The pretentious nihilism of Plane Stupid

They pose as radicals, but actually are the worst kind of elitists.

That 13 supposed climate-change protesters from direct-action group Plane Stupid managed to breach security at London’s Heathrow Airport in the early hours of yesterday, chain themselves together and remain on the runway until 10am, over seven hours later, will, no doubt, be cause for considerable embarrassment in some circles.

True, the economic cost may not have been severe, due to there being flight restrictions in operation relating to take-offs prior to 6am. What’s more, the number of flights cancelled – 22 out of some 1,300 – would not have caused much more disruption than may be expected normally. But the implications of this protest, especially in relation to potentially more serious security breaches, seem evident to many.

What, runs this dominant commentary, if the individuals concerned had not been smiling, predominantly well-to-do types opposed to the planned expansion of Heathrow? What if they had been jihadists, affiliated to al-Qaeda or so-called Islamic State? What if they had been armed?

No doubt, such questions ought to be asked in certain circles. But, at the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that many supposedly secure facilities have had their security compromised in one way or another since 9/11 – despite the vast sums expended to ensure this would not happen. If anything, such events suggest terrorism is not the main problem.

The Houses of Parliament in Westminster have been invaded on at least three occasions over recent years. Two members of campaign group Fathers 4 Justice threw flour bombs during Prime Minister’s Questions in 2004. Later that year, five supporters of the Countryside Alliance invaded the chamber.

In 2009, more than 30 Greenpeace activists climbed on to the roof of Westminster Hall, and many of them spent the night there, before being removed. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle have suffered similar incursions from self-styled activists, as well as burglars and attention-seekers.

The incursion at Heathrow was clearly not an aberration.

What’s more, this particular type of incident – often perpetrated by self-absorbed types in pursuit of their usually limited political agendas – is not even the most significant in relation to airports and aviation security. In the intervening period, there have also been countless incursions worldwide into cargo areas by more organised criminals in pursuit of bullion and other goods.

If anything, Plane Stupid’s stunt seems to confirm the analysis of American political scientist John Mueller in his 2006 book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. As Mueller wrote, stepping up security for passengers has done little to ensure airside security. Terrorists know this, so there must be fewer of them than we imagine.

There is one aspect, though – missed by most commentators – that we ought to pay some attention to. Those middle-class types, smiling for the photographers on the tarmac, are born of the same cultural malaise as many wannabe terrorists and fantasy Islamists. They start from an unshakeable moral certitude regarding their project and require little public support or engagement.

They have also – by-and-large – been indulged by the authorities. In the past, when the authorities were more confident of what it was they wanted for society, they would not have given any of them the time of day. Today, however, these protesters are handled with kid gloves. That is because those self-same agencies are no longer even sure of what it is they believe in.

That the Plane Stupid protesters could so blithely interrupt the plans of thousands of people – whether they were attending a loved one’s funeral in a foreign land or simply having a break – and not even trouble themselves to engage those people in a debate regarding their actions is a form of pretentious nihilism.

It is born of an age in which we no longer demand that people support their actions through reason, or build community support for their opinions. Rather, we accept that if someone feels passionately about something then that alone may condone their actions. According to some, having a grievance or being offended can explain – if not justify – someone’s rage.

Most alienated white Brits cannot readily join the ranks of those throwing a tantrum and heading off to Syria. They will have to find other forms of expression for their self-distancing disconnection from society. It may well be that terrorism is simply the more violent end of a spectrum, connecting extremists to the mainstream narcissists of groups like Plane Stupid.

By banning those they reject, our leaders reveal their own crisis

The failure to understand what tolerance really is reveals a low view of freedom and other people, and a complete absence of any purposive vision for society.

“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.’” With these words to the National Security Council, the re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron laid out his intention to establish new powers to make it harder for people to promote so-called extremist views. His reappointed Home Secretary Theresa May had already introduced new legislation earlier in the year that mandated those in specified authorities – including schools, colleges, and universities – to take measures “to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” (a notably passive formulation).

They appear to be in good company. A supportive article in the establishment paper The Telegraph ran under the title “Britain is too tolerant of the intolerant.” And it is not just conservatives who hold such a position. Many liberals, as well as those on the old left of the political spectrum, seek to have those whose opinions they oppose banned from speaking in public. Some Muslim community leaders now see their role as “protecting our younger generation from the toxic effects of extremist propaganda,” too. Even a few academics have been arguing as much for years.

But aside from the small matter of who defines what is “extremist” – a task legal professionals will most likely relish – these individuals betray their failure to understand what tolerance really is, revealing a low view of freedom and other people, and a complete absence of any purposive vision of their own for society.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – the apocryphal phrase attributed to the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire is as good a place to start as any in elucidating these points. Tolerance, in this sense, can never be passive as Cameron suggested. It starts from disapproval, which is an active judgment. Only the non-judgmental – an attitude unfortunately encouraged by contemporary multiculturalism – are passive. And accordingly, they are not tolerant either – just indifferent, turning a blind eye to the beliefs and actions of others.

