On Thailand, what would Trotsky say?

If the Thai Red Shirts want real change, they could do with reading History of the Russian Revolution.

According to some sources, recent publications circulated by the organisational arm of the Red Shirts in Thailand – the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) – ‘offer history lessons on the French and the Russian revolutions’. According to their detractors, such references to past revolutions demonstrate the republican leanings of the UDD leaders, despite the fact that the Red Shirts have been demanding free elections and the resignation of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rather than an overthrow of the monarchy. In a country where expressing anti-monarchy views is still indictable under archaic lèse majesté laws, recently backed up by draconian Internal Security Act provisions, these are serious charges.

But the publication that both sides of the current political impasse in Thailand really could do with reading carefully is Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. In this magisterial work, Trotsky laid no claim to impartiality, but rather sought to expose ‘the actual process of the revolution’. As the insurrection in Thailand develops, considering how Trotsky’s analysis can be used as a ‘playbook’ of the way in which such events unfold is really eye-opening.

One trend that Trotsky identified was the use of ‘conspiracy’ as one of the prime accusations made by the ruling class – consciously or not – in their attempts to demobilise the masses at a time of insurrection. Members of the elite are unable to understand through their ‘police mind’ that periods of rapid change stem, not from ‘the activities of “demagogues”’, but from the precise opposite – the ‘deep conservatism’ of the masses, whose views lag chronically ‘behind new objective conditions’. As a result, the elite focuses narrowly on ‘the deliberate undertaking of the minority’, whilst ignoring ‘the spontaneous movement of the majority’. Trotsky adds: ‘Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box… But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.’

The reality on the ground in Bangkok confirms this insight. Far from threatening Thailand’s royalty, the Red Shirts maintain an overly deferential position towards the monarchy. In response to allegations of a plot to overthrow King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Red Shirt leaders have put great store behind proving otherwise by holding up portraits of the Thai King and Queen at recent rallies. Whether such displays of loyalty are merely tactical remains to be seen, but they point to the possible chronic contradictions that exist within the Red Shirt movement. The King himself did not comment on the situation during his public appearance for Coronation Day yesterday.

Two weeks ago, possibly with a view to encouraging loose talk or even stealing the moral high-ground from the Red Shirts, the Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, controversially mooted the need to re-examine the role of the monarchy. As Trotsky recorded, conspiracies, apparent policy U-turns, divisions and intrigue abound, but these frequently originate from within the government camp.

Understanding how a situation changes and develops is crucial. For example, some within the media – and within the Red Shirt movement itself – have only belatedly understood that support for the deposed former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, may not have been central to developments in Thailand.

Another example is the proposal by the Election Commission – an unelected group of officials charged with managing and overseeing elections in Thailand – that the Constitutional Court be asked to dissolve the ruling party for failing to report donations and misuse of funds. This seems to have confused many, on all sides. Indeed, the Red Shirt leaders now appear to view the commission as some kind of neutral body. In reality, like many other bodies with little authority other than that vested in them by statute, the commissioners most probably had their eye on their own survival.

In a period of insurrection, there is a big difference between official power and real support, something the Thai prime minister is only now starting to learn. Three weeks ago, after the first bloody clashes in the capital, which left over 20 dead and many hundreds more injured, it looked as if the tensions within the elites might come to a head. Vejjajiva was accused by supporters of his own regime of being too weak, and he handed direct control over security matters from his defence minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, to the chief of the army, General Anupong Paochinda.

But General Paochinda’s resolve has also been called into question. He is on record as stating that the current situation is a political problem that ‘must be solved by political means’, and that he is not inclined to intervene. There followed a protracted discussion about army people being possible ‘water melons’ (green on the outside, but red at the core). Accusations have flown that Red Shirt leaders received advance warnings of army and police raids to arrest them and that they escaped, in the full glare of media publicity, as the forces charged with their capture stood idly by.

Such possibilities should hardly come as a surprise. Already in 1930 Trotsky noted: ‘If an army as a whole is a copy of society, then when society openly splits, both armies are copies of the two warring camps.’ He continued: ‘The army of the possessors contained the wormholes of isolation and decay.’ In October 1917, many in the Russian army joined the Bolsheviks, while their commanders either stood aside or pretended in their own turn to have swapped sides. Likewise, in Thailand today, it would seem as if there are many, aside from some in elite squadrons, who would be unlikely to turn on the multitude of middle-aged ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ from the north of the country and beyond, who constitute much of this new, if unlikely, fledgling red army.

Writing in a more despairing tone for a regional paper recently, Kraisak Choonhavan, the deputy leader of Vejjajiva’s incumbent Democrat Party, lambasted those in the international media who have portrayed the protests in Bangkok as some kind of ‘class struggle between rich urban elites and the poor rural mass’. His complaint was that the Red Shirt platform is ‘without a clear programme of social and political reform to follow’. He, too, could do with reading Trotsky, who wrote that ‘the masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime’.

Whether or not that ‘sharp feeling’ is constructively channelled will, of course, depend greatly on the skill and political acumen of political leaders. These, as in 1917, ‘were little known to anybody when the year began’, and indeed, a cursory glance through the list of 24 arrest warrants issued for Red Shirt leaders by the Thai authorities confirms that none has much of a profile, save for what has recently been reported about them in the media.

Trotsky also understood that the middle classes can be crucial at breaking-point periods. The middle classes in Thailand are extremely unnerved by the current situation. Like those in the media, academia, the government and the ‘international community’ who express concern about the economic impact of the protests, they are particularly ill-suited to handling the impact of uncertainty upon their immediate, narrow and privatised concerns. The finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, recently suggested that the Red Shirt protests could reduce the growth rate by two per cent if continued to the end of the year, while there has been much discussion of the supposed wider ramifications for the reputation of Thailand vis-à-vis the ‘international community’.

For the middle classes, making profit today is more vital to them than achieving democracy and freedom tomorrow – even for their own children. So much for the long-term, social view of business.

The key element now is timing. In his chapter on ‘The Art of Insurrection’, Trotsky explored the difficulties of, and political nous required for, knowing just when to initiate action. The more conscious elements of the movement would be chomping at the bit, fearing that the moment has passed, while other social layers would only just be waking up to the possibilities of the situation.

In Thailand, the media, and others, have accused the Red Shirts of overstepping the line through their recent takeover and occupation of a hospital. This was done to ensure that army forces were not in hiding there. But Weng Tojirakorn, one of the Red Shirt leaders, has now apologised for this act. In fact, it is this apology that suggests that those who earlier had organised such galvanising activities as a mass collection of blood from their supporters – to daub over the streets – may now have gone somewhat on the defensive.

