The West’s very own celeb terrorist

Whether he was droning on about climate change or consumption, OBL’s ‘ideas’ were born and bred in the West.

Soon after the death of Osama bin Laden had been announced to the world, 72-year-old Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir – the purported spiritual leader of the Islamist militant group Jemaah Islamiyah – issued a statement from his jail cell in Indonesia, where he faces trial for allegedly funding and organising terrorist camps. The statement, to the effect that ‘Osama’s death will not make al-Qaeda dead’, was designed to instill a sense of foreboding across south-east Asia.

But like all nobodies who hide their own uncertainties and weaknesses behind the words and deeds of supposed somebodies – in this case, behind the dread of al-Qaeda – Bashir simultaneously revealed his own lack of substance. This was apt, because bin Laden himself was always fond of citing Western commentators, academics and diplomats in seeking to legitimise his ostensible cause.

Sounding like any other contemporary critic of American policy, bin Laden droned on about a rag-bag of causes at different times: 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; suddenly became concerned about Palestine after 9/11; suggested that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were simply money-making ventures for large US corporations; and even had the gall – for one in thrall to the Taliban – to argue that Western advertising exploited women.

In this regard, bin Laden revealed his true nature through his statements – including his annual post-9/11 rants that became as boring and predictable as the British queen’s Christmas message. He was entirely parasitical on what was being said about him and about the state of world affairs in the West. After the Madrid bombings of 2004, he even proposed that Western leaders should pay more attention to surveys that revealed how few people supported the war in Iraq.

But what kind of spiritual leader is it who piggy-backs on Western opinion-poll data and the views of environmentalists to get his point across? Why did he advocate reading Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky, rather than the Koran? In truth, bin Laden was entirely lacking in any substantial ideas of his own, let alone anything that could amount to an ideology. More media-has-been than mujahideen after his escape from US forces in late 2001, bin Laden was the leader of nothing who became the quintessential celebrity terrorist of our times – unable even to control his own fans, never mind control the course of history.

Sadly, those who opposed him were just as devoid of principles of their own. Accordingly, across the political spectrum and in all countries, political leaders and officials who themselves lacked purpose and direction sought to justify their increasingly illiberal policies and actions on the basis of the need to defeat al-Qaeda. Bashir’s recent words of warning sound true because much the same point was made by President Obama in his address to the nation, as well as being echoed by the head of the CIA, the UK prime minister David Cameron, and countless others.

Without al-Qaeda, the global counterterrorism industry would find itself in a real quandary. Little wonder that there is such enthusiasm to reiterate the danger from radical Islam now. The fact that the recent transformations in the Middle East – heralded by some as an ‘Arab spring’ – made little to no reference to either Palestine, or bin Laden and al-Qaeda, makes not a jot of difference to the insights of the self-styled experts.

Far from representing the views and grievances of those in the East and South – whom he never consulted – bin Laden was always a product of the West. He jumped on every bandwagon like some demented blogger and echoed the Western self-loathing he found there. His words would then be picked up again by both followers and critics who lacked the courage to speak out for themselves but preferred instead to point to bin Laden’s empty threats as evidence of what Muslim frustrations and humiliations might lead to.

Instead of a clash of civilisations we had a war of gestures as every controversy in the West about cartoons, books – and now even celebrations – that might be deemed as offensive, were picked up on as further examples of the supposed victimisation of Muslims. This over-sensitivity to images and words only further exacerbated the situation, as whole populations were taught that they must never put up with being offended.

Many commentators, aside from implicitly supporting al-Qaeda’s cause by giving a nod to the simplistic notion that suffering, anger and resentment inevitably leads to terrorism, have also noted more critically how the group came to kill more Muslims than Americans through its actions. But this criticism suggests that if the figures had been skewed the other way, if fewer Muslims had been killed, then these commentators would have been somewhat more understanding towards bin Laden.

The solution frequently put forward to resolve matters has been to create de-radicalisation programmes. However, given that the clerics involved in such programmes share the same misgivings about the modern world as the people they’re supposed to be saving, one wonders if these initiatives could ever possibly be truly successful.