True tolerance, as Voltaire’s predecessor the English philosopher John Locke understood full well, requires ruthlessly engaging those whose opinions you disagree with, while agreeing not to censor them or resort to violence. It is an acceptance that the world is uncertain and a willingness to be open to the possibility of your own error or partiality. It needs absolute freedom of expression, both to prevent viewpoints being banned or hidden from view, and to allow all parties to better develop their own position or understanding.

This lies at the heart of what a university is. Indeed, it is why many choose to go there – to have the opportunity to put their ideas to the test (no matter how outlandish they may be), and, in turn, to test others. To deny this to the young – for fear that supposedly bad ideas may have “toxic effects” – is to view and treat them as infants. Sadly, this is a position already adopted by successive heads of the British Security Service (MI5), who have described their concerns of young adults being “vulnerable” or “groomed” into becoming terrorists.

As at least one commentator has noticed, this approach turns the war on terror into a child protection issue that draws on contemporary social fears regarding pedophiles. It presents young people as mindless sheep in need of protection. Yet, the recent actions of several youth who made their way to join the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) in Syria suggests the opposite is true. These are bright, energetic, and willful individuals in search of something to believe in, which is also necessarily an indictment of what they are provided with at home – in the West.

At home, they see politicians who have given up on the need to engage and inspire, and who would rather be seen to censor and regulate (despite the fact that many of them marched in support of free speech in solidarity with the cartoonists murdered in France earlier this year).

Similarly, universities that know the new legislation to be unnecessary and unworkable – let alone opposed to the spirit of a liberal education – will, nevertheless, introduce new procedures and audits to be seen to be in compliance with government diktat. Little wonder that those in search of a real purpose and meaning to their lives are left to look for this elsewhere.

By seeking to ban the opinions they disapprove of, our leaders implicitly reveal their weaknesses – both in failing to engage with and argue against those they so stridently reject, and, even more so, in having nothing more positive to put forward as a vision of their own. In doing so, they do not make society more tolerant, but more authoritarian – and blindly so, to boot, for what is it that they want people to be de-radicalized to?
First published by The Mark News, 5 June 2015

Anti-terror: the perversion of tolerance

Cameron’s crackdown on extremists will destroy freedom, not protect it.

The announcement by prime minister David Cameron today that a new counter-extremism bill is to form part of the Queen’s Speech on 27 May, providing the authorities with new powers to tackle terrorism, confirms that, as early as the first week of his new government, all pretence at inspiring and engaging has been set aside in favour of legislating and coercing.

When home secretary Theresa May told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that she wanted to ‘bring people together to ensure we are living together as one society’, she omitted to say that this ‘bringing together’ is to be made mandatory, with severe penalties for those who will not comply with what the authorities define as British values.

The window for free speech has now been firmly shut just a few months after so many political leaders walked in supposed solidarity for murdered cartoonists in France. Yet, it was only just over 200 years ago that the very British poet William Wordsworth, observing the spirit of liberty that had just been unleashed in France, exclaimed: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!’

Today, we face the twilight of freedom, and to be young is to be cowed and scrutinised, as the government implicitly reveals that it has given up on trying to understand the reasons why growing numbers of youths are disengaged from society, leading at the margins to the vexatious violence of a small minority. Interception and incarceration are to be the bold new vision for the future of Britain.

Most strikingly of all, the BBC reports that May will tell the National Security Council that the government will empower institutions to ‘challenge bigotry and ignorance’. Lest we forget, it was only five years ago that the previous PM, Gordon Brown, castigated a traditional Labour voter as a bigot. And, presumably, old-fashioned Church of England adherents opposed to gay marriage on principled religious grounds will also face the need to be re-programmed under Cameron’s new regime, just as much as the many who don’t know their Sunni from their Shia?

Cameron states that for too long ‘we have been a passively tolerant society’ and is presumably ‘pumped-up’ at the possibility of actively changing this image. But, in truth, Britain has strayed a long way from the Enlightenment conceptualisation of tolerance, which advocated robust engagement with others over matters of principle while recognising and accepting the need to live side-by-side.

In recent years, British society has become not tolerant but indifferent to the mores of others, preferring to turn a blind eye to outlooks and activities deemed not too threatening. You can believe anything you like, so long as you don’t believe in it too much, has been the unstated outlook of the authorities. Now, Cameron seeks to shift gear from passive indifference to active authoritarianism.

Of course, deep down, neither Cameron, May nor any other person in power truly believes that this approach can work. At best, it is a form of containment. And, as the security services know full-well, there can be no security solutions to social problems. Their capacity is already fully stretched monitoring the active few. Presumably, then, our ignorance is to be challenged by local authority-led training workshops?

What this will achieve, though, is to mandate bad faith across society. The government legislates to be seen to be Doing Something. Institutions and individuals will act and speak accordingly – to be seen to be in compliance. No wonder so many voted Tory without telling the pollsters; to say what you really think is no longer a constituent of British values.

Meanwhile, a generation of young people in search of purpose and meaning in their lives, looking for something to believe in, will find this in all manner of bizarre and, sadly, occasionally twisted avenues. It is not ideas on the internet that radicalise. To presume so is to view people as mindless sponges. Rather, it is the gaping hole at the heart of where real values ought to be that these young people actively seek to fill – a hole best exemplified through the recent election, where no party sought to provide any strategic or principled vision for society.

