Our war on the politics of fear

How the reactions to 9/11 proved that the world had already changed – and helped to shape the political targets of a new magazine called spiked.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

This week, spiked is publishing a series of essays and articles on the world after 11 September 2001. Here, Mick Hume explains how 9/11 intensified the Western culture of fear.

Contrary to what we have been told a thousand times over the past decade, and particularly this week, 9/11 was not ‘the day that changed the world’. No act of terrorism alone, even one as bloody as the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, could ever do that. What 9/11 and, more importantly, the fear-driven responses to it did was to confirm that the world had already changed, and to act as a further catalyst accelerating the end of the old political order.

As I wrote on spiked a day after the collapse of the twin towers: ‘It is not the act of terrorism itself that has changed the course of history, but the reaction to it may well do so.’ Our expectations have been borne out over the subsequent decade. The dreadful events of 9/11 came just six months after we had launched spiked, with me as its first editor. spiked was the online successor to LM magazine (née Living Marxism). In LM and elsewhere, writers subsequently associated with spiked had already gone a long way towards establishing a framework for understanding the post-Cold War world, navigating a shifting political map without the safety of the old signposts. Among the key features of this developing analysis were the end of the traditional ideologies of left and right; the crisis of authority in Western societies from the top downwards; and perhaps most pertinently, the creeping advance of the new politics of fear.

These trends created a context in which to situate the attacks on 9/11. It did not mean that we were any less shocked than anybody else. But it did allow spiked to make more sense of these events and the fallout from them. From the first, we emphasised the importance of the powerful culture of fear in Western societies shaping reactions to 9/11. As one US columnist wrote on the day of the terror attacks, ‘the next big thing… is likely to be fear’. On spiked, however, we had already identified the culture of fear as a dominant characteristic of the age, evident in seemingly trivial panics over public health and wellbeing about everything from food to flying. The result, as we put it afterwards, was that ‘we were scaring ourselves to death long before 9/11’.

The terror attacks on America did not create the culture of fear. But the reactions to 9/11 did demonstrate how powerful the politics of fear had become. That first spiked editorial on 12 September 2001 noted how the actions of a few zealous terrorists had effectively caused ‘the collapse of the American government’, with President George W Bush sent off around the country in search of a bolthole, Congress closed down, and all in chaos: ‘In the heart of the only superpower on Earth, the traumatised authorities suddenly seemed bewildered and powerless.’ These events, I also argued, gave ‘an insight into the fearful state of the contemporary Western mind’, as the authorities everywhere moved to pull up drawbridges and lash out at their invisible enemies. As another spiked editorial two days later had it, after 48 hours of bellicose panic-mongering in Washington and London, ‘It’s war – but against whom?’.

spiked’s immediate response to 9/11 and the forces it helped to unleash was to step up our own war of words against the culture of fear, arguing on 12 September that ‘by adopting a precautionary approach to modern life, and reorganising society on the basis of worst-case scenarios, we risk squandering opportunities to create a more progressive, civilised world’. This, I recall, caused confusion among some readers who had expected a more routine left-wing response. spiked, after all, came from a political and intellectual tradition of anti-imperialism, where the response to an attack by the IRA or the PLO in the 1980s would have emphasised the context of oppression that gave rise to such movements.

But we saw straight away that 9/11 was different. There was no shred of anti-imperialism in the attacks on New York and Washington, launched by Westernised and affluent young Saudis who appeared to have been shaped more by the malaise in Western society than any oppression in the Third World. Instead these acts of nihilistic terror-for-terror’s-sake – of adolescent ‘apocalyptic barbarism’, as one spiked writer described them – were in part a product of the global demise of the progressive left and of the national liberation movements it had supported, leaving behind a vacuum to be filled by terrorists whose explosive tantrum was so incoherent they could not even claim responsibility for their attacks or articulate a cause.

The same decay of radical politics was evident in the response of those left-liberals in the West who tried to speak for the suicide attackers, some even claiming that people working in the New York finance industry should not be considered innocent victims.

If 9/11 was both a product of, and an attempt to prey on, a weakness at the heart of the West, the response of the authorities suggested that the attackers were banging on an open door. At another time such a terrorist attack, however deadly, might have been seen in a wider sense as ‘throwing snowballs at our castle walls’. This time, however, the politics of fear dictated that it was treated as if posing a mortal threat not only to the people in those planes and the twin towers, but to Western civilisation itself.

The politics of fear is often understood too narrowly and conspiratorially, as a conscious attempt by those in power to control the population by spreading fear and justifying authoritarian measures. An element of that has often been evident over the decade since 9/11. But arguably more important has been the impact of the politics of fear on the insecure authorities themselves, who increasingly live in fear and loathing of a world that appears beyond their authority and control. That was evident in the panicky reactions on 9/11, and in the years of turmoil that followed.

We saw the influence of the politics of fear in both the launch and the conduct of the West’s desperate wars of intervention that came after 9/11, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It was witnessed, too, in the reorganisation of domestic politics around ‘homeland security’, not only in the US but in Europe. Here in the UK we might recall Tony Blair’s New Labour government making plans to flee London in the event of a fantasy terrorist dirty-bomb attack on the capital, while after the 7/7 attacks on London transport Gordon Brown declared that every department of government must effectively become a security department (see Gordon Brown’s tyranny of security, by Brendan O’Neill).

Meanwhile, spiked fought running battles against both sides of a ‘culture war’ that came to dominate and distort much public debate: on one hand, the fearmongers spreading panic about ‘Islamofascism’, as if the handful of Islamists really were the equivalent of Nazism on the march; and on the other, the rival fearmongers worrying about ‘Islamophobia’, imagining an army of white racists about to set fire to Britain’s inner cities.

And the politics of fear has not only been focused on terror. It predated 9/11, and it has since been behind many of the new forms of authoritarianism and lifestyle control that have flourished in recent years. Yet many critics of the ‘war on terror’ have focused only on the most extreme legal attacks on civil liberties, such as the infamous attempt to extend detention without charge to 90 days for terrorism suspects in the UK. The fact that many celebrated keeping the legal limit to ‘only’ 28 days, and welcomed new attacks on free speech as a defence against ‘Islamophobia’, confirmed how far the politics of fear has helped to drive liberty out of our public life over the past decade.

The identification of the politics of fear as a central theme of Western culture has shaped much of what spiked stood for since 9/11, first under my editorship and then, since 2007, under that of Brendan O’Neill. We take no pleasure in the way that our warning about the dangers of ‘reorganising society on the basis of worst-case scenarios’ 10 years ago has been proved right, most recently in the panicky, precautionary reaction of the New York authorities to the prospect of Hurricane Irene (see The politics of fear blows into New York, by Tim Black). But it has convinced us to redouble our efforts.

Back on 12 September 2001, that first article also tried to sound a more optimistic note, expressing the hope that, ‘in the face of adversity, people will rediscover the resilience and resourcefulness that made us capable of going out and building a modern wonder like Manhattan in the first place’. In the decade since then, many people have indeed shown remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. But the Western authorities and their apologists have ensured that post-9/11 political life remains weighed down under an atmosphere of misanthropy, miserabilism and fear. Ten years is more than enough of that.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor at large.

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

Topics Politics


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