The insurrection may be undone by tactical errors. For example, some Red Shirt leaders have agreed publicly to hand themselves in to the authorities on 15 May, come what may, while asking various international organisations and institutions to send observers to Bangkok. Martyrdom and handing the initiative to external busy-bodies have never been successful strategies.

Such moves have allowed the cabinet, holed-up for months in the eleventh Infantry Regiment’s barracks in the capital, to reassert a modicum of control. They have robustly declined offers of assistance from outside, despite the shrill and irrelevant voices predicting civil war and demanding mediation emanating from the likes of the International Crisis Group in Brussels and Human Rights Watch in New York.

This week, the prime minister offered to hold elections in November and to commence a process of ‘reconciliation’, so long as the protesters went home and observed a set of other conditions. The Red Shirt leaders, in turn, indicated their inclination to accept the deal, so long as a date for the dissolution of parliament was announced and the Election Commission appointed to handle the process. The ruling party have now tentatively put September forward as the date for this but, as some have pointed out, by then they may be disbanded as a party by the Constitutional Court. Such a situation would allow the possibility for any interim establishment to renege on such commitments.

This is a crucial moment for the Thai insurrection. Following Trotsky’s metaphor, it may be time for the steam to reassert its primacy over the piston. Certainly, it is now the response of the ordinary Red Shirts to the so-called ‘roadmap’, and their own leaders’ willingness to accept it, that will determine whether real change is achieved or whether Thailand continues – as the locals say – to be ‘same, same, but different’.

First published on spiked, 6 May 2010

The battle for Thailand’s soul

Far from being a ‘stage army’, the Red Shirts could potentially refresh and reinvent democracy in Thailand.

For over a year now, the political scene in Thailand has been in tumult. At the end of 2008, protesters wearing yellow shirts got international media coverage by forcing the closure of the capital city’s two airports. Now, protesters wearing red shirts occupy parts of Bangkok, demanding the resignation of the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and fresh elections.

On the evening of Saturday 3 April, the uneasy stand-off between government forces and protesters, which has lasted for a month, spilled over into violence. At the time of writing, more than 20 people, including a Japanese Reuters reporter and four Thai soldiers, have died. Many hundreds more have been injured.

So, who are the Yellow Shirts and who are the Red Shirts, what do they represent, and what significance do they have for politics in Thailand and beyond? To understand what is going on today, it is necessary first to cast a glance back at Thailand’s modern history.

Thailand is often described as the only state in South East Asia not to have been colonised by the European powers. Siam, as the country was once called, achieved this dubious distinction through shedding territory to its south and west (Malaya and Burma) to the British and to its north and east (Laos and Cambodia) to the French. Siam thereby maintained a feudal monarchy that the imperial powers felt comfortable doing business with.

A 1932 military coup, supported by civilian democrats, led to the dissolution of absolute monarchical powers, followed by an abdication in 1938. But the new, uneasy alliance also broke apart, with liberals and radicals being ousted. Indeed, the country was first renamed Thailand in 1939 as a nationalist gesture to exclude those of Chinese origin.

A brief deal with the Japanese during the Second World War returned lands lost to the British and the French. But after the war, the US ensured that the status quo ante prevailed, and used the Kingdom as a platform for launching regional anti-communist operations. This proved a recipe for constant coups and turmoil, which continued, both internally and with aggrieved neighbours, subsequent to the expulsion of US forces in the mid-1970s and until the end of the Cold War in 1989. The end of the Cold War heralded a more concerted transition to democracy.

The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, having come to power in 1946 after the mysterious death of his brother, is now the world’s longest serving head of state. He is widely revered by the Thai people, but his age and failing health have raised issues regarding any succession to his less popular son, Vajiralongkorn.

It is within this context that Thaksin Shinawatra, a former police deputy superintendent, entered into politics in 1994. Typically, for a not-too-well-paid public servant, he started a string of failed businesses on the side before resigning his police commission in 1987. But he hit the big time in 1990, obtaining a 20-year license to deliver Thailand’s first mobile phone services. His business interests gradually grew and were spun out to various members of his family and trusted friends. Thaksin won the first of his landslide election victories in 2001, when he became prime minister of Thailand. He completed a notable full-term in office and was re-elected in 2005 on the back of the highest voter turnout in Thai history.

Thaksin is an unashamedly populist politician. He is like a cross between Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. By combining rural poverty alleviation programmes in the north of the country, where he hails from, with the first universal healthcare scheme – now so successful that medical tourism is one of Thailand’s boom sectors – his success was assured.

Thaksin is also undoubtedly a man of contradictions, promoting micro-credit schemes popular with Western liberals on the one hand, while determinedly, and some might say ruthlessly, quashing Muslim separatists in the south of the country. His draconian campaign to eradicate drugs also met with accusations of human rights abuses by various groups, leading Thaksin to denounce the United Nations, whose envoy he had invited in to assess the situation.

In 2006, while Thaksin was in New York – ironically, to speak at a UN summit – things came to a head. A fresh military coup, supported by old and new elites within the monarchy and the media – who Thaksin had continuously thwarted through reporting restrictions and through setting up various communications empires – swept Bangkok. But upon the restoration of free elections in 2008, the people had the temerity to elect the People’s Power Party, which Thaksin supported from his exile. This was a step too far for the urban elitists, and so protesters wearing yellow, in symbolic allegiance to the king, seized the airports and brought the country to a standstill.

Despite this superficially radical move, it is important to understand that those involved were entirely reactionary in their outlook. Comprised largely of urban intellectuals, and pretty much allowed to take over by the military, their view was that democracy was not for the uneducated masses from the north.

The various protests have been widely viewed merely as disruptive, as damaging Thailand’s reputation and economy. Some Thais who avow themselves as neutral to the conflicts wear pink shirts. But in fact, the protests represent a fundamental struggle that reflects, and will shape, views about popular participation in Thailand and elsewhere.

Having brought the country to a halt, the Yellow Shirts, backed by little more than a political pressure group with influential and wealthy backers – the People’s Alliance for Democracy – managed to get the pro-Thaksin government disbanded through the legal establishment. It was this silent, judicial coup that led to the current mass demonstrations by Red Shirt supporters of Thaksin.

Thaksin has been repeatedly accused of corruption and censorship. On their part, the Eton- and Oxford-educated current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his hastily reconstituted Democrat Party, which includes some of his British-educated chums, are themselves not wholly innocent in this regard. But, far from being a battle between rural populists and urban intellectuals, the conflict has, over the past month, become about much more than that.

