Terrorism and post-traumatic stress disorder: a historical review

Summary: Terror is a psychological state. Historically, most studies of terrorism focused on its societal purpose and structural consequences rather than mental health effects. That emphasis began to change shortly before the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A vast expansion of research into post-traumatic stress disorder accompanied revisions to the classification of mental health disorders. The effect of terrorist incidents on those people now deemed vulnerable, both directly and indirectly, was actively sought. However, a review of more than 400 research articles (mostly published after Sept 11) on the association between terrorism and mental health reached the largely overlooked conclusion that terrorism is not terrorising—at least not in a way that causes a greater than expected frequency of post-traumatic stress disorder than other traumatic events. This conclusion is surprising given the emphasis on the psychological effects of terrorism in political discourse, media commentary, contemporary culture, and academic inquiry. Authorities might prefer to encourage an interpretation of terrorist incidents that highlights fortitude and courage rather than psychological vulnerability.

Durodie, B., Wainwright, D (2019) Terrorism and post-traumatic stress disorder: a historical review, Lancet Psychiatry, Volume 6, Issue 1, P61-71, 1 January 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30335-3

People aren’t defeated by terrorism

Our study suggests communities are more resilient than we think.

So soon after Mental Health Awareness Day (or Week for those in the US), it may appear a tad churlish to draw attention to the dangers of over-diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But a study conducted with my colleague, Dr David Wainwright, of the department for health at the University of Bath, and published today in The Lancet Psychiatry, does just that.

Our purpose is not to upset people, but to review the history of academic inquiry into the association between terrorism and mental health. To do so we first compiled a list from psychological and medical databases of all the research literature we could find that linked those concepts together. After removing less relevant papers, we were left with some 330 articles, all of which were read and analysed.

The first notable element of this exercise was quite how recent the tendency to look for any such connection is. Terrorism, historically, has more often been interpreted through a political prism, or one seeking to address physical damage. Any focus on individual health in the past was mostly statistical or surgical.

That changed shortly before the terrorist attacks of 2001, reflecting the growing recognition of PTSD after 1980 and its redefinition by the American Psychological Association in 1994, as well as an evolving social and cultural climate more attuned to psychological damage.

Most of the pieces we reviewed appeared after 9/11, but there was an emerging interest in the field driven by earlier incidents in Omagh (1998), Oklahoma and Tokyo (1995), as well as Israel, both during and after the first Gulf War (1991). VIDEO‘The establishment uses Twitter to demonise the public’ – Brendan O’Neill vs Ash SarkarSPIKED

Aside from PTSD, we noted a new emphasis on the impact of so-called indirect exposure to such events, through the media (primarily television), as well as an understandable focus on the effects on children.

The most striking lesson we drew was that terrorism isn’t terrorising – at least not in the sense that most researchers looked for, in terms of it causing rates of PTSD greater than from any other potentially traumatic event (typically less than five per cent for civilian populations). That ought to be a cause for celebration.

But it was not how the evidence was reported. Instead, across a range of high-profile, peer-reviewed journals, we found studies that subtly stretched what was looked for. Unable to confirm PTSD through asking a limited set of questions (often by means of telephone surveys staffed by volunteers with little training, and sometimes too soon after events to count as PTSD), researchers reported instead on finding what they then variously described as ‘pre-PTSD’ or ‘PTSD symptoms’.

To label the finding of a few symptoms from the then standard PTSD checklist of 17 items as being ‘partial PTSD’ or ‘spectrum PTSD’ is as unhelpful as my proposing that headaches and vomiting are pre-bubonic plague symptoms. It confuses matters and conflates data in a way that can only raise unnecessary anxiety and concerns. PODCASTWeed, cigarettes and Irn-Bru, with Julia Hartley-BrewerSPIKED

Why did this happen and what are the consequences? Well, we certainly do not propose that anybody misrepresented their data. Rather, we suggest that the cultural mood is such today as to predispose people to look for mental-health impacts and to not notice even when their evidence may point the other way.

Examples of people relying on their own social and community networks to recover were read as reflecting a lack of awareness about psychological services rather than what they truly were – signs of resilience. It does not help the minority who truly need such support when many more are referred for counselling. The vast majority of people continued about their everyday lives relatively unimpaired and in many instances defiant.

Suggestions of media effects at a distance are also inaccurate. Indeed, several who suggested these at the time later altered their views. Watching television at such times can be evidence of an active search for understanding and meaning. Social media can build elements of community. But unfortunately, it was often the earlier claims that have continued to be reported.