Most notable is the general presumption that the removal of bin Laden will somehow lead to a greater risk in the immediate future through the possibility of reprisal attacks that could occur against anyone, anywhere and at any time. This model is itself a construct of the contemporary culture of fear that exists in the West today, presuming that as one threat goes away, another steps in to fill the void.

Those who argue this way fail to note that while there may be aggrieved individuals at large, these people rarely target the symbols of imperial or racial oppression that are held to drive them. Rather, by lashing out at all manner of symbols of modernity – tall buildings, aeroplanes, shopping malls, night clubs – they reveal their frustrations to be a quite mainstream rejection of Western materialism, and not the religiously inspired attacks that so many commentators presume.

First published on spiked, 5 May 2011

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

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

Fear and Terror in a Post-Political Age

Abstract: Despite an investigation lasting almost a year there is still no clarity as to why the perpetrators of the London bombings of 2005 acted as they did. Many commentators projected their own views into the vacuum left by the terrorists. These ideas, ranging from revenge for British foreign policy to the logical outcome of social exclusion, may shape security and community-related policies adversely. This article suggests that the bombers reflected a wider sense of disgruntlement in contemporary culture, one that is largely home grown and inculcated. Exploring the recent development of this politics of alienation, and a concomitant search for identity and meaning, it is proposed that the biggest danger is to live in a society with no clear sense of direction or purpose.

Fear and Terror in a Post-Political Age, Government and Opposition, Vol.42, No.3, pp.427-450, July 2007

Is London still stressed out about 7/7?

A survey claiming that 11 per cent of Londoners were ‘substantially stressed’ by the bombings raises more questions than answers.

I have an interest to declare. My partner is one of those who lost a good friend in the terrorist bombings in London on 7 July 2005. Miriam Hyman was on the bus at Tavistock Square when the youngest of the suicide bombers, Hasib Hussain, detonated his device about an hour after the three other attacks on the London Underground.

Is my partner affected? Undoubtedly. Bereavement is painful, and it is felt individually in a way that few others can appreciate. Loss hurts. And loss of a young life brought about by such an ultimately pointless act as 7/7 can hurt even more (1).

So does my partner (a) feel upset when reminded of what happened; (b) have repeated thoughts about what happened; (c) have difficulty concentrating; (d) have trouble falling asleep; or (e) feel irritable or angry? Definitely. Yet now, answering ‘yes’ to having experienced any of these feelings in the aftermath of 7/7 indicates the presence of ‘substantial stress’, according to a team of researchers at King’s College and University College, London, in a survey conducted shortly after the 2005 attacks and now published in full.

Never mind the fact that most of us could answer ‘yes’ to at least (c), (d) and (e) every now and then – the conclusions of the research team, as presented in the British Journal of Psychiatry and reported in the Sun newspaper yesterday, are held to indicate that 11 per cent of the British population have suffered from persistent and substantial stress as a result of 7/7 (2).

The researchers first telephoned 1,010 Londoners 11 to 13 days after the 7/7 bombings and asked them about their feelings and thoughts; they then carried out a follow-up survey of 574 Londoners between seven and eight months after the bombings. In the first survey, they found that around a third of respondents were suffering from ‘substantial stress’ as a result of the bombings; by the time of the second survey, that had fallen to around 11 per cent of Londoners.

There seems to be a definitional problem in some of the language used. How upset does one need to be in order to be suffering from ‘substantial stress’? Using non-specific terms to explain an ill-defined concept like ‘stress’ is a formula that allows one to conclude pretty much anything, according to prevailing prejudices. The researchers themselves are not unaware of this problem. In their paper they argue: ‘It is reasonable to question whether our measure of substantial stress might have produced an artificially inflated prevalence estimate.’ (3) Tucked away in the ‘Limitations’ section of the paper, this caveat did not make the headlines.

If respondents answered yes to any of the questions (a) to (e) listed above, then they were judged to be suffering from ‘substantial stress’. Most said yes to the first question: ‘Do you feel upset when something reminds you of what happened?’ If you remove the yes responses to this question from the overall survey, then the percentage number of those who suffered from persistent and substantial stress falls from 11 per cent of the population to five per cent of the population.

