[Also posted, under a different title, at the Sharpener. Fun Boy Three or Scritti Politti, the choice is yours.]
First things first: what happened in London last Thursday was horrific, unjustifiable and unforgivable. Faced with an outrage like the bus and tube bombings, it’s entirely appropriate to express respect to the victims, defiance of the murderers who carried it out and solidarity with the people of London.
What happened on Thursday was terror: “personal violence against non-specific targets, with the immediate goal of causing panic and alarm”. That word ‘non-specific’ is important here. Murder fuelled by personal hatred is a sad, grim thing, but it’s always on a human scale; there’s always a story in there somewhere, a sense of an interaction between two people which could have turned out differently. (Murder comes closest to being genuinely tragic – inspiring a kind of horrified awe – when it is most pre-determined: when it seems that, after a certain point, those two people could not avoid that final confrontation.)
Murder fuelled by a blank determination to kill someone is on a different scale altogether. Its particular horror lies, I think, in the way that it resembles death by misadventure and death by natural causes and death by who knows what: it’s like the great crushing wheel of death that rolls through all our lives, in the form of accident and illness and bereavement.
Death says: you, here, now.
And Death says: no, it’s not fair.
And Death says: no, there’s nothing you can do about it.
And Death says: no, there’s no more time.
Death says: you, here, now.
To commit acts of terror is to be like Death – or rather, to usurp other people’s Death. To value life – to value living human beings – is to rebel against death, even if the rebellion is ultimately, inevitably, futile. It’s also to rebel against anyone so shabby and vile as to usurp Death for their own ends, whatever those ends might be.
So, setting aside any consideration of motives and outcomes, it makes perfect sense to oppose terror in the name of humanity. You shouldn’t have done that to us. You shouldn’t do that to anyone.
But this is not the same thing as opposing disorderly political activism. Under the Terrorism Act of 2000, ‘terrorism’ is defined as the commission or threat of serious personal violence, serious violence against property or attacks on ‘electronic system[s]’, when these are carried out (or threatened) for political ends. Under this definition, it is difficult not to apply the label of ‘terrorism’ to political violence of any sort. There doesn’t even need to be a human victim: ‘terrorism’ includes property damage; it includes hack attacks; it even includes threats. At the same time, it becomes extremely difficult to think in terms of ‘terror’ when talking about anything but direct action from below. If ‘terrorism’ is a challenge to the state’s monopoly of violence, the state cannot itself be guilty of terror tactics, more or less by definition. If what we say about ‘terrorism’ has anything to do with a consistent definition of ‘terror’, these distortions need to be resisted.
Nor is opposing terror the same thing as opposing the terrorists. There was a particularly woeful contrast between Blair’s and Ken Livingstone’s statements last Thursday. Obviously only one of the two is a natural speaker: Livingstone delivered a genuinely eloquent speech in effortless, conversational style, while Blair delivered a disjointed stream of verbiage in a style that wasn’t so much animated as animatronic. The contrast between what they actually had to say was more telling. Livingstone stressed the multi-cultural nature of London: this was not an attack on the elite of a ‘Christian’ country, but an attack on “ordinary working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old”.
Blair, on the other hand, said that most Muslims were perfectly sweet once you got to know them:
We know these people act in the name of Islam but we also know the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad are decent and law-abiding people who abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as we do.
(Venn diagram challenge: draw sets representing ‘these people’, ‘the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad’, ‘all Muslims’, ‘all British people’ and ‘all British Muslims’. Now draw a set representing ‘us’.)
After that it got worse.
It is through terrorism that the people that have committed this terrible act express their values, and it is right at this moment that we demonstrate ours. … We will show, by our spirit and dignity, and by our quiet but true strength that there is in the British people, that our values will long outlast theirs.
For Livingstone, terror is bad because it’s terror: the constituency you rally against terror need only be defined – and should only be defined – by its resistance to terror. (You shouldn’t have done that to us. You shouldn’t do that to anyone.) Standing up against terror – like becoming a victim of terror – can become part of anyone’s life, at any time. When it’s over, perhaps, we’ll congratulate each other on our stoical British sense of humour and London’s indomitable spirit. (And perhaps we won’t.) But at the time, we’ll resist for no other reason than that we like our lives and want to get on with them. A dreadful, unforgivable attack happens; you name it as dreadful and unforgivable; you mourn the dead and defy the attackers; and then you get on with it. After all, it’s not as if it’s the first time:
The last time a bomb went off there was February 18 1996. … a 21-year-old IRA member called Edward O’Brien, on his way to do who knows what, had accidentally blown himself up. No one else died. It seemed terrible, at the time; it was terrible, just as the Docklands bomb was terrible, and the Harrods bomb before that, and all the other bombs too. Another time, only 18 years ago, the King’s Cross fire, 500 metres up the line from last Thursday’s bomb, killed 31 people and made a great many others feel that they were never going to go on the tube again. They did, though. My point is that not only is this not the first time that the long street that includes Woburn Place has been bombed; it is not even the first time it has been bombed by a terrorist on a bus during the last decade.