Of course, some children ought to have their TV viewing curtailed. But that has more to do with establishing parental authority – a social factor – than avoiding media or medical effects that are deemed inevitable. Children ought to be afforded special protections by adult society. But that ought not lead to treating us all like infants.

Overall, we concluded, the evidence pointed to a considerable degree of coping with extreme adversity. And this was despite a dominant social narrative often promoted by politicians and officials, as well as media commentators and academics, to the effect that terrorism is somehow bound to impact our mental wellbeing adversely.

If anything, this shows some limits to those who presume that language or discourse can significantly shape or determine our existence. Researchers, particularly in Israel, noted the possibility for post-traumatic growth at such times, as well as the problematic deployment of the PTSD label, as a call for resources or professional intervention.

Europe and America, they averred, within which such individualised mental-health categories arose, are particularly obsessed with the self. In fact, we are all constructs of families and communities. So a proper understanding of mental health requires a greater appreciation of culture and its transformation over recent times.

It is time for government, academics and commentators to focus on what really happens at such times and to stop emphasising a narrative of vulnerability. This reflects their own insecurities more than it does the insecurities of those affected by adversity.

Read the full study here.

First published on spiked, 17 October 2018.

Salisbury: are we any closer to the truth?

The government’s diplomatic errors have knocked its credibility with the public.

The Salisbury spy-poisoning saga has exposed a crisis of diplomacy and coherence at the heart of the British establishment, and it has raised the question of how people come to determine what is true and what is not. How do we know what we know? And how do we form a diplomatic position in the absence of complete information? These are important philosophical and political questions. But here they have been wielded, by Russia, to deflect accusations that the Kremlin ordered the killing of Sergei Skripal, and, by the British government, to cast doubt on Russia’s claims.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson has come under fire for suggesting that the evidence pointing to Russia was stronger than it actually is. In turn, he has accused opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of falling for Russia’s supposed disinformation campaign. Corbyn asked for clarification from the government after Gary Aitkenhead, the head of the UK government’s Porton Down chemical weapons facility, indicated in an interview that the provenance of the nerve agent used in the attempted murder in Salisbury could not be confirmed. All Porton Down has confirmed is that it was Novichok, a type of nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the dying days of the Cold War.

The government’s assertion, that Russia was probably behind it, is a political judgement, based on an assessment of who might have the motive and capability to pursue this (so far) botched assassination attempt. Scientific evidence is rarely enough to arrive at the truth in situations like this. Rather, societies ultimately interpret what is true in moments of uncertainty. The truth is what the majority determine it to be. This may be a majority of specialists and experts, or a majority of the public.

Politicians can seek to shape public opinion but they cannot assert it. And the government’s ill-measured statements on Russia’s alleged culpability have made its position far harder in this respect. Prime minister Theresa May has asserted that there are only two possible conclusions to draw from the Salisbury incident – that either the Kremlin was behind the assassination attempt or it had lost control of its chemical-weapons stock. Both hold Russia responsible, either directly or indirectly. And Russia was given only 24 hours to answer this charge.

But as many have noted, there are many other possibilities. Ignoring the Russian suggestion that scientists from Porton Down may have been involved, other actors could well have been. As the BBC has identified, there were Novichok stocks in Uzbekistan in the 1990s, which US agents were involved in clearing up. Equally, it is not impossible to consider Ukraine having access to Novichok stocks and a motive for killing Skripal. By limiting the spectrum of possibilities, the PM stretched her own credibility.

Another government miscommunication came in the form of a tweet from the Foreign Office, since deleted, that incorrectly suggested that Porton Down had identified the source of the nerve agent. The Foreign Office claims this was based on a misrepresentation of the words of their ambassador in Moscow, whose comments were being live-tweeted. Either way, sufficient confusion on this issue has been cast by the British side, let alone by Russia, to leave the public unsure about what to believe.

Infuriatingly for those who argue that, post-Brexit, we live in a post-truth age, it is societies that ultimately determine what is true in situations like this. Truth is arrived at in politics through a process of deliberation and engagement between leaders and their publics over fundamental moral and strategic values. And this is a process that the British state is increasingly ill-prepared and ill-equipped to pursue.

First published on spiked, 5 April 2018

Why vigils aren’t enough

Our response to terror attacks has become increasingly therapeutic.