It is somewhat surprising that the researchers, among the myriad questions they asked, did not enquire about the influence of media images and reporting of 7/7 on people’s views of the terrorist event. We are informed about the respondents’ age, gender, social class, working status, residential location, housing tenure, ethnicity, religion, income and parental status, but no mention is made of what media they follow and what kind of media images and claims they consumed post-7/7.

Those who have a link to individuals directly affected by the bombing will know that the constant reappearance of references to the attacks in the news, and particularly images of the blown-up bus (the other Underground incidents did not provide a similarly iconic image), often reminds them of what happened and leaves them feeling upset.

Feelings and perceptions are usually a poor guide for social research. For example, numerous surveys of both ordinary people and public figures in the US have consistently shown a high degree of expectation that there will be a terrorist attack in the coming months; such an attack has not come to pass. This shows that expectations can be wrong – and policy built on misplaced expectations can be disastrous.

As I have argued elsewhere, as more money has been spent on the ‘war on terror’, and as more measures are put in place to protect people from an allegedly big terrorist threat, the more people’s awareness about terrorism is raised and the more ‘stressed’ they seem to feel about it (4). Many in the British media and the authorities seem loathe to ‘let go’ of the 7/7 bombings, instead revisiting them as symbols of evil and as a justification for various legal measures. This institutionalisation of 7/7 and its effects no doubt has an impact on how people feel about the event. Could it be that society itself is prolonging the impact of terrorism on the population, by elevating terrorism to the main issue of the day and working from the presumption that it will have a long-lasting and damaging emotional impact on those who experience it?

At the same time, as the sociologist Frank Furedi has pointed out, people’s individual identities are increasingly fragile today. There is a widespread assumption that people are vulnerable and open to suffering from stress and other mental problems (5). It is notable, for instance, that those who took part in the 7/7 stress surveys were older and wealthier than non-respondents, and were less likely to have previously reported being stressed.

No doubt, some affected by 7/7 will have needed the support of psychiatrists to come to terms with their loss. But the growing presumption among professionals is that significant numbers of us have been affected somehow – a presumption which, sadly, this research will have done little to question. Ironically, those truly needing support may find it more difficult to receive it, given that we now have a situation where everyone involved in an incident is encouraged to seek counselling.

Professor Simon Wessely, a leading and insightful psychiatrist at King’s College London, tells people that whatever they do after an emergency, they should not give their name to the media. Otherwise they will never be able to ‘let go’ as the various anniversaries of the incident will bring a fresh round of calls to remember and reflect. Maybe we could add that nor should you give your name to ‘boffins’; certainly when research is carried out along these kinds of uncritical lines, the benefits are far from obvious.

First published on spiked, 3 April 2007

Tempted by terror

To lose a few citizens to radical Islam is unfortunate. To lose as many as 1,600 (according to the MI5 boss) could be considered careless.

Let us assume, just for a minute, that Eliza Manningham-Buller’s headline-grabbing figures about the number of terrorists who threaten Britain are accurate. The head of Britain’s security service, MI5, claimed at the end of last week that there have been five intercepted terror plots since the attacks in London on 7 July 2005 and 30 more alleged conspiracies, and that there are 200 active groups or networks and at least 1,600 individuals under surveillance in the UK.

These figures seem to have been issued in good faith – and we all have an interest in the security services ensuring that anyone who is actually planning to harm the public is stopped in his or her tracks. But, to paraphrase and abuse the words of Oscar Wilde, we might also say that, ‘To lose a few citizens to becoming terrorists is unfortunate; but to lose this many must surely count as careless.’ The MI5 boss’s revelation of scary numbers was effectively a pitch for more resources, but she also unwittingly revealed that Britain should spend as much time addressing its broader cultural problems as it does its security threat. And we could start by asking why, according to MI5, so many Britons are turning to, or at least professing to support terrorism.

