The enemy in the ‘war on terror’ was created by a lack of meaning or purpose in the West.
When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there.
With these words in 2000, given before he was elected US president, George W Bush captured some of the uncertainty that had gripped the US establishment in the long aftermath of the Cold War.
Celebrated by some, most notably Francis Fukuyama, as heralding the ‘End of History’, the dismantling of the Cold War framework that had largely organised world affairs (and shaped identities) – both internationally and domestically – across much of the twentieth century proved unsettling for all those who understood themselves through it.
Such confusions continue to this day, and not simply in the US. After a recent terror-related incident that targeted the vicinity of the Legislative Buildings of British Columbia on Canada Day, the BC premier Christy Clark announced: ‘They want us to be governed by fear. They want us to look on each other with suspicion. They want us to be seized with anger. They want this because they hate the things that make us Canadian.’ But, as some analysts immediately noted, who exactly were the ‘they’ that she was pointing to?
In this case, ‘they’ would appear to have been a petty criminal and failed heavy-metal musician turned Muslim convert, and his methadone-taking, common-law wife, neither of whom particularly kept their dislikes discreet. And – just as significantly – what exactly are ‘the things that make us Canadian’ (or American, or British, or anything else for that matter)?
As the British writer James Heartfield notes in his critique of the postmodern outlook, The Death of the Subject Explained, constantly calling into question the object of our attention also points to confusion relating to the subject – ourselves. Yet, almost 10 years into the ‘war on terror’, US president Barack Obama would still write in his foreword to the 2011 US National Strategy for Counterterrorism: ‘To defeat al-Qaeda, we must define with precision and clarity who we are fighting’.
Not only have we failed to understand the enemy but, more importantly, we failed to grasp the extent to which we have changed, too, and how this shapes those we confront. It is our lack of vision and direction for society that generates confusion over who the enemy is in the war on terror, and how to respond to them.
The common adage that ‘generals always fight the last war’ could be augmented to include all manner of other professionals – including politicians, media commentators and even intelligence analysts. A mental model once ingrained is truly difficult to shake off.
The atrocities of 9/11 necessitated a response, but the declaring of a ‘war on terror’ was by no means the only possible one. Compare that with the response of the mother of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh who said of her son’s murder at the hands of a self-styled jihadist in 2005: ‘What is so regrettable … is that Theo has been murdered by such a loser, such an incoherent person. Murder or manslaughter is always a terrible thing, but to be killed by such a figure makes it especially hard.’ As the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (1946) noted over half a century before, it is not suffering that destroys people – but suffering without meaning.
So, after 9/11, a meaning – political ideology – was presumed and projected. It allowed a disoriented administration the semblance of clarity and offered a cohering mission to society. They were facilitated in this by the perpetrators themselves, whose chatter about global jihad was taken at face value.
In a similar way, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq led – in 2003 – to its invasion. Any lack of evidence was either ignored or taken to confirm pre-existing views regarding how devious the regime was. Either way, policy needs and presumptions – not evidence – determined outcomes.
The same is true of much intelligence. This necessarily combines information with the interpretation of that information. Yet, time and again, when examining intelligence failures the tendency is to blame just the information, either because insufficient information is highlighted, or there being too much to analyse. Alternatively, analysts worry about being provided with false, or misleading, information.
What is rarely questioned is the framework through which that information is interpreted. So, because in the past protests and violent outbreaks usually had a political or ideological purpose, today politicians, commentators and analysts look for political and ideological explanations – even when all the evidence points to the absence of these.
In the past, groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fought national-liberation struggles. They used terror as a tactical means to achieve their strategic ends. But they knew above all that they needed to win the hearts and minds of their own communities.
In other words, they relied on mobilising a conscious and coherent collective. And they confronted an equally conscious and coherent state. Failures, on all sides, can be traced to their alignment – or not – with the people they claimed to speak and act on behalf of.
But al-Qaeda and the offshoots it supposedly inspires could not be more different. While some claim to speak on behalf of the ‘Ummah’, there is no evidence of any community ever having been consulted – let alone engaged. That is why even the families and friends of those involved express shock to hear of their activities.
Nor is there any coherent text outlining the purported mission or aims of these groups. Rather, much of this has been projected for them by analysts who seek to fill the vacuum of information left behind after the various acts of destruction with their own pet prejudices. A striking example of this is, when asked to articulate their demands on television, one of the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks was heard placing the phone down and asking one of his co-conspirators what their demands were.
Even if the perpetrators were mindless cannon-fodder as some have suggested, and even if we know the real origins of these attacks, this still fails to explain why no one has come forward to claim responsibility for this incident, as well as many others. Even when someone does claim responsibility – through so-called martyrdom videos and other media – there is precious little content other than a rambling rage.