Accusations fly that the Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok have been bribed and corralled to act as a stage army. That may be true – the path to democracy is never clear or clean – but the fact is that they are a de facto people’s army. They have sustained over 100,000 people on the streets of Bangkok for a month, held rallies, met with the prime minister and successfully regained control of a media outlet that government forces had occupied and closed down, if only to lose control of it again.

With so many Thais taking matters into their own hands for the first time, and consciously avoiding violence, there is now an opportunity for the political agenda to move beyond Thaksin. The protesters are learning that while they were galvanised into action for the sake of the exiled Thaksin (the Thai judiciary has recently moved to seize his assets), he himself may no longer be central, or even necessary, to realising their ambitions. At the same time, some of the urban elites may lose faith in the current prime minister’s ability to keep control of the situation, leading to more draconian responses which, in turn, may fuel further violence.

What we are witnessing in Bangkok is a transformative moment. How it will end is anyone’s guess. The Red Shirts may be placated by recent official apologies. They may, after their prolonged occupations of certain key streets and government buildings, return to their northern constituencies to observe the Thai New Year this week. Such demobilisation could be dispiriting and fatal.

On the other hand, in democracy, there is strength in numbers, and the Red Shirts may grasp a sense of their own power and steer a very different course. If the protesters prevail, they could offer important lessons in the messy business of politics elsewhere.

First published on spiked, 12 April 2010

A semi-irresistible argument

It is refreshing to read Kishore Mahbubani’s unabashed defence of aspirations in the East. But his attachment to the very Western culture of fear means that his book ends on a pessimistic note after all.

‘If I were asked to name the date when my life entered the modern world, I would date it to the arrival of the flush toilet.’

This is the humble beginning of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, in which the author, Kishore Mahbubani, extols the trappings of modern life.

Mahbubani is currently dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He served for 33 years as a diplomat for Singapore. His impressive CV includes a post as permanent secretary at the Singaporean foreign ministry, and as president of the United Nations Security Council. He was also Singapore’s ambassador to the UN.

Mahbubani continues: ‘After the flush toilet, our little home in Singapore began to acquire other conveniences: the refrigerator, the TV set, the gas cooker (which replaced the charcoal fires my mother used), and the telephone.’ It seems the television set was particularly significant for Mahbubani, as it opened his mind to visions of what the world could be like.

For Mahbuani, it is the ‘“heaven” of modernity that the vast majority of the world’s population is aspiring to enter’. In discussions around development in West, however, such aspirations seem to have been forgotten, abandoned or ignored. Yet there are plenty of people around who can still recall what the world was like before the advent of twentieth-century technologies and amenities, and who would hate to lose them. And, shamefully, there are millions who have yet to acquire them.

Few places on Earth have experienced as many dramatic changes in one generation as Singapore has. From a tourist’s point-of-view, life in a kampong (a traditional Singaporean village) may appear to have been idyllic, with human communities living ‘in harmony’ with nature. The reality – mosquitoes, dengue fever, floods, sewage and a complete absence of privacy – was quite different.

While in the West, the past is idealised as somehow more humane and natural, here in Singapore there is a distinct lack of nostalgia for the days of yesteryear. Just consider a photography contest recently launched in one of the daily papers here. ‘Remember those zinc-roofed huts we used to call home?’ the introduction reads, before asking prospective contestants to submit photographs from the past 50 years in order ‘to share with us how life here has become better’.

It is refreshing to see Mahbubani unashamedly defending the aspiration to modernity. As he points out: ‘The 88 per cent of the world’s population who live outside the West have stopped being objects of world history and have become subjects. They have decided to take control of their own destinies.’

The West has lost his optimism, the classically-educated Mahbubani complains, just at the time when the East is gaining its own sense of confidence. He notes how, in the past, the West’s own philosophers would have welcomed this vast increase of ‘goodness’ in the world. Instead, today’s Western leaders and policymakers view global development with trepidation. China in particular has consistently been singled out by Western observers as a source of great concern.

As Mahbubani notes, the West tends to miss or ignore the massive changes to the human spirit that lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty has instilled. Development, Mahbubani reminds us, lowers infant mortality and crime rates, whilst simultaneously improving people’s health and longevity. But more than that, ‘[w]hat all these statistics fail to capture is the transformation of the human spirit that takes place when people experience this kind of rapid economic growth’.

Between 1983 and 2003, more than half of all doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded in the US have gone to students from China, Taiwan, India and South Korea. And by 2010, according to one of the sources Mahbubani cites, 90 per cent of all PhD-holding scientists and engineers in the world will be living in Asia.

If Europeans – who Mahbubani accuses of being smug and insecure – should find it difficult to conceive of China and other parts of Asia opening up in this way, there are also changes afoot in the Islamic world that they appear completely blind to. Apart from a few feudal regimes ‘kept in office at least in part through Western support’, it is not fundamentalism that is the ascendant force in the region, he argues. Instead, it is the drive towards modernisation – and recent events in Iran appear to confirm this.

Intriguingly, though Mahbubani is such a vocal critic of the West, the weaknesses in his own work are arguably very Western in character. He celebrates free markets at a time when they have never been so questioned. But, in reality, both Mahbubani and his detractors are out of date on this point. State monopolies (with which Mahbubani must be familiar as a Singaporean) and regulation curtailed the liberal fantasy of a ‘free’ market over a hundred years ago.

For a self-proclaimed optimist, Mahbubani also appears peculiarly prone to some of the more recent Western fears around things like terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, climate change and overpopulation. He ends up proposing that the European Union and the United Nations – those undemocratic and aloof institutions – should be emulated in Asia. No doubt, his views have been shaped through his background as a career diplomat and he probably has his heart set on a successful future for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The EU, Mahbubani suggests, has now achieved the position of having ‘zero prospect of war’. This may yet prove to be overly optimistic, but let’s accept the proposition for now and consider it along with von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. It appears, then, that the reason behind this zero prospect of war may well be down to the fact that in the famously detached and elitist EU bureaucracy there is also zero prospect of politics.

Like many of his peers, Mahbubani proposes that there can be no freedom without security. That is why, ultimately, he has a rather dim view of democracy, citing an Asian-American academic who believes that for the developing world it is ‘an engine of ethnic conflagration’. As the elites, including Mahbubani himself, are busy projecting all manner of new security threats onto the world, the masses will no doubt have to wait a long time before gaining the right to express their own opinions freely.