Sadly, it really is through the prism of an authoritarian form of child protection that the government now views the populace, and especially the young. Successive heads of MI5 have alluded to how these people are ‘vulnerable’ and ‘groomed’ online by vicious malcontents. While feeding off and into contemporary anxieties and fears of paedophiles, this formulation also presents the next generation (who, oddly it would seem, manage to get to Syria quite easily) as lacking any agency, autonomy and – inadvertently perhaps – accountability for their actions.

A far more useful approach would have been to challenge the therapeutic culture that has now infected our education system – a culture where children are taught from kindergarten on that their feelings are sacrosanct and that having their personal beliefs challenged is a form of offence. It is a culture that has spread right through society leading to a situation where the impulse to ban ideas and activities that some find unacceptable has become the mainstream solution. In his announcement today, Cameron has shown that the government now best exemplifies this new and dangerous trend.

First published on spiked, 12 May 2015

Lee Kuan Yew: the last of the great authoritarians

Love him or loathe him, the former Singapore leader had something his successors lack.

Lee Kuan Yew – the founding father of modern Singapore – has died aged 91. He was a controversial figure. Revered by many, despised by others, his aura became such that, in recent years, few people dared say his name in public – preferring to call him either ‘LKY’ or ‘the old man’.

Brought up under British rule, and educated in law at Cambridge, Harry Lee, as he was known then, became the figure the British could do business with (as did Gandhi in India) in the period of postwar decolonisation. His memoirs and actions revealed that he imbibed many of the racial caricatures and elitist prejudices of the British.

When he became the first prime minister of Singapore in 1959, he inherited and made full use of the Internal Security Act, which allowed for the preventative detention of individuals indefinitely without charge or trial. Accordingly, under the guise of anti-Communism, and in the shadow of the Malayan Emergency, he advocated for the internment of many of his former allies in the early 1960s. Several of whom – figures virtually unknown in the West – remained in prison until the early 1990s, for periods on a par with Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.

The fact that many of these prisoners managed to maintain their political beliefs with considerable dignity throughout their internment is a tribute to their courage. The recriminations over what exactly occurred are likely to resurface in the wake of Lee’s death. Singaporeans will re-examine their past, with accusations of historical revisionism from one side meeting considerable evidence of concealment by government, media and academic lackeys from the other.

The swamps-to-skyscrapers narrative, the idea that Lee pulled Singapore from a Third World to a First World country in the space of a single generation, is now being questioned, though developments in housing and infrastructure are still likely to be his abiding legacy. Singapore’s development was undoubtedly assisted by Western interference in both of Singapore’s neighbouring states – most barbarically in Indonesia, where more than half-a-million lost their lives during the CIA-backed anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s. This period gave rise to the myth of Asian values, and of non-interference, which served to conceal domestic suppression.

Many foreigners may be familiar with Singapore as the ultra-clean city-state which, alongside the draconian regulation of jaywalking and chewing gum, continues to restrict freedom of expression and sexuality. But anyone who has spent time in its heartlands will know there is little enforcement of such petty rules. Police are noticeably absent on the streets. Rather, such codes have been ingrained in people’s heads. Smear campaigns against opposition parties and systematic electoral gerrymandering has meant dissent in Singapore is muted.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) – established by Lee in 1954, with a logo strangely reminiscent of that of the British Union of Fascists – has accordingly run Singapore since the late 1950s. Lee was prime minister at the time of Singapore’s merger with, and forcible ejection from, Malaysia, and remained in power until 1990. After that, he became senior minister and minister mentor, and continued to loom large in the background of Singaporean politics, even with his son at the helm, as he remains today.

Born, like many nations, in a period of great conflict, it may have been inevitable that Singapore came to be steered for so long by a leader like Lee. While many may focus on his authoritarian rule or politically incorrect views, it is likely that the greatest failing of the incredibly wilful, last-of-a-kind individual that was Lee Kuan Yew was his inability to instil the same sense of conviction in his successors. Singapore now faces being governed by largely uninspiring bureaucrats for the foreseeable future.

First published by spiked, 24 March 2015

Prevent: a very risky strategy

The UK’s clueless counterterrorism strategy sees threats everywhere.

In recent weeks, there has been much attention paid to, and some considerable opprobrium poured on, the UK government’s latest version of its Prevent strategy. Prevent is one part of the four Ps (the others are Pursue, Protect and Prepare), originally framed within CONTEST – the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy. CONTEST – driven by a dawning recognition of the problems posed by homegrown terrorism – was first published in 2006, the year after the 7/7 London bombings, and (together with Prevent) has undergone significant revisions since, including: to demand adherence to specific values; to differentiate and broaden its remit; and to monitor outcomes more rigorously.

Since its inception, hundreds of millions of pounds have been poured into Prevent in order to encourage liaison and dialogue between the authorities and the supposed representatives of various Muslim religious and community groups. The latest furore results from changes to Prevent mandated under the Counterterrorism and Security Act 2015, in particular Section 26, which places a duty on certain specified authorities (local authorities, health authorities, schools, colleges, universities and prisons) to prevent people from ‘being drawn into terrorism’ (a notably passive formulation).

