Wednesday, July 27, 2005

It's no real reason

Let us just take this issue of Iraq and expose it for a moment - frankly, the obscenity of these people saying it is concern for Iraq that drives them to terrorism. If it is concern for Iraq, why are they driving a car bomb into the middle of a group of children and killing them? Why are they every day in Iraq trying to kill people whose only desire is for their country to become a democracy? Why are they trying to kill people in Afghanistan? Why are they trying, every time Israel and Palestine look as if they could come together in some sort of settlement, they go and wreck it. ... They will always have a reason and I am not saying that any of these things don't affect their warped reasoning and warped logic as to what they do, or that they don't use these things to try and recruit people. But I do say we shouldn't compromise with it. I am not saying anyone says any of these things justify it, but we shouldn't even allow them the vestige of an excuse for what they do.
What is happening in Iraq is that ordinary, decent Iraqis are being butchered by these people with the same terrorist ideology that is killing people in different parts of the world. ... there is all the difference in the world in us taking action against these terrorists and as will happen when military action is taken innocent civilians get killed. We deeply regret every one of those lives. They don't regret the loss of innocent, civilian life. They rejoice in it, that is their purpose. And all the instability in Iraq would stop tomorrow if these terrorists and insurgents stopped. ... Until we get rid of this frankly complete nonsense in trying to build some equivalence between what we are doing helping Iraqis and Afghans get their democracy and these people going in deliberately killing wholly innocent people for the sake of it, until we eliminate that we are not going to confront this ideology in the way it needs to be confronted and my point to you is this, it is time we stopped saying OK we abhor their methods, but we kind of see something in their ideas or maybe they have got a sliver of excuse or justification. They have got no justification for it.
we will start to beat this when we stand up and confront the ideology of this evil. Not just the methods but the ideas. When we actually have people going into the communities here in this country and elsewhere and saying I am sorry, we are not having any of this nonsense about it is to do with what the British are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, or support for Israel, or support for America, or any of the rest of it. It is nonsense, and we have got to confront it as that. And when we confront it as that, then we will start to beat it.

- Blair, 26th July 2005.
If nothing else, Blair is commendably clear. The terrorist threat to Britain - "this evil" - is the work of a single identifiable group, operating in Palestine as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. Their programme is unclear and may be incomprehensible ("warped reasoning and warped logic"). Their "terrorist ideology" leads them to kill at random and "rejoice" in "the loss of innocent, civilian life". Their claim of solidarity with the people of Iraq (or Afghanistan, or Palestine) is contradicted by their own actions, as they repeatedly undermine democratic progress in those countries; by implication, progress will now only be possible after they have been defeated. What they do has no justification: "it is time we stopped saying OK we abhor their methods, but ... maybe they have got a sliver of excuse or justification. They have got no justification for it." The Iraq war, in particular, is not a justification, because the war is right and what they are doing is wrong: there is no comparison "between what we are doing helping Iraqis and Afghans get their democracy and these people going in deliberately killing wholly innocent people for the sake of it". In fact, the suggestion that the Iraq war is a justification is itself part of "the ideology of this evil", and must be rejected if the terrorists are to be defeated: "It is nonsense, and we have got to confront it as that. And when we confront it as that, then we will start to beat it."

In order to make sense of this stuff, I think we need some definitions. First of all, it would be correct to say that the Iraq war didn't cause the London bombings, if only because actions don't have causes: they aren't precipitated by facts about the world. Actions have agents: people who make decisions and carry them out. Behind every action there's a choice - and people who are responsible for making that choice and acting on it.

What actions do have is motives, which are closely related to beliefs: how you want the world to change cannot be divorced from how you believe the world currently is. Political actions, in particular, are generally capable of being justified (if not necessarily in ways you or I would accept). That is, their motive is a desire to change the world - to change the distribution of resources, of power over resources, of power wielded by some humans over others - and to change it in the direction of greater justice, as the agent sees it. In this sense, the motive of a political action is also the basis of its justification. It should perhaps be emphasised that saying that an action can be justified is not the same as saying that it can be justified in terms that I would accept. A justification which is framed in terms of beliefs and motives I don't share won't get my endorsement - but I can, and should, still recognise that it is a justification. You can learn why somebody thinks something is a good idea without being persuaded that it is a good idea.

Of course, actions also have intrinsic qualities; some actions, in particular, are intrinsically repugnant. Indeed, some actions - such as, for instance, the murder of random passers-by - are corrosive of any imaginable society; our sense of repugnance in these cases has a fairly good claim to universality. That said, we know that there are - and always have been - people willing to carry out repugnant actions; if this were not the case there would be no need for laws against them. Nor is it the case that any identifiable social group or political cause has a monopoly of ethically repugnant tactics; again, if this were the case we could simply legislate against the repugnant minority and dispense with the law among ourselves. As I argued back here, repugnance is not political; it only becomes a political stance when it is brought into dialogue with our own beliefs, our assessment of how the world is and how the world needs to be changed.

we have always to ask (we cannot help asking), unforgivable and... what? Was that particular act unforgivable and irredeemably vile, unforgivable and contemptibly cynical, or unforgivable and horribly mistaken? Might it even, in some circumstances, be unforgivable but tragically constructive?

