When the news came in that Britain’s security services had foiled a terrorist outrage on the scale of 9/11, I should have felt relief at mass murder averted, shock at the audacity of the plot, and fear that Britain was once again under attack. But five years on from the collapse of the Twin Towers, I find those instincts clouded by thoughts of a more troubled kind: that prejudice and moral indignation will close down the space to ask why, and that the threat of terror will, once again, be put to such dangerous political uses that it breeds more of the same.
This should not be confused with cynicism about the existence of a terrorist threat, even though the record of the past five years – WMDs, the ricin plot, the Menezes killing and the Forest Gate raid – has provided ample reasons to be cynical. It is likely that several of the 24 suspects detained in raids on 10 August played no part in any terror plot. But the signs are that, this time around, the police did disrupt a plan to blow up trans-Atlantic flights.
To be caught in a game of truth about the plausibility or otherwise of a failed terror plot – or, worse, to fantasise about conspiracies – is to risk losing sight of the key issues in the debate on terrorism.
‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is a vital principle, but it is not a sufficient political response. And there are several examples of specious reasoning that we need to confront.
The most glaring is the idea that foreign policy should not be invoked to explain foiled terror attacks. Such reasoning is ‘dangerous and foolish’, says UK transport minister Douglas Alexander. But he makes the fatal confusion between explanation and justification – as though the US and British occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and complicity in the Israeli destruction of Lebanon, had not fanned the flames of resentment and injustice that fuel terrorism.
The Home Secretary John Reid claims that it is ‘a dreadful is judgement’ to believe Britain’s foreign policy should be shaped ‘under the threat of terrorist activity’. Yet domestic policy is made in precisely these terms, with new police powers, anti-terror laws and surveillance following each and every terrorist threat. On 9 August, Reid launched a pre-emptive strike on the critics of such measures, arguing that we should ‘modify some of our own freedoms in the short term’ to counter those who would ‘destroy all of our freedoms in the modern world’. A dreadful misjudgement, indeed.
Not all politicians are in denial about the bigger picture. George Bush’s response to the London plot was to join the dots between ‘Islamic fascists’ in the UK, Lebanon and Iraq. Tony Blair will likely make the same connection in slightly less offensive terms, extending his ‘arc of extremism’ from Beirut to Birmingham. This is politics in the moral register, or a different way to deny the impact of foreign policy. If our enemies are fundamentally evil, then there is no need to understand causes or alleviate grievances – but rather, to destroy our enemies and promote ‘our values’, a communitarian response to foreign policy that has been mirrored, unsuccessfully, on the domestic front.
Muslims are not a monolithic community, and the idea that they should indulge in a new bout of self-policing to unearth the ‘terrorists in their midst’ cannot fail to reinforce the alienating sense that they are being held collectively responsible for the criminal intent of a small, extremist group. Worse still, right-wing commentators are already editorialising against the threat of an ‘enemy within’, to quote the /Sunday Times/ editorial of 14 August.
This comes on the back of a trial by media, which has given the private lives of the accused the kind of going over normally reserved for /Big Brother/ contestants. The suspects fail to conform to the bearded, hook-handed norm. They seem ‘all too ordinary’, ‘living “normal” westernised existences in neat terraced houses’. It is not hard to find a racist undercurrent here, the fantasy that even ‘moderate’ Islam is a faÃ§ade for extremism – expressed, by the /Sunday Times/, as a ‘sneaking admiration for jihad even among seemingly sensible Muslims’. This is the real cynicism.
If we are serious about counteracting terrorism, then an understanding of politics and power should be our guide. For over a century, terrorism has mostly involved responses to military occupation by outside state powers. It has been conducted on behalf of (rather than by) the poor in contexts where the perpetrators perceive no legitimate channels to advance their political demands. Religion has sometimes been used to legitimise such actions, but has rarely been a cause.
Attacks by British-born Muslims seem little different, except that their political sympathies, fuelled by internet videos and 24-hour news broadcasts, express a more ‘globalised’ struggle than that of their predecessors. For as long as the British government acts with impunity and supports state terror abroad, there can be little hope that we can resolve the problem of terror at home.
/Oscar Reyes is editor of Red Pepper magazine [link:www.redpepper.org.uk] /