Mahbubani’s prioritisation of security over freedom is both blinkered and contradicted by his own analysis. People do not just live their lives, they lead them. And everywhere, at all times, people have been prepared to risk it all to be free. This was also true of Mahbubani’s own parents who emigrated from Pakistan on the eve of partition. Mahbubani believes that the pillars of ‘Western wisdom’ are free markets, science and technology, the rule of law and education. Well, maybe he should also consider just how central freedom is to each of these.

Aside from a disdainful dismissal of democracy – the constant refrain in this part of the world is that the masses are not mature enough for it – The New Asian Hemisphere also suffers from too abstract a separation between politics and economics. These appear to be entirely distinct spheres for Mahbubani. Hence his recurring complaint that Western interests dominate over Western values. For Mahbubani, material, economic interests have trumped the promotion of wider societal values in the West.

There may be an element of truth to this but, more broadly, one could also point out that the West no longer truly knows its own interests, fearing both the unfettered free market and the sense of intellectual confrontation that knowing and representing an interest may involve in society. Hence the contemporary emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘inclusion’ that even Mahbubani buys into.

The more fundamental flaw of Mahbubani’s fascinating book is that in attempting to explain, primarily to a Western audience, what it is that the East thinks and does today, he makes sweeping statements about both the West and the East. These are caricatures, or at best vignettes, that serious analysts should steer well clear of, both in terms of regional and individual variations, as well as changes across time.

Mahbubani, for instance, benefited from a Western-style education at a time when this truly meant something. It is not so clear that his advocacy of Western education today would produce similar benefits for the next generation as, having lost its way in the world, the West has also lost sight of what education means, allowing this to be subsumed to contemporary fads, such as the need to bring economic benefit or develop policy prescriptions, as well as a reluctance to allow anyone to fail.

Despite its failings, and the transparent elitist prejudices of its author, born of his time and environment, The New Asian Hemisphere is nevertheless still worth reading for those who focus on such matters. Whether Asia really is ‘the New Modern’, as one reviewer asserts, remains to be determined. For this to be so, it will be the masses in Asia who will need to assert their vision of the future, not just their supposedly expert leaders. It is worth remembering that the American Dream was born of freedom, not security.

The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, by Kishore Mahbubani, is published by Public Affairs. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

First published on spiked, 25 September 2009

Recession: impact on security and cohesion

No sooner had the economic crisis emerged than officials and security agencies started worrying about its implications for social stability. This tells us more about their crisis of confidence than inherent tendencies. The recession will not necessarily lead to social problems. Politicians should engage the public in debating it.

Read the full paper as a PDF here.

Durodié, B. (2009). Recession: Impact on Security and Cohesion. (RSIS Commentaries, No. 048). RSIS Commentaries. Singapore: Nanyang Technological University.

Why ‘deradicalisation’ is not the answer

It’s time Jacqui Smith realised that Islamist extremism is not a ‘foreign’ invader of Britain, but rather springs from our own bankrupt culture.

On Tuesday, the British home secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced the development of a nationwide ‘deradicalisation’ programme to tackle people who have supposedly been drawn into violent Islamist extremism in Britain. Muslim community groups and councils will be allocated £12.5million, in addition to the £40million the government has already committed to the ‘prevent’ element of the national counterterrorism strategy made public in July 2006. The funding will be used for projects that will ‘challenge and resist’ the ideas and outlooks deemed to have informed recent acts of terror in the UK.

This strategy will fail for the simple reason that the government has yet to fully appreciate what the influences are that they seek to alter. In addition, officials have no idea as to what it is they would wish to alter them to.

The simplistic model that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 was that the West was confronted by a resurgent form of political Islam emanating from the Middle East and further afield. Subsequent events, including the London bombings on 7 July 2005, led to an almost begrudging recognition that many of the perpetrators of terrorism had been educated in the West, if not born there.

This still allowed for the possibility that their ideas were largely foreign in origin, or that their outlooks were alien to the presumed norms prevailing in the West. Hence the continuing focus on the form that these ideas take – couched in their jihadist rhetoric – or appeals to defending an ill-defined sense of ‘our values’ or ‘our way of life’. The UK government has failed to confront the true content of what these ideas expressed: a rejection of all things Western, rather than a positive affirmation of anything else.

Nor has the government offered an alternative vision of what we stand for as a society, beyond rhetorical references to freedom and democracy. However, the espousal of such values jars with current proposals to extend the period that alleged terrorists may be held without charge (from 28 to 42 days) – from a prime minister, Gordon Brown, who was never elected by the people.

The truth is that the sources of self-styled Islamist terrorism are more likely to be found within our own shores and within our own communities as anywhere else. It may be more likely, for now, that British Asians will act upon these ideas – with the benefit of an enhanced sense of victimhood that they may have picked up within the British education system. But as the steadily increasing number of white faces appearing on the counterterrorism radar suggests, this need not necessarily be true for much longer.

If this sounds rather harsh, let me illustrate what I mean by way of an example. A good friend of mine recently spent a day in the law faculty of a prestigious British university. The distinguished professor she spent time with advised her that nowadays students are not the same as they once were. They were no longer expected to read numerous books, write long essays or memorise case law. Rather, they are presented with handouts of Powerpoint presentations to read and they keep a weblog of their activities.

That evening, my friend attended the Islamic society meeting in the same university. There, she encountered many of the same students she had met earlier in the day (when they had been disinterestedly sending texts on their mobile phones during the law seminars). Now, however, the students appeared eager to learn. The cleric who ran the meeting expected them to recall specific lines from the Koran and to be familiar with all aspects of Islamic jurisprudence.

Maybe somebody should ask Jacqui Smith who here is the ‘radicalising’ influence? Is it the foreign mullah who ran the evening class, demanding attention and commanding respect, or was it the jaded Western intellectual who deep down believes that there is no truth that can be taught, that not too much should be expected of young people nowadays, and who in any case would not wish to damage their ‘self-esteem’ through challenging them in class?

I use this vignette to suggest that the roots of so-called ‘radicalisation’ are much wider and deeper than can be addressed by a prejudicially targeted programme focusing on ill-founded notions as to where such ideas might emanate from. Indeed, rather than targeting Muslim communities and monitoring Islamic society meetings, the authorities would be better off observing and monitoring their own contemporary culture.

Far from there being a layer of vulnerable young Muslims who are preyed upon by various hotheads, what we find, time and again, are passionate, intelligent and energetic individuals who somehow fail to find any meaning or purpose to their lives from within the confines of contemporary Western culture. Most of these are neither disconnected nor alienated from society, and rather than being ‘radicalised’ from the outside, they actively look for something to join. Nick Reilly, the supposed simpleton whose rudimentary device exploded in his face recently in Exeter, is proof that it is almost impossible to ‘recruit’ anyone of note into terrorism.