This is all a long way from Blair’s world. For the Prime Minister, terror is not a type of attack but the distinguishing feature of a group of evil people. Those people and their values are the enemy we need to rally against; the constituency to be rallied is defined in terms of ‘us’ and ‘our values’. This argument seems to spring from a certain kind of communitarian thinking, which holds that people can only be mobilised by appealing to the values of their communities – and that the bonds and symbols defining those communities are pre-political, if not pre-rational.
Whatever its roots, the implications of this argument are alarming: presumably those people would still be evil men with evil values (and would still need locking up) if they gave up terrorism. On the other hand, presumably we don’t need to be judged by our actions. The British state may bend a few rules and tread on a few toes along the way, but it’ll never be guilty of terror; on the contrary, it will be in the front line against terrorism, buoyed up by our strong and enduring British values. It’s not far from here to Mary Riddell‘s truly appalling argument in Sunday’s Observer:
No one savaged the legislature more effectively than Lord Hoffman, when the law lords rightly ruled as unlawful government detention of foreign terror suspects without trial. ‘The real threat to the life of the nation comes not from terrorism, but from laws such as these,’ he said. Liberals galvanised by Lord Hoffman’s passion should also have been uneasy. … Ask the commuters with their smoke-filled lungs what they think. Ask the maimed, the terrified, the mourners whose loved ones are lying in a mangled carriage entombed in a tunnel. Ask them whether the bomber or the over-zealous lawmaker more threatens British life. You will find Lord Hoffman’s credo held in scorn.
“Magna Carta? Leave it out – we’ve got terrorists to defeat!” The dangers of this line of argument are obvious.
(Incidentally, thirty seconds with Google found this, slightly more accurate, rendering of Hoffman’s words:
The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.
Hoffman rather specifically didn’t say that terrorism posed no threat, or that bad laws were more likely to kill people than terrorist bombs. He said that the fabric of British society – a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values – can be damaged far more extensively by bad laws than by terrorist bombs. The point is not that the law is more violent than terrorism but that it is more important; ‘Lord Hoffman’s credo’ means ‘never allowing last week’s spirit of survival to fester into hatreds and bad laws’, in the words of Riddell’s own conclusion. Given that Riddell appears to know and understand Hoffman’s argument, her misrepresentation of it is contemptible; as as is her projection of her own half-considered ‘scorn’ onto the victims of the bombing. But enough.)
If we are to condemn terrorism, it should be because we condemn terror, not because we condemn anyone who challenges the state’s monopoly of violence or anyone who opposes Britain. But these distortions of the ‘anti-terrorist’ message tell us something troubling about the message itself. The ethical humanist appeal to resist terror is a statement about how people should and shouldn’t act – whatever social situation they occupy, however much or little power they wield, whatever cause they espouse. It suspends any consideration of motives and outcomes – any consideration of ways in which the social world should change.
As such, the anti-terrorist message is fundamentally not political. It’s true that an act of terror is not like other forms of violence; one of its distinguishing qualities is that of being unforgivable. But it’s also true that, like other forms of violence, acts of terror are always meaningful. The act was committed by a certain group, with its own aims and its own history; certain targets were chosen; the effect of the act was to shift the balance of power in particular ways; some causes were furthered and others hindered. In practice, this means that ‘unforgivable’ is not the end of the story. From London to Madrid to Algiers to Deir Yassin to Fallujah to Srebrenica to the via Fani to Brighton to Omagh to the Milltown Cemetery, we have always to ask (we cannot help asking), unforgivable and… what? Was that particular act unforgivable and irredeemably vile, unforgivable and contemptibly cynical, or unforgivable and horribly mistaken? Might it even, in some circumstances, be unforgivable but tragically constructive?
Opposition to terror and terrorism is an honourable ethical stance – arguably it’s a necessary ethical stance – but it’s not a political position; if anyone offers us anti-terrorism as a political programme, we should be very wary of what we’re getting. If your opposition to terrorism has political implications – to reduce the amount of terror in the world, we should change this and this – the chances are that you’ve brought those conclusions to your stance on terror, not derived them from it. (Apart from anything else, how did you decide which source of terror needed most urgently to be changed?)
Opposing terror is not a political act. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a good thing: death has its due, and the dead should be mourned. All terror is equally unforgivable, and we should say so: to resist terror is to honour its victims. But when we’ve demonstrated our opposition to terror we’ll go our separate ways, and within a month or a week we may well find ourselves on different sides of a political argument.
Which is how it should be: life goes on, which means that politics goes on – and it goes on without the terrorists, just as it did before. We defy terrorists, but there comes a point when the best way to defy them is to forget them.