‘Despair is suffering without meaning’, proffered Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in an interview once. In his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he paraphrased Nietzsche to the effect that: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ So, in gauging how people in Manchester and across the UK pursue their lives in the trail of the nihilistic attack on the Manchester Arena last Monday, as well as in the aftermath of other recent attacks, it ought to be to the question of meaning and purpose that we all turn.

I once interviewed two Singaporean citizens who had been caught up in the incidents in Mumbai in November 2008. Ten supposed affiliates of a Pakistani Islamist group had pursued a coordinated series of bombings and murderous attacks across the city over a period of four days, killing 164 people and wounding 308. The company the Singaporeans worked for asked me to speak to them to offer support – if any were needed – beyond that to be provided by their government.

I thought long and hard about how best to go about the task and determined to keep my questions simple and objective: When did you fly out? What were you there for? What did you do that day? When did you first notice something was wrong? What did you do then? What happened next? How did you get out? At the end I left an opening for them to contact me again should they want to.

Many might imagine that asking ‘Were you affected by anything you experienced?’ would have been somewhat more sensitive. But in whatever way they would have answered, the power of suggestion could then readily have elicited manifestations of psychosomatic trauma in them at a later date. Our minds work in mysterious ways. Singapore suffered its first ever fatality at the hands of terrorists during those attacks and so the media were keeping the matter salient in the popular imagination. It was to the media’s credit, though, that they did so in a considerably less protracted, shrill or emotional way than I have witnessed elsewhere after similar incidents.

Both of my respondents had spent many hours cooped up in their rooms at one of the hotels that was attacked, the Oberoi, before being freed. One had focused variously on his faith and on his family during his time there. The other had made some rather dangerous, if somewhat understandable, decisions – first trying to escape down a smoke-filled stairwell and then almost being unable to find his way back to his room before trying to smash the window open with an armchair and ultimately lacerating his leg on the fractured glass. Oddly, it was the need to stop the bleeding from this wound that then allowed him to remain calm and collected over the ensuing hours.

Frankl proposed that it is down to each individual to attribute an appropriate meaning to situations of adversity and that nobody else, however well intentioned, can do it for us. We may offer too much support and sympathy at such times. Emotional appeals from loved ones, concerned employers, the media, and government agents wanting to support their citizens, can cause additional stress and confusion during an emergency, as well as, in many instances, perpetuating suffering long after it.

‘Whatever you do, don’t give your name to any journalist’, my friend Simon Wessely, now the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told me following the London bombings in 2005. ‘They’ll never let it drop and will call you on every anniversary thereafter.’ People can and do forget. For many that really is the best option. Short-term anxieties rarely last.

Of course, participating in communal events like a mass vigil may seem positive to others, though I suspect that those who attend are mostly not those who are caught up in the incidents. Surveys showed inordinate numbers of people across the US claiming to have been affected by 9/11, even when their only exposure had been through the medium of television. Well-meaning as such gatherings and online statements of condolences may be, these can also be superficial and self-serving. Some turn it into an identity. We live in the age of virtue-signalling, after all. And if the best response to such incidents is to go about our lives as normal, as politicians assert at such times, then this is hardly normal.

Another friend of mine, sociologist and spiked contributor Frank Furedi, pointed out to me once that if the Israeli state held a few days of national mourning after every terror incident there, as the Spanish government did after the train bombings in Madrid in 2002, then at times it would be permanently closed down. Like it or not, the Jewish people have had to habituate to the circumstances they are in, supported maybe by a narrative of being God’s chosen people and of having endured suffering throughout their history. Of course, Palestinians also suffer there and their way of explaining this to themselves has also been through a narrative of resistance and future liberation.

At the beginning of 2001, before the attacks on New York and Washington, there had been a series of throwback incidents in Northern Ireland, as if from a time before the peace process. For weeks, hundreds of Loyalist protesters tried to stop young Catholic schoolgirls from traversing their Protestant enclave to reach the Holy Cross Primary School in Belfast. They hurled abuse, as well as urine-filled balloons and improvised grenades, at them. Police and soldiers had to escort the parents and terrified children through.

The school, as was already a growing norm then, offered the families counselling. There was no indication of what type of therapy this was to be or whether there would ever be any follow-up to verify if it had worked, so I later commissioned research to assess its effects.

What my collaborator discovered was that the girls most affected had been those with younger parents. These parents had been less able to situate the incidents within the political framework of the Troubles and communicate this to their children. To them, the violence appeared simply mindless and random. And this had left their daughters conceptually unarmed.