In short: a few, fairly intelligent people, deprived of a sense of purpose, will go looking for answers in radical Islam. These are Western people looking for some alternatives to the bankrupt intellectual and political culture around them. Those who are apparently ‘recruited’, on the other hand, are mostly idiots.

In focusing on so-called ‘extremists’ and ‘radicals’, the authorities and security agencies manage to miss that which lies right under their nose. What’s worse, the very language they use belies their own difficulty. By accusing someone of being ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’, they effectively give up on any attempt to address the content of what people supposedly believe, targeting instead the extent to which they are held to believe it. This is like saying, ‘I don’t care what it is you believe in, so long as it is not too much’, which in its turn is an admission that they themselves believe in nothing.

At a talk given to the Smith Institute in London on the evening of her announcement regarding the proposed ‘deredicalisation’ programme, Jacqui Smith suggested that ‘lacking a positive vision, al-Qaeda can only define itself by what it opposes’. Talk of projecting yourself on to others! She and her cronies would be better off outlining what kind of Britain it is that they do want to live in, rather than obsessing over a handful of dangerous idiots whose ideas and outlooks would seem entirely unimpressive were it not for the vacuum that they confront.

First published on spiked, 5 June 2008

History: it’s just one bloody thing after another

Having jettisoned political and historical frameworks, Michael Burleigh’s story of terrorism combines a lack of insight with excessive prejudice about curry-eating loyalists and headbutting Glaswegians.

In a recent interview for the Guardian’s education supplement, historian and writer Michael Burleigh suggested that his decision to leave academia five years ago, after stints, amongst others, at New College Oxford and the London School of Economics, was driven by a determination not to ‘become a guru-like figure’, ‘who surrounded himself with cronies’ and ended up creating ‘clones’ (1).

Judging by his latest book, Blood and Rage – A Cultural History of Terrorism, a more likely explanation is that such is the impoverished nature of his arguments that the only people who were prepared to listen were either cronies or clones. So, while describing women in burqas as ‘black sacks’, or suggesting that ‘headbutting one another’ is ‘a national (sic) pastime in Glasgow’, may appeal to a certain juvenile sense of humour, it is unlikely to endear him to those, as yet un-cloned, constituencies he might wish or need to influence.

One can only presume that he does not care. Over the course of 486 pages on the emergence and development of terrorism, which begins with nineteenth-century Fenians, Nihilists and Anarchists, ends with al-Qaeda, and takes in Italy’s Red Brigades and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang on the way, there is very little in the way of analysis. Indeed, he openly declares a desire to focus on ‘actions rather than theories’. But in the absence of analysis, his bombastic and belligerent asides become not just tedious – they encourage suspicion as to his reading of events.

It makes for a grating experience. Reading Blood and Rage reminded me of the great Cambridge historian Sir Herbert Butterfield’s famous aphorism – memorably adapted by Alan Bennett in his 2004 play The History Boys – that history is ‘just one bloody thing after another’. Sounding like a breathless and overexcited child who has just come back from a school trip, Burleigh delivers to the reader an un-insightful and somewhat random list of things that happened. Nowhere, other than in a short passage by Nelson Mandela, is there any attempt to explain how ideas and events may be shaped by context or will.

What really betrays Burleigh’s approach is the subtitle to his book: ‘A Cultural History of Terrorism’. That is, it’s history with the society and politics taken out. With no attempt to engage with the ideas and aspirations that motivated his assorted protagonists, be it the Basque ETA or Algeria’s FLN, or any attempt to appreciate the circumstances in which groupings found themselves, it is little wonder that Burleigh’s narration appears as a sequence of inexplicable events. Burleigh is left instead with just their actions to describe – mysterious, dangerous and impenetrable.

Annoyingly, this also means that even a reactionary like Burleigh effectively lets those who resort to acts of terror off the hook. To him they have become addicted to violence or, as he dubiously proposes, ‘are morally insane’, in which case they can hardly be held culpable.

With less sophistication and reason than the succession of mediocrities occupying the role of British home secretary, his rant continues, page after page after page. In the Daily Telegraph he continued his moan: ‘there are people in this country …who despise our way of life and seek to change it for all time.’ (2) But which people and what way of life?

Like many others, his prejudices encourage him to see such forces as largely emanating from far-flung places and foreign outlooks, in other words, ‘over there’. Yet closer scrutiny of his own invective would reveal to him the vast list of domestic enemies that exist among the ‘liberal elites’. These are variously castigated as ‘fervent human rights lawyers’, ‘loathsome academic[s]’, ‘fanciful journalists’, ‘celebrity useful idiots’ and other ‘well-to-do apologists’. He may have a point, but unable to engage with the breadth and depth of this cultural conflict on the homefront, he simply dismisses it and comes across as a grumpy old man.

At every turn, whether it is in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy, Germany or the UK, he resorts to the tired and trite notion that the roots of terror lie in the rapid expansion of higher education without a concomitant development of employment opportunities. This growth may well have presented him with students less sympathetic to his cheap caricatures of Northern Ireland’s loyalists as people whose ‘idea of an exotic meal was to add curry sauce to a bag of chips, while venturing as far as Tenerife for their first overseas holiday’. But this supposed explanation is unlikely to be ‘the actual source of anger on the part of young Muslims’, as he suggests on his website (3).

Almost inevitably, amidst so much manure, the odd flower of insight blooms. But his apercus could have resulted in a 20-page essay rather than a 500-page book. One of the most useful bits, stemming from his rampant, yet oddly anachronistic anti-left wing prejudices, is a useful section – unusual to books covering Islamist terrorism – detailing the role and barbarity of the Mujahideen in Bosnia, as well as how their actions were supported or ignored by Western radicals.

Elsewhere, he astutely describes terrorists as ‘juvenile fantasists’ and ‘self-styled victims’ whose ‘misdirected or frustrated altruism’ makes them ‘too eager to repudiate themselves’ through their actions, hoping thereby to ‘overcome the boredom and purposelessness of their own lives’.

He also usefully debunks many illusions as to the supposed uniqueness of the threats we face today – simultaneous attacks, suicide bombings, bomb-making manuals, training camps and the targeting of information networks – as well as the overreaction of the authorities to these threats. His detailing of the sheer number and intensity of terrorist attacks in the not too distant past also acts as a reality check.

Yet, despite seeing through Islamism as a pose, he is still driven, through his refusal to see the origins and parallels for this within the West, to describe the contemporary crop of self-styled Islamist losers, plotting terrorist outrages from their bedrooms in east London, as somehow presenting ‘an existential threat to the whole of civilisation’. This seems like a tall order, but one somehow befitting a former academic left howling to the barking of Barking.