Take the case of Dhiren Barot for example. This convert to Islam was, according to those who put him away for 40 years last week for plotting various terrorist attacks in London and beyond, ‘the most significant al-Qaeda terrorist captured in Britain’. If that is true, then it would seem we don’t have as much reason to fear al-Qaeda as we thought. Despite keeping copious notes about radioactive substances and filling limousines with gas cylinders, Barot had yet to acquire any actual materials. He was more like a self-styled al-Qaeda agent, and a deluded fantasist to boot.

Barot and various others, including those radical imams who sometimes hit the headlines by screaming and shouting and threatening beheadings, are all shirt and no trousers. Their barks or actions are unlikely to bring civilisation to its knees. And yet as politicians and journalists obsess over such individuals, a much bigger point is being missed: the extent to which these individuals’ views about Western civilisation being corrupt and decadent have a broader popular resonance, and not only among the Muslim community.

For instance, rather than worrying about the radicalisation of a few individuals in schools and universities – as many have been doing recently, following claims that ‘al-Qaeda’ is recruiting among these influential constituencies – we would do far better to ask what exactly we want schools to teach in the first place. Is the curriculum so uninspiring that, to some kids, radical Islamists look like an attractive alternative? Surely it is the state’s inability to provide young, bright, energetic and ambitious individuals with any clear sense of purpose and direction that is the real problem here. And yet, how much easier it is to blame the odd guy with a beard for leading young people astray.

Many of the individuals caught up in contemporary terror plots have little if any connection to people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, or anywhere much beyond Luton, Burnley and Leeds. Islam is their motif rather than their motive. It is a brand name for sticking two fingers up to what they perceive to be a degenerate Western culture. But then, the assumption that Western societies are decadent and corrupt is a common one, not limited to the ranks of radical Islam.

Some people were surprised over the summer to hear that one of those arrested in relation to an alleged plot to blow up planes leaving Heathrow was the son of a Conservative Party agent. And yet, if you read the words of various firebrand Islamists, they sometimes sound quite similar to those expressed by disgruntled Conservatives, especially in the right-leaning tabloid the Daily Mail: both sides seem concerned about wayward youth, chavs, drunkenness, lack of respect, moral decline and so on. Of course one side chooses (allegedly, in many instances) to react violently against this perceived rottenness of contemporary society, while the other side merely writes irate newspaper columns about it. But both seem to share a kind of cultural self-loathing.

It is this broader cultural problem that needs to be addressed. Eliza Manningham-Buller almost reached that conclusion herself towards the end of her talk last week, when she said there are aspects to this problem that cannot be solved through her service. If we fail to engage in the bigger social debate about what we are for (rather than just against), then we will continue to scare ourselves by highlighting the potential plans of a few freaks and ignoring the wider social forces that sometimes nurture these freaks’ ideas.

First published on spiked, 14 November 2006

Public Panic and Morale: Second World War Civilian Responses Re‐examined in the Light of the Current Anti‐terrorist Campaign

Abstract: Following September 11 in the US and July 7 in the UK, the threat to civilians from terrorist attack has become real yet considerable disagreement exists about how people might respond. The effect of aerial bombing on the public’s morale during the Second World War and the incidence of psychiatric casualties have been explored to provide reference points for the current terrorist threat. Systematic study of restricted government investigations and intelligence reports into the effect of air‐raids on major British towns and contemporary medical publications have shown that panic was a rare phenomenon and arose in defined circumstances. Morale fluctuated according to the intensity of attacks, preparedness and popular perceptions of how successfully the war was being conducted. Resilience was in part a function of the active involvement of the public in its own defence but also reflected the inability of German bombers to deliver a concentrated attack over a wide area. Most civilians, by their very numbers, were likely to survive. Inappropriate or excessive precautionary measures may serve to weaken society’s natural bonds and, in turn, create anxious and avoidant behaviour. Weapons that tap into contemporary health fears have the greatest psychological impact. Efforts by government to engage the public not only build trust but may also make an effective contribution to the campaign against terrorism.

Public Panic and Morale: World War Two Civilian Responses Re-Examined in the Light of the Current Anti-Terrorist Campaign, (with Jones, E., Woolven, R. and Wessely S.), Journal of Risk Research (Impact Factor 1.027 ISI 2015), Vol.9, No.1, pp.57-73, January 2006