In another country, with another name

In a comment thread on his blog, Brian Barder writes:

You [meaning me – PJE] take a more generous view than I do … of the opinions, implied or explicit, of those many commentators who have been saying (and continue to say) that because Blair must have known that UK participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be used by Muslim extremists to generate additional anger and resentment against Britain, and that this would increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack in Britain, therefore Blair has a share of responsibility for the London bombings. Attributing responsibility in this way has two unavoidable implications: (1) that Blair deserves a share of the blame for the bombings and (2) that the increased likelihood of a terrorist attack in Britain ought to have been a factor influencing Blair against his decision to join the Americans in invading Iraq, even if on other grounds he believed it right and necessary to do so.You come perilously close to adopting this view, it seems to me, when you write:

the Iraq invasion created new opportunities for terrorists, created anti-British feeling which was likely to make it easier to recruit new terrorists, and created disaffection among British Muslims which was likely to produce active or passive support for terrorists – and that all these consequences were probable, could have been predicted and should have been weighed in the balance when Blair & co were contemplating joining Bush’s invasion. To have overlooked predictable consequences like this in a good cause would be bad enough (pace Geras); when the cause in question is the Iraq war as we’ve known it, Blair’s responsibility is heavy.

Once you accept that the threat of terrorist attack in response to a specific act of policy is a factor legitimately to be taken into account in making decisions on that policy, you are handing over control of our foreign (and eventually our domestic) policy to terrorists. This is exactly comparable to yielding to the demands of a blackmailer. The only consequence of such surrender is that the demands of the terrorists (and of the blackmailer) will become yet more frequent and more exorbitant. In other words, the increased risk of terrorist attack in the UK should have been totally excluded from Blair’s calculations of the pros and cons of taking part in the Iraq war.

In response to Brian’s first point, I don’t think that Blair’s government can sensibly be blamed for the bombings, unless there’s an unusually long and obscure trail yet to be uncovered, leading from the Foreign Office back to the madrassas. What does fall to the government’s responsibility is protecting its citizens from arbitrary killings. The question is whether the government may bear a share of the blame for failure to protect us from the bombings – a failure which may include failure to avert the bombings altogether, by contributing to the development of conditions which made the bombings more likely. The second argument – that Blair would have been correct to leave the threat of terrorism out of his pre-Iraq calculations – is more substantial, but I have to say that I find it highly counter-intuitive. As Tony Hatfield said in comments here,

The State has an obligation to consider every effect flowing from its policy-especially its foreign policy and certainly a policy involving a declaration of war. That must include the effect of any “blowback” from terrorism. … If that is so, then there must be circumstances- the threat is so immediate, and disproportionate to the benefit you seek- that it tips the balance firmly against the policy.

Brian’s analogy with blackmail is suggestive, but I don’t see that it can entirely sustain his argument – after all, any concession to anyone may be interpreted as a sign of weakness and exploited accordingly. When one government makes demands of another, there is always the possibility that one of the two will end up paying Danegeld or conceding the Sudetenland; however, in practice these extreme cases can be disregarded, and demands can be considered on their merits (bearing in mind the foreseeable consequences of granting or refusing them). Certainly it would be absurd to say, as a matter of principle, that no government should change its policies based on demands made by another government. Should we exclude demands made by non-governmental actors? But that’s not right either – we would expect (and in some cases hope) that governments would be responsive to demands made by multi-national businesses, by the world’s major faiths, by trade union confederations, by charities and campaigning organisations.

There’s obviously something about terrorist organisations which makes it reasonable (from Brian’s perspective) for governments to refuse any demands outright and on principle: something which turns pressure into blackmail and recognition into capitulation. Intuition tells me that the difference is staring me in the face, in the word ‘terrorist’, but in this case I think intuition is wrong. The problem with terrorist groups, in other words, isn’t the fact that they back up their demands with arbitrary and random violence. Imagine an organisation which attempted to gain publicity for its demands by planting dummy bombs. At first the bombs would be taken for the real thing and there would be a certain amount of panic and alarm, even if nobody was actually injured by them. After a while, though, the ‘bombs’ are treated with contemptuous lack of interest, by police and public alike. At this point, has the group ceased to be terrorist – and should the government become willing to negotiate with it? Conversely, imagine a campaign for constitutional reform whose rallies, ignored by the government, grow larger and more unruly, to the point where violent clashes with the police are a predictable occurrence. The campaign’s activities have led directly to the wounding of police officers, in other words; does this mean that it has turned into a terrorist campaign, whose demands should be ignored on principle? In both cases, the reverse appears more likely.