Being more socially and culturally oriented than the other elements of CONTEST, Prevent has always been subject to considerable criticism. Initially, much of this came from traditionally right-wing groups and media who accused the government of consorting with and funding radicals. More recently, after the 2011 revisions, left-wing and radical groups have joined the fray, criticising the partnerships created by Prevent on the grounds that they encourage the infiltration of Muslim communities and justify a culture of suspicion and surveillance.

Both sides in this debate have a point. Following the latest changes to Prevent, various institutions, groups and associations sought to make their reservations clear by responding to the government’s call for feedback. Many of these responses are available online and raise important points about terminology, academic and religious freedom, as well as trust and accountability.

But they also miss the wider problem, which is that the approach taken by Prevent – explicitly aimed at identifying those ‘at risk’ of becoming terrorists, and implicitly framed in the fashionable language of the so-called precautionary principle – is fundamentally flawed. Worse, its latest incarnation, rather than offering mere guidance, now imposes a duty backed up by significant sanctions for those identified as being non-compliant. It transforms risk management from a loose organising principle for societies that lack a broader strategic vision into a set of laws that impact on everyone.

Of course, as the American sociologist Robert Merton noted as far back as 1948, in an article on ‘The self-fulfilling prophecy’, false assumptions have real effects for all parties. In that regard, Prevent has been problematic since its inception. The very act of engaging particular groups around specific issues has the effect of identifying them as different. But it also limits the potential for genuine dialogue between communities, leading to silly spats between groups accusing each other of being either Islamophobes or Islamofascists instead.

As I have noted before, the real drivers behind homegrown terrorism are neither religious nor political ideologies. Rather, they emerge from domestic cultural confusion (as well as confusion further afield, as evidenced by the inability of the 2008 Mumbai attackers to identify their demands). Ours is an age in which Islam acts more as a motif than a motive. It emerges as a rationale for anger rather than necessarily driving it in the first instance. Why Islam appears to have become the religion of choice for the readily disaffected in the West is worthy of further study. Still, we are all engaged in a search for purpose and meaning due to the failure of contemporary society to provide any coherent direction. Governments also fall foul of this lack of societal purpose when presenting ill-defined de-radicalisation strategies that are incapable of saying what people should be de-radicalised to.

Accordingly, if we are to ‘identify those vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism’ – knowing that there is no single or simple model for this process – it ought to be almost everyone that now comes under the purview of the authorities (although, fortunately, only an impossible-to-identify minority will ever act out their nihilistic fantasies). And, far from being vulnerable and readily groomed online by charismatic preachers or activists, would-be jihadists, according to most evidence, tend to be smart and wilful individuals determined to connect with those forces that appear to inspire them in the first place. The real question to be addressed, then, is why it is that the jihadist narrative falls on such fertile soil here in the UK? Or, to put it another way, what it is about contemporary society that propels a minority to find meaning elsewhere?

The confusingly named Prevent Duty Guidance defines extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy’, among other things. But who is it that is undermining democracy in the current climate? When Avinash Tharoor – a contemporary of Mohammed Emwazi (aka Jihadi John) at the University of Westminster – noted in his Washington Post piece that a Westminster student wearing a niqab opposed Kant’s democratic peace theory during a seminar on the grounds that, ‘as a Muslim, I don’t believe in democracy’, who should have been reported to the authorities? The student? The instructor, who Tharoor noted, did not question her? Or all parties to the exchange (or lack of it)?

Prevent also puts great store by ‘Channel’ – a programme that offers more targeted support to certain individuals identified as being ‘at risk’ by various authorities – which has now been put on a statutory footing. That such programmes, like those offered by the Religious Rehabilitation Group in Singapore, may actually make matters worse by presenting rather confused individuals with the somewhat more robust anti-modernist discourses of enthusiastic mentors, as well as teaching Islam to those who hitherto knew little of it, is rarely conceded.

Authorities don’t simply have to comply with Prevent. There are many other interrelated policies, too, and a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms and agencies: CTLPs, LSCBs, BCUs, CSPs, LSPs, NCTTs and PEOs – to name just a few. Far from being strategic, the cacophony of voices reflects the absence of direction and purpose. Little wonder that former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove made a speech at the Royal United Services Institute last year asking for a sense of proportionality to be restored. At the height of the Cold War, his agency only ever put 38 per cent of its resources – at most – into addressing the presumed threat posed by the Soviet Union. Today, by contrast, in excess of 50 per cent of the budget of the three non-military security agencies is expended on counterterrorism.

When the Cold War ended in 1989, a few insightful voices noted that one of the consequences would be a short interregnum during which time social forces would have to be reorganised to maintain the status quo. This period might have offered some opportunities for political alternatives to emerge but, at the same time, the advent of an exaggerated consciousness of risk and a concomitant diminished sense of agency simultaneously pointed to what might lie ahead as a barrier to change. Albeit unconsciously, that new framework for society – organised around risk and precaution, and treating citizens as hapless victims – has now been legislated for, and we are beginning to see the signs of a new ideology emerging that will continue to close down avenues of opportunity.