Our failure is to attribute meaning – either political or ideological – to these actions. We thereby imbue vexatious acts of violence with greater import than they deserve. By doing so, we also attribute far too much authority and power to small numbers of individuals.
Implicitly, we also identify a gaping hole at the heart of our own societies – where ideology and politics should be. For what kind of society is it that can be so rattled by events that – in perspective – should be seen as minor, if unfortunate, historical footnotes?
Some analyses even effectively exonerate the individuals concerned by finding cause for them in the conditions of the developing world and our supposed insensitivity to these. Above all, our responses have allowed local and regional struggles, as well as isolated, irrational acts, to be presented as conflicts of global and epochal proportions.
Osama bin Laden himself was fond of citing Western politicians, commentators, academics and diplomats in seeking to legitimise his ostensible cause. Sounding like any other contemporary critic of American policy, he droned on about a rag-bag of motives at different times. From primarily complaining about the relationship between the US and the Saudi regime, he switched to focusing more on Palestine after the events of 9/11 and then only later to Iraq, echoing the anti-war lobby’s claim that the war was simply a money-making venture for large corporations.
He lambasted the US for not signing up to the Kyoto treaty to control greenhouse gases, accused Washington of being controlled by a Jewish lobby, and argued that Western advertising exploited women. After the Madrid bombings of 2004, he even proposed that Western leaders should have paid more attention to surveys that revealed how few people supported going to war in Iraq.
In all of these, bin Laden and his acolytes revealed themselves as being entirely parasitical upon the caricatures and dystopian views that proliferated in, and emanated from, the West, as well as being obsessed with what was being said about them. One of the final images of bin Laden – sat watching himself on television – is quite apposite in that regards.
But what kind of Muslim leader is it who advises people to read the journalist Robert Fisk or the academic Noam Chomsky rather than, as one might have supposed, the Koran? And why did bin Laden choose to piggy-back his claims on Western opinion-poll data and the views of environmentalists in order to get his points across? (Although we should note that contemporary political leaders and religious figures in the West do much the same thing.)
Ayman al-Zawahiri – once right-hand man of bin Laden and the group’s supposed intellectual – displayed a similar tendency to draw ideas and inspiration from Western concerns when he noted, in relation to his growing, if evidently unrealistic, fascination with developing some kind of chemical or biological weapon: ‘Despite their extreme danger, we only became aware of them when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concerns that they can be produced simply with easily available materials.’
In truth, bin Laden and al-Qaeda entirely lacked any substantial ideas of their own, let alone anything that amounts to an ideology. Bin Laden was the leader of nothing, who became – in an age enthralled by celebrity – the iconic terrorist of our times, unable to control his own fans never mind the course of history. Sadly, only in an age when image and style trump insight and substance at every turn could such aimless violence prompt such an all-consuming response.
Criticism of the West has long been around, but never before has it taken such a degraded form as in our post-political age. Even the presumed rise of religion in the recent period points to the evisceration of political engagement. And there is a world of difference between the cult-like religiosities of the present and traditional, religious organisations – though the former may better countenance rash acts of barbarism through their being less accountable to any wider institutions or mores.
Far from being atypical, recent self-styled jihadists intercepted in the domestic arena have exemplified the ineptness of the ever-expanding roll-call of marginal fantasists and wannabe terrorists who claim to be part of, or inspired by, al-Qaeda.
spiked‘s Brendan O’Neill has noted elsewhere, the tactical, technical and organisational incompetence of many modern terrorists, irrespective of their economic or educational backgrounds. And these form just the tip of the iceberg. This is not to dismiss the potential lethality of these plots and the devastating consequences they could have had upon those in their proximity if they been successful in their aims. Nor should we confuse them with the more serious threat posed to troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Yet, after each of these incidents, rather than point to the combination of vacuous bravado and concomitant failure, politicians, commentators and analysts have preferred to pursue purported links to al-Qaeda, which they invariably make connection to, however tenuously.
But associating with groups such as Al-Mujahiroun or Jemaah Islamiyah, travelling to Pakistan to attend some kind of training camp, or surfing jihadist websites including the now notorious Inspire magazine – supposedly al-Qaeda’s web-based English language organ – does not explain anything.
Ideas do not transform people unless they resonate with their experience and existing interpretation of the world. Why do the ideas of fringe organisations appear to fall on such fertile soil? What is it about the West that seems to predispose some to identify with such nihilist groups?
In view of the sheer weight of alternative media to Inspire, how has our society failed to inspire individuals who are often young, bright and energetic, and provide them with rules, structures and meaning to live their lives by?
Ultimately, ideas have to emerge from somewhere. And extremism is the extreme expression of mainstream ideas. If our aim is to stop the extremists, we have to address the mainstream ideas that drive them.