It seems that the judgment of whether a terrorist organisation is terrorist – meaning that its demands should be rejected unconsidered – is independent of what it does. The key is, perhaps, provided by Brian’s analogy with hostage-taking. A terrorist group, we could say, is criminal by nature: in order to achieve its aims, it needs to undermine the state and attack the rule of law. Criminal actions carried out by a constitutional political group are an anomaly which only have a limited effect on our willingness to recognise or deal with them. By contrast, criminal actions carried out by a terrorist group reaffirm the criminal nature of the group and vindicate our refusal to recognise them.

The trouble with this line of argument is that it brings the aims of the group into play as well as its tactics: if terrorist groups are defined by their fundamental opposition to the state and the rule of law, we need to be sure that the groups we describe as terrorist are fundamentally opposed to the state and the rule of law, rather than using criminal tactics to promote demands which could in principle be granted by the state (and legitimated by the law). Hence, perhaps, Blair’s bizarre argument that what sets Al Qaida apart from the British Army is that “They don’t regret the loss of innocent, civilian life. They rejoice in it, that is their purpose.” (Let’s hope for Blair’s sake that Al Qaida never takes lessons in PR from the IRA, who were past masters in regret for the consequences of their actions (we deeply regret the loss of innocent life, caused by a conflict which will inevitably continue…).) I’m not going to go into the question of whether the aims of Al Qaida are non-negotiable in this sense, beyond recommending some cogent arguments for and against the proposition. I think it bears stressing that the ‘blackmail’ analogy rests on an assumption that terrorist groups are different in kind from other political actors, and – most importantly – that this difference derives primarily from their goals rather than their actions (however criminal – however vile, come to that – those actions may be).

But let’s say that, in the case of Al Qaida, we are dealing with a criminal conspiracy with no political aims which could possibly conceded. Even in that case, I don’t think it follows that principled policy-making should take no account of them. Consider a less controversial criminal conspiracy, the Mafia. The Mafia certainly has no demands which any responsible government would grant; formulating policy in order to benefit the Mafia would be reprehensible. However, according to the ‘blackmail’ logic, allowing the government’s opposition to the Mafia to influence policy – perhaps by favouring policies which limited the Mafia’s opportunities to penetrate British society – would itself represent a tacit recognition of the Mafia as a force to be reckoned with, and should therefore be rejected. The responsible course of action would be to take whatever actions the government believed would benefit Britain, leaving the Mafia – and the possibility that government action or inaction might favour the Mafia – out of consideration.

This argument is clearly fallacious. Whether or not the government’s decision is influenced by the existence of the Mafia, the Mafia continues to exist and to have significant effects on the government, both at the time the decision is taken and at the time it is implemented. There is no possible decision which does not have a relationship to the Mafia, in other words; the choice is whether that relationship is favourable or unfavourable. A decision which limits the opportunities available to organised crime (perhaps by putting a lower limit on the number of casinos to be licensed) is unfavourable; a decision which does not limit those opportunities is favourable, whether it does so actively or by default. As with the Mafia, so with Al Qaida: if the government did, in fact, deliberately ignore the possibility that the Iraq invasion would expand the opportunities open to terrorists, it can fairly be charged – on those grounds alone – with making this outcome more likely.

Brian also argues that there is a fundamental and important discrepancy between the (wholly unacceptable) tactics of the bombers and the (potentially legitimate) political causes with which they have been associated.

The other implication of much bien-pensant comment has been that we need to ‘understand‘ what drove the suicide bombers (successful or failed) to commit such dreadful acts and to accept that we (or the Blair government, or western society, or whatever) are all partially to blame for the policies and actions that drove the bombers to do what they did. This seems to me an utterly unacceptable proposition, too, for the reasons eloquently expressed by Brownie in the passage that I quoted. The idea that the pursuit of policies with which others violently disagree is partly responsible for acts of criminal madness committed, apparently, as an expression of that political disapproval, is nonsense, and we shouldn’t hesitate to say so. You write that

people aren’t born terrorists. People have to become terrorists – even that subset of people who are also fundamentalist Muslims and believers in a restored Caliphate. Obviously the terrorists are to blame for their actions, but for those people to have become terrorists something must have gone wrong – something more than being exposed to an ‘evil ideology’.

but it’s a far cry from that to the assertion that the whatever ‘must have gone wrong’ is something for which our own society, or government, or culture, or original sin, must be to blame.