Encouragingly, there appear to be plenty in Manchester and beyond who are not afraid of articulating why what happened there did, and who are keen to show their defiance. Their framing can be rudimentary. It is certainly far less equivocal than that of the authorities who appear, as spiked’s Brendan O’Neill has noted, simply to offer vapid appeals for unity and harmony. But to not be angry at these events, argues O’Neill, is to be dead already.

Amazingly, at the height of the Mumbai attacks, one of the perpetrators used the mobile phone of someone he had just killed to conduct a live interview with newscasters at India TV. When the anchors asked him for his demands, he was heard putting the phone down and asking another of the attackers what these were. Almost nine years on, no one has yet articulated them. Not even those held to have planned and controlled those events from afar. That the so-called terrorists today have no explicit agenda or purpose, beyond carnage, is surely the element we should be exploiting the most. That is, so long as we are clear about our own.

Republished on spiked, 30 May 2017

Securitising Education to Prevent Terrorism or Losing Direction?

Abstract: This article examines the growing relationship between security and education, particularly in the light of the UK government’s Prevent Duty that seeks to tackle radicalisation in a variety of milieus, including universities. However, rather than seeing this process as being merely one-way, through a so-called securitisation of education (in the parlance of the Copenhagen School of International Relations), what is explored here is the dialectic between these two spheres. It is suggested that a heightened sensitivity to the supposed consequences of inflammatory rhetoric on the well-being of supposedly suggestible or vulnerable students has been in existence within education for quite some time. In that regard, the securitising efforts of politicians and officials are pushing against an open door. What’s more, it is proposed that the inability of the authorities to hold the line in support of absolute freedom of expression, within academia and beyond, tacitly encourages the very people the government would hope to detract.

Bill Durodie (2016) Securitising Education to Prevent Terrorism or Losing Direction?, British Journal of Educational Studies, 64:1, 21-35, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2015.1107023

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

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

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.


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

Message to the West: ‘know thyself’

Since 9/11, terrorists have lived like parasites off the already-existing disorientation of Western elites.

In his opening remarks to the latest US National Strategy for Counterterrorism, released in June, President Barack Obama notes that ‘to defeat al-Qaeda, we must define with precision and clarity who we are fighting’.

Ten years on from 9/11, then, it would appear that one of the key protagonists in what used to be known as the ‘war on terror’ (subsequently rebranded as the ‘long war against terrorism’ and now simply redefined as a ‘war on al-Qaeda’) is still busy attempting to identify and understand its enemy.

This speaks volumes about where the fundamental difficulties of the past decade, as well as the next one, may lie. For all the much-vaunted differences with his predecessor, President Obama comes across as just as confused as George W Bush. At a time when 9/11 was probably still just a twinkle in Osama bin Laden’s eye, Bush Jr addressed an audience at Iowa Western Community College, as part of his election campaigning. He expounded that: ‘When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was Us vs Them, and it was clear who Them was. Today, we are not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there.’

Perhaps both presidents Bush and Obama should have visited the fabled Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Ancient Greek warriors consulted the oracle in advance of engaging in a protracted conflict. In the temple forecourt the presidents could read the infamous inscription: ‘Know thyself.’

For 10 years, the world’s sole superpower has allowed one of its key strategies to be defined for it, and has also allowed itself to be buffeted around as its understanding of who the enemy is continually changed. As its locus of interest has shifted relentlessly – from terrorists and terrorism to states that may harbour terrorists to technologies that might facilitate terror – so America has consistently and unwittingly advertised to the world that wherever the ‘they’ lead, the US follows.

This is the very opposite of strategic vision. Such vision would require knowing what you are for, what your aims and ambitions are, even in the absence of having to respond to the presumed threats posed by external forces. Knowing your enemy is, of course, a necessity, but the primary task for any nation is to be clear about its own interests in the first place.

And so it is precisely a better understanding of Western culture – its conflicts and contradictions – that might have helped the US authorities appreciate the extent to which the trajectory they were about to embark on was born of their own internal confusions and incoherence.

Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and those who have sought to emulate them have also spoken of an inchoate rage against modernity that rapidly eclipsed the various Western anti-globalisation movements of the time. For all their purported claims to be representatives of others in the South and the East, the most striking thing about bin Laden et al was the extent to which their ideas were largely Western in origin. While being mindful to dress themselves and their language in Islamic garb, their complaints were predictable and had been well-rehearsed by others in the West. As I have put it before, ‘Islam was their motif, not their motive’.

Sadly, by imbuing these people’s puerile and purposeless violence with deeper meaning – to the point of even describing it as an ideology or an understandable reaction – countless international analysts both effectively absolved those involved of responsibility for their actions and helped encourage others to follow their lead.