In the most recent incidents – in Boston, London and Victoria, British Columbia – as well as many others, what we find are individuals consumed by a sense of self-righteousness. Islam – if it features at all – is often more an afterthought than a driver. It is their motif, not their motive.
But moral indignation is encouraged by contemporary society, which often presents a negative view of the present combined with a dystopian projection of the future. Disengaged from what passes for politics today, many young people come to develop an aggressive sense of entitlement, indulged by a society they seek simultaneously to distance themselves from.
The outcome covers the spectrum from asserting a new identity – young women wearing headscarves whose mothers never wore one – to inchoate rage, expressed either passively, in the so-called Occupy movement, or more acutely and violently, as in recent episodes of rioting. It is the unpredictable emergence of the latter that has led some analysts to express their surprise at how rapidly so-called self-radicalisation can occur. In fact, it is the failure of observers to identify the social currents beneath the surface that leads them to viewing matters this way.
Indeed, the parallels between ‘homegrown terrorists’ and other ‘lone wolves’ – such as Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in a bombing and shooting spree in Norway in 2012 – as well as the perpetrators of various mass high-school shootings (another relatively recent phenomenon), are more important than any purported political or cultural differences.
Space here precludes a detailed exposition of the various social, economic, political and cultural drivers of these trends that were largely catalysed into being only recently.
That modernity itself produces turmoil and disruption, while generating constant uncertainty, has been known for a long time. Marx and Engels noted as much in 1848 in The Manifesto of the Communist Party. But over the course of much of the twentieth century, the Cold War effectively kept the potential for change in check, by demanding adherence to particular worldviews.
The stand-off between the US and its allies against the Soviet Union and its satellite states across Eastern Europe and elsewhere, divided the world externally and was reproduced internally against the ‘enemy within’, understood then as emanating from trade unions or the political left.
But from about the mid-1980s, the erosion of the supposed twin threats of Soviet-style Marxism and state socialism – finally made evident through the unanticipated fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – opened the flood gates on the possibility for both public/political and private/personal transformation. This also encouraged the erosion of the distinction between these domains.
Without the forces that had held the political right together for so long, establishment elites were soon exposed as lacking any positive purpose or vision for society, and rapidly fell out among themselves. Replacement enemies were postulated, but none of the new litany of demons – from the Contras in Nicaragua and General Aideed in Somalia, through to Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – could match the military, moral and material caché of the Red Army.
Little wonder then that even freedom-advocating, Cold War warriors would oppose change when it came. For example, Margaret Thatcher, briefing then Soviet president Gorbachev in private meetings, told him that the lifting of the Iron Curtain and German reunification would ‘undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security’, adding that – despite public pronouncements to the contrary – US president Ronald Reagan was of the same view.
New organising frameworks for society have struggled to fill the void left by the erosion of the old political and moral frameworks shaped by the interest-based politics of left and right. Ideology has – to some extent – made way for identity, but, as some have noted, the latter is a very fragile sense of identity, based on a ‘diminished’ sense of human agency.
That is why there is such resonance today for prevailing discourses that emphasise risk and uncertainty – despite these always having been part of the human condition. More problematically, this culture also elevates our sense of vulnerability over resilience, irrespective of official intent.
Even those charged with defeating terrorism buy into such negative narratives, pointing in their turn to the possibility (rather than probability) of future catastrophes (variously to be caused by limited resources, viruses, climate, population, the economy, technology, and other forces). They then imagine and act upon worst-case scenarios rather than focusing on the most likely.
In the past, such pessimistic projections would have been condemned as a loss of nerve that encouraged low morale; today, they are considered sensible precautions. They impact not just counterterrorism but upon all walks of life. For example, foreign governments encouraged their nationals to flee the vicinity of Tokyo in the aftermath of the Fukushima power plant emergency triggered by the Great Tohoku earthquake – rather than humanely staying behind and helping those they had been with.
A similarly shallow deterministic outlook explains why the rudimentary findings of neuroscience and simplistic business models have been co-opted to shed light on the causes and trajectories of terrorism. This is possible because they present a process without a subject in an age when our sense of autonomy and potential has been so curtailed. Accordingly, biological metaphors (ideas go viral, terrorists are spawned, etc) proliferate, as these also downplay our role and intentions (as well as – inadvertently – our accountability, too).
By retreating from political ideology to process management in the West, uncertainty has effectively been allowed to drive world affairs rather than emerging from them. A concomitant sense of insecurity has encouraged politicians and people everywhere to avoid expressing firm principles and values independently of simply managing perceived, exogenous threats.
But it is how we, as a society, respond to acts of destruction that determines their impact. Civilisation cannot be bombed out of existence by terrorists. It can, however, be corroded from within if all we do is focus on technical solutions to our problems rather than expanding our horizons through a strategic vision that could project a positive sense of mission for society.