My point here was that successful terrorist actions require a continuing supply of recruits – all the more so in the case of suicide bombings, obviously – and that each of these individuals must go through a whole series of events and influences before they become a terrorist. Pace Brian, I’d say that it would be absurd to assume – on the grounds that terrorists have carried out ‘acts of criminal madness’ – that nothing about “our own society, or government, or culture” played a part in the formation of those terrorists. That is not to say that we can necessarily identify what those contributions are or how significant they were – in absolute terms or in comparison to other influences. But to say that no one other than the terrorists themselves bears any responsibility for their actions, and that we cannot – and should not – address the grievances which motivate terrorist sympathisers, seems to me to set up an absolute separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which is highly unhelpful. Something did go wrong for the eight bombers we know about; as far as we know it went wrong right here in Britain, some time in the last few years. In the circumstances, it seems to me, the burden of proof lies with anyone maintaining that the Iraq invasion was not a factor.

Postscript: at Veritatis Splendor, enigmatic NederlanderVlaming D says it all more succinctly than I’ve been able to:

The pro-war people will argue that the jihadists will always find some excuse to launch another terrorist attack on us, regardless of what “root causes” we take away. They’re confusing two things. It’s true that you can’t make deals with or give in to the jihadists. You can’t take the “root causes” of their hatred or extremism away. They will always hate us, for it is our very existence, our “way of life,” that is the root cause of their hatred. Their ideology is so diagonally opposed to our own, that peaceful co-existence with these people is not possible. And indeed, we shouldn’t try to appease them or adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards them. The only strategy against these people is confrontation: not only do we need to prevent them from attacking us, we need to attack them. Again, this is a matter of police and intelligence forces.We can however tackle the “root causes” of Muslim support for these people. As I’ve argued above, a radical minority is nothing without the support of the mainstream. This jihadist “radical minority” will cease to exist (or cease to be consequential in any case) without fresh recruits to carry out its suicide missions and without the silent, or vocal, approval of ordinary Muslim communities. The war in Iraq is a good example, because this is where the opinions of ordinary Muslims and jihadists “overlap”: they both think it stinks to high heaven. By stressing how much they have in common, the jihadist can persuade the average Muslim.

Conversely, jihadists are not that successful in gathering real, practical support for their ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, or for their utopian “Caliphate.” We naturally oppose these ideas too, but why be so bothered with them when we know they have no real basis of support within the Islamic community itself? Does anyone seriously believe Europe will one day be overrun by massive hordes of Muslim warriors bent on establishing the Caliphate?

The average Muslim in Europe doesn’t want to kill homosexuals, or prevent women from driving a car, or stop us from eating pork, or burn every copy of Harry Potter. If we are to prevent his radical counterpart from convincing him he should do all these things, our job is to convince him of the contrary (“battle for the hearts and minds,” anyone?), stress what is clearly unacceptable and what is open to civilized debate (this as opposed to shutting down the debate in its entirety with the fallacious mantra “opposing the war = supporting terrorism”), and finally, do more to promote alternatives. In doing so, you take away the ordinary Muslim’s every reason to believe the jihadist.



  1. Brian
    Posted 10 August 2005 at 21:12 | Permalink | Reply

    Phew! [Mops brow.] Or as my American friends would say, Wow!

    I need more time than I’ve got just now to absorb this, and more time still to respond to it, if at all. My first, probably wrong-headed, reaction is that it’s all a bit theoretical and counter-intuitive, or to put it more baldly, contrary to common-sense. That probably reflects my rather non-theoretical background. I’ll make a proper effort asap. Meanwhile I appreciate the effort that has gone into analysing my untheoretical propositions.


  2. elbisreverri
    Posted 13 August 2005 at 15:30 | Permalink | Reply

    Cheers for the kudos.

    (Just this: ‘enigmatic’, that I can live with. But ‘Nederlander’, not so much – I’m actually Belgian. ‘Vlaming’ is also acceptable :)

    – D

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