Senior figures in the world of national security today call for a new narrative of resilience to be developed in the face of these supposed threats. It is possible that Burleigh may seem to them to offer a little of what they need. But while history is always contested, his story is simply a fanciful myth, unable to engage or captivate a broader community, as real resilience and proper history would.

In the end, Burleigh abdicates all responsibility by suggesting that ‘the battle with jihadism will only be won by Muslims themselves’. In fact, he laments that ‘it is difficult to see how things can be rectified’, comparing contemporary counterterrorism initiatives to an endless game of ‘whack a mole’. Unable to engage in, let alone win, the battle of ideas, as has happened before, Burleigh will simply be left alone with his cronies and his clones.

Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, by Michael Burleigh is published by Harper Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

(1) Michael Burleigh: The reluctant guruGuardian, 11 March 2008

(2) See Michael Burleigh’s website here.

(3) Actions speak loudest to terrorists, Mr Brown Telegraph, 15 November 2007

First published on spiked, 30 May 2008

Death of the warrior ethos

Weaving a path from Achilles to Rambo via Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Christopher Coker’s insightful new book captures the increasing demonisation of war – even ‘good wars’ – and the denigration of honour, duty and glory.

In his 1998 BBC Reith lectures, ‘War and Our World’, the military historian and journalist John Keegan described war as ‘collective killing for a purpose’ (1). It is hardly surprising, then, that societies in which a spirit of solidarity has been diminished, the necessity to fight dismissed, and attempts to impart a sense of direction or meaning discredited, are unable to celebrate their wars and their warriors.

Primarily, of course, it is the ‘killing’ part of Keegan’s definition that contemporary societies feel uncomfortable with, or reject outright, rather than the ‘collective’ or ‘purpose’ elements, which many would dearly like to rediscover while remaining sceptical about some of their earlier incarnations. But it is precisely the absence of these latter factors that have served to create confusion about the former.

Anyone wishing to pay tribute to warriors today, or to compose a paean to war as ‘a test of, and testament to, a nation’s resilience’, would be ill-advised to do so. Christopher Coker, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, has done the next best thing. His book The Warrior Ethos, while imbued with a sense of loss, also appropriately captures the ambivalence and ambiguity of our times.

Despite copious notes and references, this is far from being an academic text. In parts The Warrior Ethos feels more poetic than polemic, as Coker endeavours to weave a path from Achilles to Rambo via Shakespeare and Tolstoy. His sense that the spirit of an age can be captured through its literature and culture, rather than historical and political analysis alone, proves most rewarding, especially in revealing what has changed.

It is not simply a lost world that is unravelled, but lost words, too. ‘Honour’, ‘Duty’ and ‘Glory’ lose their meaning, and their use, if we forget the past, dismiss the present and refuse to face up to the future. ‘Heroism’, stripped of its subjective factor, appears merely to be bred-in, or institutionalised. Alternatively it is pathologised, as a self-serving and dangerous obsession, or worse, as the sad struggle of trauma victims.

Henry V’s decisive defeat of the French at Agincourt in 1415, as well as Shakespeare’s account of it with the infamous ‘band of brothers’, can now be portrayed as being about people suffering from ‘a centuries-old “deception” about the glory of war’. Inverting this new orthodoxy, Coker reveals brilliantly how ‘we tend to deprive them of the fullness of their lives in order to support and sustain the smallness of our own’.

It is our contemporary construction of events that can transform these historic episodes from being ‘full of meaning’ to being seen as a ‘futile waste’. In that sense, the postmodern disposition towards not taking anything too seriously is quite disabling, even in the absence of any enemy we may face. But we should be clear, that this ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ (2), stems from an interpretation of the world rather than being inherent.

‘All of us in the Western world come from a culture which doubts its own first principles’, rails Coker. So freedom must be fought for afresh in each generation. Stuggle, too, despite its rejection by those of sensitive dispositions, is also a necessity in nature. ‘Only in the last thirty years have we begun to imagine living at peace with nature’, he notes, yet increasing numbers seem to be forgetting this at their peril.

War, like all struggles, is transformative, both for the individuals concerned and for society. Little wonder then, that societies which – despite their rhetoric – fear change, rejecting the uncertainties it creates and endlessly seeking to control risks, should have such qualms about it. Fighting forces them to take a view of the future, regardless of whether they prefer the present or believe in any particular cause.

This transcendental element of existence is most acutely felt by warriors, who are asked to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the ‘greater good’ – another unfashionable concept, and one invoked by The Military Covenant that has only relatively recently been codified and released (3). But again, a ‘greater good’ presumes a ‘collective’ with a sense of ‘purpose’, despite these being noticeable by their absence today.

Coker does not romanticise killing, although, like a recent report accusing the British Army of glamorising warfare (4), he notes a growing reluctance in military circles to use the ‘K’ word. The preference for euphemisms, such as ‘engage’ or ‘suppress’, can rightly be interpreted as defensive. As in animal testing laboratories, when researchers avoid the ‘K’ word, or claim to prioritise ‘welfare’, their evasion allows opponents to run riot.

It was enlightened modernity itself that put paid to Homeric heroes such as Achilles who, living in an unfettered Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, could go about butchering their opponents with little sense of remorse. The modern warrior is accountable to society, choosing to fight for a shared interest. We are not driven mindlessly into feuds through genetic blood ties, but determine our course by our own reason.

But society, suggests Coker, by sanctioning its warriors’ actions, simultaneously removes the determination of their destiny from them. This suppression of the one to the many works so long as there are many who wish to be one, and so long as all parties trust one another and themselves. If these bonds are broken, a vast array of legal codes is imposed upon would-be warriors to patrol their actions and even their thoughts.

In addition, the American cultural historian Paul Fussell suggests that the attenuation of religious belief in the modern world contributed to making modern war and especially death much harder to bear than in the past (5). ‘How does a society cope with death when it no longer dreams of eternity?’ asks Coker, noting how it has been turned into a risk to be avoided, thereby robbing it, and life, of their significance.

The error is to measure life in terms of risk at all. Life, argued Freud, loses its interest when death may not be risked (6). Another way to put it is that there is more to life than mere existence through risk management. As Coker argues, ‘Reason serves the passions; it doesn’t suppress them.’ Yet, in recent years, the military has tied itself in knots assessing risks, thereby encouraging its detractors to do likewise (7).