As many world leaders joined hands two months ago – ostensibly to march for freedom of expression post-Charlie Hebdo – there were some who, somewhat naively, hoped this might represent the resurgence of a core Enlightenment value. In fact, what we witnessed was the last blast from the past, and the final closing of the door to freedom for the foreseeable future. It also confirmed the establishment of a new age of control through behaviour management and a now legally mandated expectation of conformity. That so many have been complicit in allowing this to happen only highlights the enormity of the task ahead for those who still hold to freedom as the basis for any enlightened future society.

First published on spiked, 19 March 2015

Bitter Lake: searching for meaning in the Afghan abyss

Adam Curtis’s latest is a Heart of Darkness for the post-9/11 era.

‘We’re your boys, you stupid bitch! We’ve brought back Mujahideen ghosts!’

So shouts a disabled Russian serviceman to a woman who has asked him to stop his ranting and raving about the Afghan War of the 1980s on a subway train. The scene appears halfway through award-winning BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis’s latest piece, Bitter Lake. Afghanistan was the Soviet Union’s heart of darkness – the place where a crumbling empire sought to rediscover a last gasp of purpose. More recently it was the West’s apocalypse now.

The film, lasting over two hours and only officially available on BBC iPlayer, is ostensibly a search for the meaning of the absence of meaning that afflicts contemporary Western society. It is told through the prism of the West’s engagements with Afghanistan – specifically Helmand Province – over a 60-year period, as mediated by relations with Saudi Arabia and occasionally reaching back as far as the Anglo-Afghan wars of the nineteenth century.

As with all of Curtis’s work, certain aspects beg contestation and clarification. ‘Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality. But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow’, he begins, seemingly unabashed at the single narrative he, too, is about to tell. But while replete with contradiction, he does have a point. Authorities increasingly talk of the need for narratives today – unaware, it would seem, of the need for material and ideological drivers that might determine such narratives.

It is the first Saudi monarch, Ibn Saud, whose machinations serve as the start for Curtis’s narrative. According to this tale, Ibn Saud was supposedly involved in hoodwinking an ailing President Roosevelt in the closing days of the Second World War. Roosevelt was allegedly tricked into turning a blind eye to the Kingdom of Saud’s religious radicals in return for Saudi oil. The negotiations, held on the USS Quincy at Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal, provide both the film’s title and the deus ex machina for its plot.

A smug Saudi oil minister, Sheikh Yamani, then lectures the West on the need to get used to the new normal in the aftermath of the 1973 oil-price hike designed, in part, to chill American support for Israel. The glut of petrodollars that ensued had to find a new home, and it is here that Curtis’s second bête noir – international investment bankers – comes in. The funds were invested primarily in armaments, a ruse to support ailing Western economies. And the weapons produced were sold back to the same Arab leaders who needed to keep their neighbours and domestic populations in check.

So far, so simple. Except that surely Curtis, too, is eliding the odd complexity here?

Because two years before the oil crisis of 1973, the US had unilaterally terminated the convertibility of the dollar to gold, thereby ending the Bretton Woods agreement on monetary management and injecting considerable uncertainty into the markets – including the oil market. This, in turn, had been driven by the relentless printing of dollar bills to fund the Vietnam War and – more significantly – by the steady exhaustion of the US economy in the aftermath of the postwar boom. Unable to invest at home, capital was flooding overseas. Dubious allies were a consequence, not a cause, of America’s economic woe.

But the tendency for the rate of profit to fall never seems to make as good box office as bloody Arabs and greedy bankers. Fortunately though, Curtis does note the extent to which the bankers were then encouraged in their profligacy by Western leaders desperate to make ends meet and devoid of any political vision or agenda. But those leaders largely escape judgment in Bitter Lake.

It is probably Curtis’s bleakest vision yet, punctuated by a typically insistent soundtrack, new musical additions and copious quantities of silence. Images are made to speak for themselves – a drop of blood working its way down a camera lens, a terribly injured Afghan girl dressed up by her father as a princess with a tiara to meet the press, and a scene lasting over two minutes of a fully-kitted soldier picking up and stroking a somewhat ragged-looking dove. Such footage would usually have been left on the cutting-room floor. You wonder what Nietzsche would have made of the scene in which the squaddie stares increasingly meaningfully into the dove’s eyes.

Atrocities abound – some young Afghans unselfconsciously confirm their part in the stoning of prisoners, and US Marines joke about the number of unofficial rounds, including fatal ones, they have fired. But only the most naive or innocent would be shocked by these tales. As to the inevitable question as to what the overall montage means, surely the right response is to point to the total absence of purpose or meaning in the Afghan War itself.

The overall effect of the film is both disorienting and dispiriting. How did the West come to abandon its 1950s-era optimism, when it wanted to construct dams in Helmand to help build a modern state? Why did it opt instead to chase shadows (a British Army captain admits to defining any opposition as ‘the Taliban’)? A crisis of nerve, built on the inability to define and develop a new project for humanity in the shadow of political and economic exhaustion, was the real answer here.

