprove of the war’. In the remaining bloc, 44 percent approve of the war because ‘it is the right thing to do’, while 21 percent approve of the war even though they are ‘not sure if it is right’ (and four percent have ‘no opinion’) (7). This captures something of the broader attitude to war with Iraq – not so much all-out support for it, as a sense that maybe we should do it. And that if we are going to do it, then maybe we should get on with it and get it over with.

In such a climate, the propaganda offensive on the home front seems to have shifted from convincing us of any value to the war itself to scaring us about the potential for attack. US and UK officials are trying to generate wartime solidarity by appealing to (and hyping up) individual fears about safety, rather than putting the argument for a collective mission to do something good on the international stage.

It is an indictment of the pro-war lobby that one of the few ways it can try to win support for its war is by fuelling fear and cynicism, rather than putting forward a convincing case.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Ridge launches ‘Operation Liberty Shield’ as war footing steps up, US Department of Defense, 18 March 2003

(2) Ridge launches ‘Operation Liberty Shield’ as war footing steps up, US Department of Defense, 18 March 2003

(3) ‘Stay indoors’ terror advice, BBC News, 19 March 2003

(4) Al-Qaeda in disarray?, CBS News, 13 March 2003

(5) US reported close to dismantling Al Qaeda, Boston Globe, 17 March 2003

(6) Al-Qaeda in disarray?, CBS News, 13 March 2003

(7) American public opinion about Iraq, Gallup, 19 March 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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