Take one example, the tragic deaths from gunshot wounds of four young soldiers at the Princess Royal Barracks in Deepcut, England, between 1995 and 2002. This has now led to, by one count, 17 separate inquiries, including those by members of parliament, the Ministry of Defence, the Official Review, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and a two-year independent review of the various re-investigations (8). No wonder the military feels paralysed.

Meanwhile, the West’s enemies in the ‘war on terror’ claim to embrace death. But suicide bombers are not warriors, proposes Coker, because they are not accountable to society. The problem here is to take them at face value, or to view them as that different to us in the first place. It is not just the Ummah that is not consulted nowadays, but the self-disenfranchised millions in Western democracies, too.

Maybe, in the absence of a cohering society, we are all afflicted by a form of nihilism to some degree. Coker cites Nate Fick in his memoir of the Second Gulf War exclaiming: ‘Death before dishonour. Marines tattoo it on their forearms, but these fuckers [the Iraqis] live it.’ (9) Other, more dispassionate observers, however, characterise self-styled jihadists as making a lot of noise but saying very little, and as having a passion for self-publicity.

Image influences reality, but is limited too, notes Coker. He sees how today’s ‘Jarheads’ are more likely to style themselves upon one-dimensional Hollywood heroes, hip hop and the lyrics of Marilyn Manson, than to have read or appreciated the psychological depth of Greek epic poetry, and bemoans the ‘bad ass’ influence within the US military of those for whom Tupac Shakur is a more familiar figure than Abraham Lincoln (10).

This is a lazy caricature, for while not describing Iraqis as ‘motherfuckers’ or themselves as ‘cool because we’re so good at blowing shit up’, it is the elites who are confused in the current period. They fail to lead for lack of purpose or belief in themselves. And contrary to Coker’s assertions, films do capture mythical dimensions and transcendence, as epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Pan’s Labyrinth prove.

He is also in danger of overstating the role of technology. Coker seems mesmerised by the world of cybernetic warriors and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Quite how much he knows of the ‘hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis’ is anybody’s guess. True, such developments impact on the conduct of war, but it is the loss of confidence in humanity that drives these developments, rather than the other way around.

Technology need not erode tradition and myth, as he suggests. If, for myth, we read a self-affirming narrative that inspires, instructs, enables and connects, as he proposes, then this necessitates the engagement of human passions. For tradition, we could prioritise the truth, as we see it, one that has to be fought for and engaged with, not just imparted. This is the business of politics, not technology or management.

‘Theory’, wrote Marx, ‘becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses’ (11). It is the inability of the elites today to appreciate the material power of ideas, let alone fight for them, that leave them unarmed, looking to technology or management to fill the gap. Ensuring ideas ‘grip the masses’, and become the truth, combining objective evidence with subjective will, is a labour of love entirely alien to them.

There is a real irony, then, in the US military having now introduced a ‘Warrior Ethos’ programme across its force, from basic training to the Army War College, to remind its personnel as to what is expected of them. Like ‘citizenship classes’ in the UK, this seems doomed to fail where it is most needed – at the level of lived ethos as opposed to paper exercises where, unlike on the battlefield, targets are readily met.

The British military is not immune to such instrumental trends. Reports highlight how a career in the Armed Forces ‘equips people with skills and qualifications that can be transferred to civilian life’ (12), or provide ‘an opportunity that may have been denied in civilian life’ (13). In general, the approach is one that emphasises what people can get out of the military, rather than what they will need to give.

Unsurprisingly, then, with such confusion at large across society, as well as embedded in the ranks of the military, Coker identifies how a ‘Therapy Culture’ further confuses matters. It acts as an ‘invitation to infirmity’, he proposes, noting ‘we heal psychic wounds when we are able to give meaning to our experiences. Clearly, if an experience is deemed ‘meaningless’, then ‘so is the pain and suffering that results’.

We are now a long way away from George C Scott’s portrayal of the great American General, George Patton. Talking about war at the start of the 1970 movie, he is depicted as confessing, ‘I love it. God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life’. Nowadays, it is journalists who self-depict themselves as the real heroes of war, risking it all in search of ‘the truth’ and without killing anyone to boot (14).

There is no glory in killing but, as Plato reminds us, ‘What makes us human … is not nature or nurture but our capacity to rise above both’. If we do not want, as Nietzsche warned, to find the abyss looking into us when we look into it (15), then it is high time we were reminded of these few basic truths. The fight for truth and for freedom is essential, and Coker’s book goes some way towards highlighting this.

The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror by Christopher Coker is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

First published on spiked, 29 February 2008

(1) War and Our World: The Reith Lectures 1998, John Keegan, Hutchinson, 1998, p.2

(2) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard, Manchester University Press, 1984, p.xxiv

(3) Soldiering – The Military Covenant, Army Doctrine Publication Volume 5, 2000

(4) Informed Choice? Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom, David Gee, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, 2007

(5) The Bloody Game: An Anthology of Modern Warfare, Paul Fussell, Scribner, 1991, p.24

(6) Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, Paul Ricoeur, New Haven, 1970, p.329

(7) Informed Choice?, op. cit.

(8) Breaking the Covenant: Governance of the British Army in the Twenty-First Century, Anthony Forster, International Affairs, 2006, Vol.82, No.6, p.1048

(9) One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, Nathaniel Fick, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p.82

(10) Generation Kill: Living Dangerously on the Road to Baghdad with the Ultra-Violent Marines of Bravo Company, Evan Wright, Bantam 2004

(11) A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx, 1844

(12) Ministry of Defence Responds to Independent Report ‘Informed Choice?’ on Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the UK, Government News Network, 7 January 2008

(13) House of Commons Defence Committee, Duty of Care (Vol.1), The Stationery Office 2005, p.5-6

(14) This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Line of the War on Terrorism, Andrew Exum, Gotham, 2005, p.233

(15) Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886

Gordon Brown’s state of terror

The UK prime minister’s vision for counterterrorism would involve reorganising the whole of society around precaution and fear.

The British prime minister’s announcement of new security measures, and his promotion of wide-ranging new partnerships to root out extremism in the United Kingdom, confirms that counterterrorism is fast becoming one of the main organising principles of society in the twenty-first century.

Gordon Brown used the annual security statement to parliament to announce a wide range of new proposals for combating terrorism. In a packed House of Commons, he presented both hard measures – increased surveillance, checks, barriers and monitoring – as well as softer ones designed to win the hearts and minds of those who might be tempted by terror.