In effect, we complete the acts perpetrated by domestic nihilists. When the UK prime minister David Cameron flew back from his overseas engagement to be seen to be addressing the brutal murder of an off-duty soldier on a London street, or when the city of Boston was put into lockdown by the authorities pursuing an injured teenager on the rampage, no amount of words extolling our resolve and resilience could alter the implicit message of societies disoriented by adversity.
Not only does this act as an encouragement to other loners and losers with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and grievance, it also flies in the face of the real solidarity and fortitude displayed by those most immediately affected. Such resolute responses at the time are then further undermined by the countless medical experts, media commentators and officials who all project about the long-lasting consequences on individuals and society that such attacks are held to have.
In 2003, the then UK home secretary David Blunkett suggested in relation to one of these losers that the youth concerned posed ‘a very real threat to the life and liberty of our country’. What kind of country is it that can feel so threatened by the actions of such marginal figures?
Sadly, the focus on surveillance, protection, information and warnings that has emerged since 9/11 has the unintended consequence of promoting undue concern, mistrust and cynicism. It pushes people further apart from one another at a time when they need to be drawn together with a sense of common purpose. It also exemplifies the low view of the public and their likely responses evidently held by many in authority.
As opposed to the contemporary obsession with needing to identify unanticipated shocks to the system, it is the long-term drift at the top of society that will prove to be more destabilising in the long run. That is, the drift created by consistently seeking to protect society from without rather than revitalising it from within, and the gradual disengagement and distancing this fosters.
Less than 48 hours into the war on terror, British journalist Seumas Milne had an opinion piece published about the US: ‘They can’t see why they are hated’. Others soon followed, leading to expressions of outrage by establishment commentators. What they failed to notice was quite how normal such expressions of anti-Americanism had become.
A sense of contempt for supposedly soulless American consumerism is widespread – even among those working for the likes of Google and Citibank. And surely when Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men (2001) became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic – selling over 300,000 copies in the UK in its first year of publication alone – this should have alerted a few bright minds in the security agencies (and beyond) to a self-loathing that is significantly domestic in origin.
This has little to do with America itself, but rather reflects a broader dissatisfaction with the world that targets the US as its highest expression of success. That debate had been fulminating for quite some time, particularly among the old political left. But the events of 9/11 catalysed – rather than triggered – the soul-searching across the board to a new level.
It is striking how common it is today to read book titles such as Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, or hear respected academics describing humanity as a ‘plague’. These, and countless others like them, point to the low view we have come to have of ourselves in the contemporary world. They point to a significant clash within civilisation, rather than to that between civilisations as characterised by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington.
Unfortunately, such ideas serve to reinforce a cultural milieu within which low expectations and dystopian fantasies become the norm. But such a dismal view of ourselves, our role and our impact on the planet can become internalised by some. It frames a demoralised public discourse of apocalyptic failure and rejection that sustains those prepared to lose their lives – as well as those of others around them – in their misguided determination to leave their mark upon a world they feel encouraged to reject.
America found itself, at the turn of the last century, an undisputable – if somewhat reluctant – world power. It more formally attained that role propelled by events elsewhere – but also inspired by the narrative of ‘manifest destiny’ built on the Enlightenment optimism of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and others.
By the close of the century, America appeared more gripped by a sense of Millenarian pessimism. Built not on size, but on the initiative of those confronting the unknown, its founding and guiding ideology was that of freedom – freedom from the past, and freedom of conscience, initiative, enterprise and of will.
The US, as immortalised by Francis Scott Key in his poem of 1814, was ‘the land of the free’ – not the ‘land of the secure’ – as it appears some today would have it. He understood that people in all places and at all times had been prepared to risk it all to achieve this.
We do not just live our lives – we lead them. And similar aspirations have inspired the struggles of others, however distorted these became in the years that ensued. To lose sight of this, to trade our freedom in order to be looked over by others and made to feel secure, is just one of the confusions that now grips America.
But the forgotten role of leaders today is to inspire people – not just to protect them. People who believe in their cause or project are far more effective agents of it than those who are coerced, managed or nudged.
What is most missing in the war on terror has been a vision for society beyond terror. That is the essence of real resilience, a sense of what we are for in the absence of all adversities; a projection of purpose. Otherwise, as is the case here, we effectively allow the challenges we confront to determine us rather than the other way round.
America still represents much of what is best in the world – as well as a little of what is worst. For all the challenges still confronting it, as well as the pretensions and delusions of others, the future remains for America to lose rather than for others to win. But over a decade into the war on terror, it is high-time for America’s search for meaning to conclude through the re-invigoration of its founding values, as well as the identification of a new vision.
That way, many of the disillusioned individuals who look elsewhere for purpose and meaning would not need to, and the few that get through would be framed in the proper context – as mindless criminals.
First published on spiked, 11 September 2013