By the 1970s, rich, hippy kids were travelling from the West to Afghanistan in search of authenticity. It spoke volumes about their inability to find meaning domestically, and more so of the failure of Western elites to promote a purpose for them. A decade later, when wealthy US socialites like Joanne Herring were sent to Afghanistan to connect with the Mujahideen, her Orientalist fantasies about saving ‘these people who believed so much in their God’ sound as shallow and libidinal as those of Joan Sims in Carry On Up the Khyber, which Curtis uses clips from.

Repeating one of my contributions to his 2004 three-part, BAFTA award-winning TV documentary series, The Power of Nightmares, Curtis notes how we in the West no longer believe in anything anymore. It is to compensate for this that thousands of young people in the West now seek to find meaning in Islam – with some embracing particularly backward versions of it. But it was really 40 years earlier that the rot set in, as the sons and daughters of the well-to-do paved the way for today’s Islamist meaning-seekers with their own hippy-ish escapism.

It may well be – like the Russian soldier railing on the subway – that elements of the Afghan abyss will come back to stare into us here. But, as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it seems more likely that it is we who will have ended up exporting our confusions over there.

Along with the army of security consultants, legal advisers and civil-society reformers who fleeced the fledgling Afghan state of its funds in recent years, the West also sent some ‘experts’ to improve Afghans’ wellbeing and culture. So it is that the abiding image of the film for me is that of an English art teacher enthusiastically extolling the meaning of Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual artwork, Fountain, an inverted male urinal, to a group of recently liberated and incredulous Afghan women.

‘The horror! The horror!’

First published on spiked, 5 February 2015

Charlie Hebdo: more security isn’t the solution

We don’t need new anti-terror laws – we need more open political debate.

Predictably, in the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris last week, many commentators have emphasised a presumed need for more security. The UK chancellor, George Osborne, was quick off the mark, asserting that tackling terrorism is now Britain’s ‘national priority’. Really? The number-one focus for some 64million people is to handle the extreme actions of vexatious malcontents? What does that suggest about the malcontents’ presumed power? And what does it say about ours?

The problem revealed here, and in the talk of fighting a ‘war’ against extremists, is a complete loss of proportionality and perspective. We are no less safe today than we were a week ago. We have known for some time that random terrorist acts might strike anyone, anywhere and at any time. And yet now, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, politicians are acting as if they had the solution to this threat all along.

UK prime minister David Cameron’s visit to Washington this week, in which he will discuss collaborating with President Obama against the threat of cyber attacks, reflects how lacking in ambition and thought this perceived solution is. In short, all Western leaders feel they can do to tackle the threat posed by terrorism is to intercept the perpetrators before they get a chance to commit their destructive acts. This leaves the central question of why these terrorist attacks are taking place unanswered.

So, billions are to be spent monitoring our movements and communications, while next to no energy is directed at trying to appreciate why it is that the nihilistic rhetoric of a tiny minority is resonating with some people in the West. But tighter security offers only a technical fix and affirms an elite narrative in which we are said to live in uncertain times and among capricious people in need of control. Thinking about what causes the new nihilism, by contrast, would open up a political debate about values and principles that could truly get to the heart of the matter. This, however, is a debate our political leaders would prefer to avoid.

What’s worse, ramping up security in response to terror attacks simply doesn’t work. It is an approach that confuses information with intelligence. What matters most is not how much evidence you can amass but how that evidence is interpreted. Drowning in data, security agents are often unable to see the wood for the trees. As the numbers of people now under surveillance run into the many thousands, the authorities ought to recognise that what they face is not a security problem, but rather a social problem that they have yet to address.

While world leaders marched in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo this weekend, the authorities continue to erode our liberties. Last November, the UK home secretary, Theresa May, tabled yet another counterterrorism bill – the seventh such piece of legislation to be introduced since 9/11. Among other stipulations, this bill will place new requirements on schools and universities to prevent those in their charge from becoming ‘radicalised’ – whatever that means – with severe sanctions for those who fail to do so. Most university officials, including security staff, view these new measures as both unworkable and unnecessary. Yet most universities will implement new procedures so as to be seen to be in accordance with the law. Ministers appear blind to the fact that they now act, and expect others to act, in bad faith.

So, authorities no longer say what they think, while not really believing what they say, either. Few, if any, government officials believe their anti-terror initiatives will work. These measures are purely for show. Politicians and officials have to be seen to be going through the motions.

Crises, such as the one we are facing today, often provoke a race to find meaning in society. Former British prime minister Tony Blair noted after the London riots that there is a danger at such times of crisis to reach for the ‘wrong analysis, leading to the wrong diagnosis, leading to the wrong prescription’. It is imperative, therefore, that we oppose the predictable post-Charlie Hebdo calls for more security and instead kickstart a more rooted social analysis of the issues at hand.

Rather than accepting the supposed need for more protection, we ought to be asking why it is that that our contemporary culture has so thoroughly failed to inspire and engage a generation of young people – to impart in them a sense of meaning, purpose and vision – that some of them are searching for meaning on jihadi internet forums or in the teachings of arcane religious belief systems.

Over the past week, many have repeated the mantra that the first duty of the state is to protect its citizens. That, too, is open to debate. The state itself is the creation of people who were prepared to risk everything, including their lives, to be free. Sadly, the US, in recent years, has seemed determined to make itself the land of the safe rather than the land of the free. It would be a very sad day if the French Republic was to go the same way.

