Terror: keeping the outrage in perspective

Islamic terrorism is real. But the notion of an Islamic terrorist threat to society is the product of our own insecure imaginations.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Is the terrorist threat facing the UK, the USA and the West today real and mortal, or is it exaggerated, even invented?

This debate swings back and forth with events. When warnings of planned acts of terrorism proved unfounded, as with the London ‘ricin plot’ or the alleged plot to blow up Old Trafford football ground, or when a high-profile police terror raid comes up empty-handed as recently in Forest Gate, the sceptics and cynics have the upper hand and accusations of political scaremongering ring out.

When an actual terrorist attack happens, however, as in New York and Washington on 9/11 or London on 7/7, the authorities and the supporters of their ‘war on terror’ take the high ground and accuse their critics of being in denial about the terrible danger we face. As the investigation into an alleged plot to blow up planes leaving London airports for America continues, so too does the argument about whether it is really a conspiracy by the terrorists or the government.

Both sides of this pre-scripted debate appear to be working on some false assumptions. Yes, the threat posed by Islamic terrorists to aircraft, trains, buildings and the public is undoubtedly real, not imaginary. But the threat posed by terrorism to our society, our civilisation, our ‘way of life’ is a product of our own collective imagination.

Indeed, only we can make this broader threat real, by our reactions to the spectre of terrorism. So it was not bombs that brought Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world, to a standstill over the past few days, but the official response to reports of a thwarted bomb plot. It is arguable that the ‘precautionary’ measures imposed caused more disruption to the transport network than the real London suicide bombings on tube trains and a bus on 7 July 2005.

Whatever the truth about those arrested in east London, Birmingham and Bucks last week, it is undeniable that groups of would-be terrorists exist in the UK. The current detainees are British-born Muslims, as were the 7/7 suicide bombers. There are nihilistic young people around with an over-developed sense of grievance shaped by our victim culture, who want to make some sort of irrational, adolescent gesture against society. Today they might hang that self-centred sense of grievance on Iraq or the Middle East, tomorrow it might be something else. But they are there, and have not been dreamt up by the police or Tony Blair’s spindoctors.

Most of these people are little more than fantasists, swapping big-talk stories about what they are going to do (and sometimes getting overheard in the process by the security services). Others are serious and willing to go through with it. Yet they too are fantasists, dreaming not only that they will go straight to heaven, but that blowing up themselves and some civilians will somehow be a major blow against the society they hate.

This is the fantasy that is encouraged by the authorities and their supporters, when they warn of the danger to ‘our way of life’ posed by these little groups of pathetic terrorists. Terrorism can bring down a plane, even 10 planes if the stories of the latest plot are to be believed, or great Twin Towers in the centre of a city. But how could a relative handful of bombers bring down a civilisation or a way of life? Even if they kill 3,000, as on 9/11, or more than that, as the hysterics claim would have happened this time, they are simply throwing snowballs at castles. Despite the rhetorical links with the Second World War that we hear being made all the time, there is no realistic comparison between the threat posed by the lightweight foot-soldiers of Islamic terrorism today and that represented by an enemy power such as Nazi Germany.

Islamic terrorism is real. But the notion of an Islamic terrorist threat to society is the product of our own insecure imaginations. It is a symptom of a society that has lost its way, lost a sense of certainty about itself, and feels unusually vulnerable. In Britain, for example, the great uniting projects of the past, from the Empire through to the construction of welfare state and the Cold War, have all gone, and nothing has replaced them as yet. (The USA, too, in different ways has experienced a loss of its sense of historic mission.) Our society often appears to be made up of atomised individuals and competing ‘cultural identities’. We are unsure of what might unite us, and what we are prepared to stand for together. Thus there is much talk of the need to teach children ‘common values’, but little idea as to what those values might be.

Such an uncertain society makes a fertile breeding ground for overblown cultural anxieties, whether about bird flu, global warming or Islamic terrorism. A fatalistic sense of being powerless to deal with these problems makes us wary of taking any risks. So the authorities devote their energies to imagining ‘what if?’ worst-case scenarios and taking ‘precautionary measures’ that only do more damage. Home secretary John Reid, for example, trying to explain the need to maintain high levels of vigilance and security at the weekend, declared that, ‘There could be others out there, perhaps people we don’t know, perhaps people involved in other plots’. Basing security policy on such speculation about what ‘could…perhaps…perhaps’ happen seems like a recipe for permanent paralysis.

The same uncertainty that leaves society vulnerable to terrorism panics also makes it hard to sustain them. The political class has suffered a serious loss of public authority. This has given rise to a wave of cynicism about the anti-terrorist measures imposed, such as the restrictions on flying. The authorities have turned in on themselves, with the government, airlines and airports all blaming one another for the crisis. This unedifying spectacle is far removed from the sort of pseudo-Blitz spirit they might have hoped to generate in response to the alleged terror plot. As chaos reigned, it was worth asking, who needs al-Qaeda when we are capable of reducing ourselves to this desperate state?

The moral cowardice and loss of nerve evident in these high-level responses to the spectre of terrorism pose a more meaningful threat to the life of our society than do a few would-be bombers. Moreover, they can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy and give rise to further attacks.

The carnival of insecurity and confusion looks like an open invitation to anybody who fancies becoming a celebrity suicide bomber. You might even get a two-minute silence in your honour! And those speculative ‘what-if?’ scenarios sometimes sound like guidelines for future plots, as when one top security official was quoted at the weekend observing that: ‘If they are going to find airports too difficult, the railways aren’t a bad second choice.’ Parading our society’s present-day discomfort with taking risks also sends the message that it is easy for a few zealots to wreak havoc way beyond their actual capacity, simply by plotting to smuggle bottles on to planes.

At every turn, it is our reaction that magnifies the terrorist threat, turning a policing problem into a broad political conflict that our society cannot win in its current confused state of mind. The central issue to focus on here is not homegrown Muslim extremism. That is a symptom of deeper problems. The bigger questions are where is our society going, what do we believe in, and what are we prepared to fight for now? If we could answer those convincingly, the terrorist snowballs would make no serious indentation on our castle walls.

It is not a matter of being in denial about Islamic terrorism. It is about keeping the terrorist threat in perspective, as something that is neither ‘all in the mind’, nor a gun at civilisation’s head.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

‘Waaah! It’s all Blair’s fault’, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: War on terror

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Topics Politics


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