But what these analysts often missed is that while the ‘war on terror’ may be 10 years old, for its real origins we need to go back at least another 15 years. In the mid-1980s the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, appeared dramatically to alter the rules of the Cold War through promoting the twin policies of glasnost and perestroika. He had little choice if he was to delay and soften the blow of his country’s impending implosion. The consequences were to prove just as dramatic for the West as for the East.

It was in this period – before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and while the CIA was still busy training the Mujahideen to assist them in rebutting the occupying Soviet forces in Afghanistan – that the need for Western elites to reorganise their own systems and ideologies first emerged. By the time Francis Fukuyama was celebrating ‘The End of History’ it was already becoming clear that the only force that had held conservative elites across the world together during the Cold War period was the supposed twin threat posed by Soviet Marxism and internal state socialism.

Without these forces, the old political right rapidly suffered intellectual exhaustion and then disintegrated, leaving the future up for grabs. In the 1990s there was a constant search for new enemies against which states – in danger of losing their own meaning and purpose – could cohere themselves.

But none of the new litany of demons – from the Contras in Nicaragua or General Aideed in Somalia, from Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia to Saddam Hussein in Iraq – could really live up to the caché of the military and material urgency that had been imposed by the Red Army. Ethical foreign policy came and went – invented by Tony Blair’s New Labour government and adopted later by the Bush administration.

It was in this period that the old remnants of the left, fearful of being consigned to the dustbin of history, embraced both the environmental movement and the politics of risk and precaution as a way of gaining legitimacy. Originally formulated in relation to addressing ecological problems, this rapidly spread to issues pertaining to public health, consumer safety and beyond. It provided a cohering framework in an age without one. And a key element of the precautionary outlook then being developed was the need for public officials to project worst-case scenarios for society to respond to.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s 1987 bestseller Risk Society was translated into English in 1992 and rapidly gained traction through its ability to reflect the emerging mood and policies.

An outlook shaped on the fringes of local authorities and supra-national bodies of marginal relevance soon became the new organising principle of the West. And what had, until then, been largely dismissed as an exercise in left-wing political correctness by the old right, was catapulted and transmogrified through the tragic events of 9/11.

Unwittingly, then, the new terrorists were both a product of these confusions, as well as inadvertently providing the authorities with a flimsy new purpose. Criticism of the West had long been around, but never before had it taken such a degraded form as in this post-political age.

In any other previous period of history, the actions of the Islamic radicals ought at best to have featured as minor disturbances in the footnotes of history. Only in an age schooled in presuming the worst in all eventualities could such mindless violence come to be seen as full of meaning and requiring an all-consuming response.

Ultimately, extremists are merely the extreme expression of mainstream ideas. Their ideas have to come from somewhere. And looking around at the dominant thinking of the post-Cold War world order, it is not too difficult to identify where some of the sources are.

Increasingly, we have become accustomed to presuming that we live in a peculiarly dangerous and uncertain age. Globalisation, which provides most of the benefits we often unconsciously enjoy, has come to be portrayed as the amoral steamroller and destroyer of humanity and history. Human beings are increasingly depicted as being both violent and degraded, as suffering from arrogance and ignorance, or as hapless and vulnerable victims needing constant therapeutic support by a range of experts. Little wonder that such a small coterie of fools, the terrorists who espoused these ideas in an extreme form, could have such strong purchase.

But by overemphasising the extremes, as we are now prone to do, we simultaneously underestimate the significance of the mainstream. Black swans happen but white swans remain far more frequent, and drift can be just as disabling as shock, if not more so.

The Enron crisis occurred at about the same time as 9/11 – and it also cost significantly more. This was soon followed by the collapse of Worldcom, and, years later, the 2008 world economic crash happened. Yet unlike other problems that have emerged over this period, there was never quite the same sense of urgency in addressing these issues. Maybe that’s because, at some deeper level, many world leaders know that they cannot be tackled without significantly more far-reaching measures that, despite the culture of precaution, they have studiously sought to avoid.

Despite the billions of dollars expended on the ‘war on terror’ thus far, the US and others are still far from understanding, not just what it is they think they are up against, but also themselves. Without such an understanding there can be little hope for positive progress and development. In the past, some believed they suffered from a US that was too confident and assertive in the world. Today, we see the legacy of a US that is both confused and ambivalent. And we don’t seem to be any better off.

First published on spiked, 8 September 2011