On the same day, a related article by him in the tabloid Sun newspaper, entitled ‘I need YOUR help to beat terrorists’, sought to drive the message home. This was, he proposed, ‘a generation-long challenge’, that would require a partnership ‘with everyone’. He concluded, for those who had still not absorbed the breadth or gravity of the situation, with a piece of over-inflated, pseudo-Churchillian prose exhorting us to ‘fight street by street, community by community and year by year’.

But his actual proposals look anything but brave or combative. Rather, they are a concession and a gift to the handful of nihilistic, self-styled, radical Islamists, fantasists and wannabe terrorists whose actual impact on British life, were it not for such grandiose and vacuous security responses, remains largely marginal.

In fact, Brown’s mantra on the need for ‘physical barriers’ is the perfect metaphor for the authorities’ inability to tackle this limited threat either intellectually or emotionally. Unwilling to believe that the nation is not about to crumble in a heap of cowering vulnerability, and unable to provide any grand vision of why British society is worth defending, Brown hides behind steel doors and blast-proof windows.

Last summer, after failed attempts by alleged al-Qaeda sympathisers to detonate gas canisters at a London nightclub and Glasgow Airport, the new prime minister, less than 24 hours in the post, asked the former head of defence intelligence and the Navy, Sir Alan West, to conduct a review of security in public places. Sir Alan’s report back, now in his new capacity as Labour minister for security, formed a key part of these proposals, arguing, amongst other things, for the designing, or redesigning, of public spaces and buildings – specifically airports, major railway stations, shopping centres and sports facilities – to deter future terrorists, or to mitigate their possible impact.

As I have argued on spiked before, this focus on managing risks, rather than projecting a sense of positive purpose, reflects a defeatist attitude that can only encourage those who would want to have a go. This outlook deflects society from clarifying and pursuing any grand broader aims and objectives (see Britain’s bunker mentality, by Bill Durodié). Turning ourselves into some kind of Fortress Britain offers an easy win to the small number of cack-handed idiots we truly confront. Bombing civilisation out of existence is an impossible task, but turning society in on itself has been achieved far too easily.

Now, according to the new proposals, planners and architects will be required to consider their designs from a counterterrorist perspective, relocating windows to reduce the risk should they shatter, placing obstacles on pavements to prevent vehicle-borne devices and not building underground car parks – a restriction guaranteed to warm the heart of many environmentalists. In fact, such buildings have successfully been designed previously. They were called castles. But whilst functional, they were never the emblems of a free and open society such as ours.

Such measures have not been forced upon us through the activities of hardened terrorists – the prime minister noted in his speech that ‘no major failures in our protective security have been identified’. It is the new ethos of precaution that has been adopted throughout government that is driving these proposals. In effect, this argues that in all instances of uncertainty or doubt, society should be reorganised along the lines of the worst that might happen, applying an ‘act first, find the evidence later’ principle of organisation.

Far from suffering from ‘a failure of imagination’, the criticism levelled at the US security services by the 9/11 Commission report, it would seem now that officials and politicians seem keen to imagine rather too much. ‘Terrorism can hit us anywhere from any place’, argued Brown in the Sun. As such limitless possibilities might mean attacks beyond the major public buildings and places his security minister’s report addressed, the prime minister, in his speech to the Commons, also offered ‘updates’, ‘more detailed advice’ and ‘greater vigilance’ for other, less prominent places, such as shops, schools, hospitals and places of religious worship.

This support will be backed up by guidance and training from 160 counter-terrorism advisers who will clearly have very busy jobs. To help them in their thankless task of spreading the Gospel of Doom across the entire nation, local authorities will also now be mandated, as part of their performance framework, to assess the measures they have taken to counter terrorism. Judging by the way such targets tend to be usurped by those who are called upon to enact them, it is likely that any minor act, such as watering the hanging flower baskets that adorn many city centres, will now be counted as a possible opportunity for deterring terror.

More insidiously, Brown hopes to engage young people in opposing so-called ‘extremist influences’ not just in schools and colleges – which, over recent years, have already been turned into social engineering outlets – but also ‘through the media, culture, sport and arts’. The British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sport England, Tate Britain and Arts Council England have already signed up to such initiatives.

Once upon a time, it was just the former education secretary, Charles Clarke, who thought that ‘education for its own sake is a bit dodgy’. Now, it appears, Gordon Brown and others are proposing we all go much further than that. Culture for its own sake, sport for its own sake and the arts for their own sake, without a good dose of anti-radicalisation thrown in for good measure, are all a bit dodgy, too, it would seem.

In short, British society is to be reorganised around precaution and the fear of terrorism. Everything we do, from the buildings we use to the ideas that are taught, will be informed by the risk of a handful of nihilistic nutters blowing us all to smithereens. Society will be built – often literally – in fear of the uncommon enemy rather than to further the common good.

A youth panel to advise the government was also announced. By this logic, it is the government that is in need of support. That may not be too far from the truth. Lord West has already had to make an embarrassing U-turn regarding his endorsement, or not, for longer periods of detention without trial. West explained away his unfortunate public disagreement with the prime minister as the act of a ‘simple sailor’.

While the UK government is keen on advising President Musharraf of Pakistan as to the need to end his state of emergency, the British authorities will nevertheless seek to use their own set of emergency powers to achieve the goal of holding suspects without charge for longer than is currently allowed. Without some kind of permanent emergency in Britain today, there would be little to talk about.

First published on spiked, 15 November 2007

Suicide Bombers vs Sexual Abusers: A Battle of Depravity or Western Fixations?

Abstract: In this paper, originally presented as a talk to “The Barbarisation of Warfare” conference, held at the University of Wolverhampton on 27–28 June 2005, I indicate that if warfare is perceived as barbaric today – possibly more so than in the past – then this has more to do with our subjective confusion as to the purpose and direction of contemporary society, as well as the conflicts produced by it, than by any objective index of barbarism. While all sides in recent conflicts appear to have behaved in a degenerate or degrading manner to one another, it is worth noting that much of this perception stems from a Western inability to comprehend suicide as sacrifice, due to the demise of purpose and commitment, as well as a refusal to confront the corrosion and corruption of Western culture, and in particular the confusion and conflation of the public–private divide, driven from the top of society down. Unfortunately, a well-meaning but moralistic focus on acts of barbarism has encouraged a less than critical mindset to develop, which seeks affirmation in particular events, irrespective of evidence. This approach also fails to build a robust and effective political challenge to those who have argued for Western intervention in the affairs of other states. Indeed, these two outlooks can often exist side-by-side, thereby revealing their inner bankruptcy.

Suicide Bombers v Sexual Abusers: A Battle of Depravity or Western Fixations? Security Journal, Vol.20, No.3, pp.146-157, July 2007