What has most been missing in the so-called war on terror has been a vision for society beyond terror. That is the essence of real resilience: a projection of purpose and a sense of what we are in the absence of all adversities. If we were to achieve this, fewer people would look for purpose elsewhere, and the few that did decide to commit barbaric acts would be framed in the proper context: as mindless criminals.

First published on spiked, 12 January 2015

Terrorism: a homegrown fear

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.

Interpreting meaning

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.

Reflected caricatures

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.

Homegrown nihilists

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.

Domestic drivers

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).

Nervous responses

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.

Dystopian projections

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.

Conclusion

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

Precautionary Tales – Missing the Problem and its Cause

Extract: Two recently published volumes on the concept of precaution as it is variously understood and applied across the United States and in Europe make for a fascinating comparative analysis. They also respectively offer some undoubted and invaluable insights into the subject. Sadly neither really addresses how precaution came of age or why.

Precautionary Tales: Missing the Problem and the Cause, European Journal of Risk Regulation, Vol.4, No.2, pp.297-299, June 2013

The spy who came in from the Cold War

The Red Army toilet-raiding realities of spying certainly exhilarated Steve Gibson, but the fall of the Berlin Wall brought doubt, too.

From the end of the Second World War through to the end of the Cold War, a little-known unit of British special forces conducted spying missions behind the Iron Curtain – that is, right from the heart of Soviet-occupied East Germany.

Called the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Group Soviet Forces of Occupation in Germany, or BRIXMIS for short, it was part of an officially sanctioned exchange of observers between the Red Army and the British Army established by the victorious Allied powers and the USSR through the Robertson-Malinin agreement in 1946. Its ostensible purpose was to improve communication and relations between them.

In addition to BRIXMIS – and their French and American counterparts in the East – the Red Army also conducted similar operations through a unit in West Germany. But, diplomatic liaison and translation duties aside, the real purpose of these units soon became clear: to find out what each other was up to by heading out into those areas where they had been specifically told not to go.

My friend and former UK Defence Academy colleague Steve Gibson led many of these ‘tours’ just as the Cold War was coming to an end. Live and Let Spy is his gripping recollection of these episodes. Although originally published in 1997 as The Last Mission: Behind the Iron Curtain, it has now been republished and augmented some 15 years later with a significant additional chapter written with the hindsight gained during his subsequent academic career.

Much of the espionage involved gathering evidence about the weaponry available to the Red Army. Accordingly, it typically required lying in wait on a bridge over a railway line at three o’clock in the morning in the middle of a forest in winter. With temperatures dipping to around minus-30 degrees celsius, the objective was to photograph all the kit that passed by on a train underneath. Alternatively, they might record the rate of fire from Russian guns from the safety of their locked vehicle in the sweltering 40 degree heat of summer.

Sent back to the Defence Intelligence Staff in Whitehall, this information allowed specialists to determine troop and equipment levels, as well as whether a new bolt on a gun or aerial on a tank might allow it to fire or communicate further than previously estimated – and if so, whether this would necessitate the complete re-evaluation of NATO’s Cold War battle plans.

Of course, the operations required meticulous planning to identify suitably concealed observation posts, as well as efficient access and escape routes. This planning was usually conducted during the day. For those so disposed, there are sufficient ‘tradecraft’ details here to sustain interest. For me, however, the real gem is the lesson identified early in the book – to be as conspicuous as possible by waving at everyone.

This waving tactic disoriented many into believing that the Mercedes G-Class (Geländewagen) passing by with three individuals in army fatigues in it was legitimate. And even if observers suspected something, the fact that nearby children would invariably wave back – raising the possibility that those inside were known to them – would add further confusion or delay. Those who did smell a rat usually did so too late.

It was not just a jolly jaunt. Over the years, a number of tour personnel lost their lives or suffered serious injury through being shot at or having Russian tanks ram their vehicles. East German ‘narks’ were also always on the look-out for anyone in the wrong place and would report these to the relevant authorities. It is noted, though, that many local ‘Easties’ were keen to help the agents.

Given the challenging circumstances, selection and training were intense and severe. It required individuals who could think quickly on their feet and not just expect to follow rules. It also meant having the ability to complete advanced courses in Russian and German, photography and navigation in next to no time, and to memorise the look and sound of countless pieces of Soviet military equipment, as well as remain calm – yet sharp – when tired or provoked.

For anyone who imagines that spying is glamorous, or somehow akin to being in a Bond movie, they will be disabused by Gibson’s chapter on document-gathering from dumps (literally). It had been recognised for some time that, when they went on manoeuvres in East Germany, the Soviet forces were not supplied with any toilet paper. They would use whatever came to hand – a copy of Pravda, a letter from a loved one, or even their mission papers. And after they were done, it was then that Her Majesty’s specially trained and equipped Cold War warriors really came into their own…

The book is a tour de force of teeth-clenching tension that will keep most readers gripped from beginning to end. But while the first nine chapters retain the action-packed core of the original narrative, filled with the escapades of small teams of rather special individuals trying to find out what the Soviets were up to, the real substance – for those of a more political disposition – is a chapter titled ‘Reflections’.

