The war on terror self-destructs
But we still need a Culture War on cynicism.
It is difficult not to be cynical about the West’s ‘war on terror’ these days, when everything the authorities touch turns into a disaster. Cynicism, however, is a poor substitute for serious criticism of what they are doing.
In their desperate search for any success, the US and British authorities are reeling from one self-inflicted disaster to another. A huge anti-terror raid on a house in Forest Gate, east London, supposedly staged to find a chemical weapon, turns into an embarrassing debacle complete with shot civilian, which will cost the police many thousands in compensation and far more in credibility. A triple suicide by prisoners in the American camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, focuses attention once more on the centre that many see as a symbol of international injustice. Even a brief moment of success in Iraq, with the assassination of the terrorist figurehead Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, does little to improve the image of the war on terror.
The ongoing series of cock-ups makes clear that the war on terror is a slogan in search of a mission. The Bush and Blair governments are unclear about what they are fighting for, who they are fighting against, and how such a war can be won. Their campaigns appear so incoherent and out of control that their one achievement is to make their feeble opponents appear credible by comparison. Who needs a powerful international terrorist conspiracy when Washington and Whitehall are doing the job more effectively than al-Qaeda could ever dream of?
Thus, as Brendan O’Neill analyses elsewhere on spiked, the Americans set up Zarqawi as the supposed figurehead of the Iraqi insurgency, in order to give them a tangible bogeyman on whom to wage war. The result is that this non-entity terrorist is now being hailed as a martyr in the Middle East (see Zarqawi: Western fearmongering made flesh). In Forest Gate, meanwhile, the Keystone Kops-style raid on a terraced family home by 250 police officers has managed the remarkable feat of allowing George Galloway, the Respect MP and ex-Big Brother house cat, to pose as a responsible critic of heavy-handed policing.
Events in Somalia provide even more striking evidence of the war on terror’s uncanny ability to wreck everything it interferes in. In the early 1990s, Somali warlords kicked US forces out of the capital Mogadishu (see Black Hawk Down for the Hollywood version). More recently, however, in their paranoia about depriving al-Qaeda of any potential hiding place, the Americans have backed those same warlords to stabilise the ruined country. The result of this intervention is that Islamic militia have just been able to garner sufficient support to take over Mogadishu. In effect, US foreign policy has managed to create an Islamic regime in Somalia on the quiet.
Those leading the war on terror have forged a rod for their own backs. They have continually played up the threat of Islamic terrorism to Western civilisation, and the need for extraordinary measures of precaution to combat it, from pre-emptive invasions to new laws and police powers. When these measures fail, the backlash is inevitable.
Sir Ian Blair, beleaguered chief of London’s Metropolitan Police, now complains that, when it comes to taking hardline anti-terror measures, he is publicly damned if he does (Forest Gate) and damned if he doesn’t (7 July). Yet in truth he is damned by his own sermons. It is police chiefs such as Blair and their political masters who have done more than anybody to create such a febrile public atmosphere around these issues. Having told us time and again that a few terrorists pose a mortal threat to our way of life, they can hardly complain when people take them to task for failing to contain that menace. As Simon Jenkins put it in the London Sunday Times: ‘Purporting to be better safe than sorry, authority can no longer get away with sorry.’
It is not hard to understand why many have become so cynical about the disastrous war on terror. Yet we also need to understand that cynicism is a worse-than-useless reaction to these developments.
It is vitally important to question everything. But the fashionable knee-jerk cynicism that dismisses everything official as a cover-up and a conspiracy can act as a barrier to understanding these unfolding events. For example, when one US official described those three Guantanamo detainee suicides as ‘a good PR move’, she was immediately condemned around the world, and the defensive US State Department distanced itself from her remarks. Yet what else could such a coordinated suicide bid be, other than a PR move designed to publicise a cause? The combination of cynicism about every move made by the authorities with naivety about the motives of their enemies will not help opponents of Guantanamo grasp what is going on, never mind change it.
More importantly, a cynical sneer at every official cock-up can easily disguise an underlying agreement with the assumptions of the war on terror. This is where cynicism differs from considered criticism. When it comes to viewing terrorism in the West, it appears that both sides of the debate are motivated by the politics of fear and risk-aversion. Thus supporters of the war on terror argue that it is too risky not to invade a suspected terrorist state or not to raid suspected terrorist houses. Many opponents, meanwhile, argue that it is too risky to do so, suggesting that killing Zarqawi will only create a hundred more of him, or that raiding houses in east London will only breed more British Muslim terrorists. These are flipsides of the same fear-driven reactions, not alternative arguments.
We are left with a clash between the emotional spasm of ‘Something Must Be Done’ on one hand, and the emotional spasm of ‘Don’t Do Anything Dangerous’ on the other. It is the paranoid fantasies of those who imagine that a raid by an army of police officers is a reasonable response to a ridiculous rumour about a chemical bomb in an east London terrace, versus the defeatist fantasies of those who imagine that suicide bombing is a reasonable response to a supposed lack of respect. Both sides of the politics of fear offer an open invitation to any other little band of nihilists harbouring their own fantasies of putting the wind up us all with a ‘good PR move’.
The disastrous war on terror has become an end in itself, a clattering train that its increasingly desperate supporters seem unable either to defend or abandon. Meanwhile, the cynics often sound as if their real demand is not so much ‘Stop the War’ as ‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off’. We could do with taking a big step back from this unenlightening debate, and trying to put things in some proper critical perspective. To challenge the assumptions of the war on terror, we may need to launch a Culture War on cynicism.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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