Many years ago, when I was doing my A’ Levels, my English teacher gave us three basic rules of thumb to apply when reading texts: 1) What is the author trying to achieve? 2) To what extent does he/she succeed on his/her terms? 3) To what extent does he/she succeed on your terms?
Of course there are a lot more questions you can ask about books and writers, and even the three that have mentioned immediately raise a number of issues. But I have always found my English teacher’s advice useful not when thinking about books, but on many other occasions. When I was writing my history of terrorism The Infernal Machine, for instance, I often tried to apply them to the individuals, organizations and movements I was writing about, as well as the states that were fighting them.
But in the process of researching that book, I often realized how rarely such questions are asked, not only in the abundant literature that has historically framed ‘terrorism’ as an un-Western, un-democratic and alien phenomenon of violence, but also in the wider discourse that has surrounded particular terrorist emergencies.
Whether it was the ‘anarchist terror’ of the 1890s, the Kenyan ‘Mau Mau’ or even the IRA, the societies that were on the receiving end of this kind of non-state violence were rarely encouraged to think about what its protagonists were trying to achieve, or whether they succeeded on their terms, and independent judgments about the causes and context of such violence were generally preempted by officially-orchestrated hysteria and anathemas that attempted to impose their own answers.
Conventional wisdom on the subject tended to present terrorism as an eruption of irrational and monstrous violence whose essential aim was nothing less than terror itself. The practitioners of this kind of violence were often depicted as moral aliens and wild beasts who were beyond rationality and understanding, and these representations often acted as a pretext for ‘virtuous’ counterterrorist violence, in which the extermination of terrorists could become a ‘sacred duty’, as the anthropologist Edmund Leach once put it.
Privately, governments might have a very keen understanding of their opponents, their tactics, strategies and political goals, but this knowledge rarely informed public debate about terrorism and was often deliberately concealed from the wider society.
Generally speaking, in the course of terrorist emergencies, civil society is discouraged from thinking or talking about terrorism beyond the very narrow parameters that governments seek to impose or disseminate. The events of the last week have brought home to me how narrow these parameters have become. Over the last few days I have often heard my words and those of my fellow-blogger Chris Floyd described as ‘unacceptable’ by the Labour MP Emma Reynolds and others.
Leaving aside the question as to whether Reynolds has even read or understood the pieces she has condemned, and the extent to which she was merely using them for political purposes, the hysteria and outrage that she and others expressed so readily nevertheless demonstrates that our current emergency is not that different from many of its predecessors.
Today, as in the past, civil society is expected to applaud dishonest and opportunistic depictions of the enemies we face that tell us much more about how our governments would like us to see them than the way they see themselves. We are not supposed to think about what it is about these organizations that enables them to continually find new members. We are not supposed to think about what their political aims are or the source of their global appeal in any other terms except their common hatred for everything that is good about us.
We are not expected to think about where that hatred may come from, and whether – at times – it may be related to things that our governments have done, and not simply because we are all good people who love freedom. We have now reached such a level of hysterical dishonesty that the British government is prepared to monitor Muslim toddlers for signs of ‘radicalization’, yet politicians dismiss any discussion that includes us as well as the demonic Other is considered to be ‘unacceptable.’
Often we are told that jihadists are ‘death cults’ with no political aims beyond death, even when it is very clear that their organizations are using violence – however extreme and horrific – strategically for political purposes. Politicians like to tell us that these groups – whether al Qaeda or Daesh – are a new form of fascism comparable to Nazism – an explanation that should make it possible to understand them in political terms, yet try and write about the political context in which these groups emerged, as Chris Floyd attempted to do after the Paris massacres, and you hear that this ‘unacceptable..
The least that can be said about these constraints is that they are not helpful in eliminating the lethal threat that these groups represent. Instead they leave the broader debate about terrorism to governments, thinktanks, ‘terrorist experts’ and establishment commentators, who too often reproduce the official interpretations of terrorism that have done absolutely nothing to bring the ongoing emergency to an end.
If we look back on the way that western governments have responded to the atrocities of 9/11, virtually everything they have done has played into the hands of their jihadist enemies. Al Qaeda wanted to bring the ‘crusaders’ into the Middle East and Central Asia; we obliged them. Jihadism feeds off weak or failed states; we have helped given them four. Islamic State would like to have ‘crusader’ armies bombing Syrian cities and get involved in yet another open-ended war; we’ve done that too.
Again and again, ill-thought-out and often blatantly opportunistic forms of military intervention have helped create precisely the kinds of conditions in which al-Qaeda type formations thrive, while heavy-handed and authoritarian campaigns against ‘radicalization’ at home have only exacerbated the bitterness, alienation and anger that makes it easier for such groups to recruit.
The result is a global terrorist emergency that, unlike its predecessors, is not only global, but is potentially indefinite, because it is unfolding in so many countries and in so many different contexts.
The consequences of this situation have already been disastrous, and unless we can get to grips with it, and design appropriate strategies, both abroad and at home, they will certainly get worse and we will never find our way out on this dire trajectory of terrorist massacre, war, national security authoritarianism and racism that is choking our world to death.
In order to do that we need to be able to talk and think openly about terrorism and terrorists, regardless of whether governments and politicians find what we say ‘acceptable’, because the evidence of the last fifteen years suggests that too many governments are not thinking about it at all, and that if they have applied the three very useful questions that my English teacher once recommended many years ago to the current state of emergency, then they are not telling us the answers.