As a professor of political science at the University of Warwick, Robert Aldrich, notes in the new foreword, Gibson is now clearly of the mind that ‘much of what [he] was led to believe [during the Cold War], and some of what he was told, was simply wrong!’

It is testimony to the author’s strength of character that – unlike others – he neither chose to dwell in the past nor fell prone to the ‘invention of illness’. This latter problem, he himself notes, affected many of his one-time colleagues once their personal and moral frameworks disintegrated with the end of the old, Cold War world order.

Gibson’s resolute clearsightedness is to be admired. So despite having been caught up in the exhilaration of it all as a young man, despite devoting the prime of his life to the East-West conflict, he refuses to lie to himself. ‘The Cold War’, he notes, ‘was a giant historical cul-de-sac where all enlightened efforts at producing a good society were suspended’.

Aldrich astutely summarises a key argument of Live and Let Spy: ‘while Cold War warriors fought a tyrannical and ruthless version of Communism abroad, they remained ignorant of – and lost – an ideological battle at home’. He then adds accusingly: ‘Western politicians now offer a watered-down version of the interfering, intolerant, controlling and authoritarian government that they were initially set against rather than anything freer.’

In this, he takes his lead from Gibson, who rails against the erosion of ‘moral values, community spirit and sense of purpose’ that now pervades Western political elites. They are ‘pessimistic and misanthropic’, Gibson argues, while ‘suffering from an acute lack of confidence in their own projects’. This lack of authority, this social pessimism, they now effectively impose on others through a ‘moralising intervention into every aspect of private life’. But while the description of this new period will, no doubt, connect with many, Gibson – possibly by trying to cover too much, including passing references to Aristotle, Kant and Bentham for good measure – fails to provide a convincing explanation of why this all came about.

Taking his lead from the BBC documentary film producer Adam Curtis, Gibson identifies how the computer modelling of behaviour – and even more bizarrely, of intentions – came to dominate an intelligence world increasingly devoid of purpose or principle. But, as he himself notes, the intelligence community’s embrace of behaviour modelling is just as likely to be an expression of a broader ‘loss of faith in humans’ as the driver of social processes. Today, that loss of faith – and an obsession with risk management – comes to be expressed through the failure to put eyes and ears on the ground, as Gibson’s once were (a job for which he was awarded an MBE), and thereby a failure to verify theory through practice.

In addition, this final chapter makes three significant and unique contributions to improving our understanding and application of intelligence.

Firstly, he argues that the most useful role of intelligence today is to understand the context correctly, without which ‘purpose is equally misguided’. Secondly, and drawing on his most important academic contribution, Gibson notes that, ‘the use of single-source intelligence-reporting drawn from individuals selected principally for their willingness to share secrets…is not the best way to analyse contemporary challenges’, as the illusions about Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ ably demonstrated.

Whether these new challenges are, as he suggests, those so-called non-traditional security threats, such as climate change, energy supply and food provision, is open to debate. Possibly, it is the ‘dismissal of free will’ and ‘decline into mediocrity’ that he identifies elsewhere that are the real problems. And it is these problems that have turned the essentially technical issues of climate change or food provision into all-consuming sources of uncertainty and insecurity.

Finally, and significantly for one who has made the pursuit of freedom and autonomy central to his existence, Gibson notes the loss of any sense of fun in a politically correct world without an ‘enlightened purposeful ideology around which to cohere’. (This comes from a man who knows something about fun having, in his youth, gatecrashed an international beauty pageant pretending to be Miss Austria’s personal bodyguard.)

Advocates of the ‘purposeless pragmatism’ and ‘bureaucratic regulation’ he now views as the real barrier to achieving ‘prosperity and progress for all’ would no doubt disapprove of Gibson’s youthful antics. It is unlikely, for instance, that they would appreciate the photographs of naked lovers taken from over one kilometre away that he and his colleagues once sent back to Ministry of Defence analysts to show that their equipment was working and that they were maintaining their skills. But, he notes, it is precisely intolerance towards the criticism – and in this case, the mockery – of widely held beliefs that precludes the effective determination of the truth.

Richard Aldrich concludes how ‘Gibson reflects that it takes the passage of time to recognise that one is misled by power’. For those who feel that after the fact is too late and who still hope to shape history rather than merely be carried along by it, it is only through a constantly evolving analysis of present circumstances that such historical cul-de-sacs can avoided.

This book – while not pretending to be any more than a personal memoir of some hitherto less disclosed aspects of the Cold War – serves to remind us of how far we have come since. After it all ended, Gibson concludes that ‘the somewhat hasty, undignified and testy disintegration of the Mission was intrinsically due to the absence of mission itself’.

This may well explain why – as was revealed from Kremlin minutes released some 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down – Western leaders were so keen at the time to remind the Soviet Union’s then-president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that they really did not want a re-unified Germany. Despite their pro-freedom stance and rhetoric, a unified Germany would, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security’.

Indeed, the Cold War may well have been the last time that Britain and the other Western powers could even pretend to have had a clear and positive sense of mission.

First published on spiked, 30 March 2012