(Am I saying I don't oppose every imaginable suicide bombing? Yes, I am. More to the point, I'm saying that actual suicide bombings - repugnant as they unquestionably are - don't invariably revolt me in exactly the same way and to exactly the same degree. I expect that this is also true of you.)

Actions, in any case, don't have causes: every action is the product of a free choice, taken within the context of a framework of beliefs and motives. It is not precipitated by the facts of the situation within which it is taken. It is bound up with those facts, however, in two ways. Firstly, some choices are freer than others: for some agents, the effective range of choices for which they can take responsibility is very narrow indeed. If we were to watch a hundred vagrants in temporary accommodation and a hundred Eton schoolchildren for a month, it's a safe bet that more thefts would be committed by the vagrants than the toffs, despite the fact that each individual had free will throughout the period. Nor is this a question of justification or extenuation. I'm more likely to steal if my family is starving; I'm also more likely to steal if I don't know where my next fix is coming from, or if I've committed murder and gone on the run. In any of these cases, the facts of the situation constrain my exercise of free choice. The situation - and the chain of causality which brought it about - does not produce my behaviour, but it does make certain choices more likely than others. As somebody once said, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." (It's since been established that women do something similar.)

Secondly, if freely-chosen actions do not have causes, they do have consequences: typically, consequences which ramify in multiple directions, not all of which can be identified beforehand. If agents are responsible for their actions, they must surely also be responsible for the consequences of those actions - including the constraints which are placed, as a result, on other individuals' freedom to choose. We might make an exception for consequences which, in principle, could not be foreseen by the agent, however well-informed and reflective they were - but it is difficult to imagine how the consequences of an action could meet this criterion and still be identifiable as consequences.

Circumstances do not cause actions - but they can make certain actions more likely, by validating some beliefs and motives (e.g. "you've got to be hard if you're going to survive") while undercutting others (e.g. "it's wrong to steal"). By extension, every action also makes other actions more and less likely. And, of course, circumstances - and hence the consequences of actions - can also affect beliefs and motives more directly, by appearing to demonstrate what the world is like and how it needs to be changed. The changed balance of opportunities and constraints which an action produces, as well as the sets of beliefs which it is likely to confirm or challenge, must play into how we perceive that action.

In the case of the Iraq war, the invasion clearly created opportunities for terrorist activity and removed constraints against it. It also tended to confirm beliefs according to which Western nations - the US and Britain in particular - are engaged in a lawless and predatory 'crusade' against the Islamic world. Regardless of whether these beliefs are sustainable or fallacious, they are widely held. The perception that the Iraq war bore out these beliefs - irrespective of whether that is sustainable - is also widespread. As such, it seems beyond question that the foreseeable consequences of the war - as well as the deposition of Saddam Hussein - include an aggravated sense of grievance among Muslims against the British and US governments, and the exposure of Britain to a higher risk of terrorism.

There are three main answers to this line of argument. The first and weakest appears in Geras's polemic against 'apologists':
If Mabel borrows Zack's bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel's house, Mabel doesn't share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house.
This simply begs the question. Retaliatory violence cannot be justified because it is disproportionate - but it is disproportionate because that's how the example has been set up. Assuming that we're still talking about Iraq, compare London and Falluja, or the career prospects of a Republican Guard with those of a British intelligence officer: it's not immediately clear to me that we are the ones whose house has been burned down. In any case, if Mabel were a friend of mine, I'd tell her to be careful not to cross Zack again and ask her what the hell she was doing stealing the bike in the first place.

The second and third arguments, which also appear in Geras's piece, are fuzzily invoked by Blair. One is that, while the Iraq war may have created grievances, those grievances are wrong (only the enemies of democracy can oppose the new democratic Iraq). The other is that those grievances are irrelevant (even without the war, "this evil" would still have existed and Britain would have been one of its targets). Geras offers handy thought-experiments for these as well. Firstly, the grievance which can be disregarded because it is wrong:
In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob's path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine's mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.
Once again, this is a heavily-loaded example: rape is one of the few crimes which (within the cultural context shared by Geras and myself) cannot be justified under any circumstances whatsoever, so there is no imaginable scenario in which Elaine would be culpable. A better example might be the socially-conservative Muslim areas - such as present-day Basra - where women who walk the streets with their hair uncovered risk abuse or assault. This treatment appals me, and I side unreservedly with the women who suffer it against the evil sexist scumbags who perpetrate it - but, as with my light-fingered friend Mabel, I can easily imagine asking someone who persistently defied the scumbags whether she wasn't, to some extent, bringing hostile attention down on herself.

Geras's use of the word 'blame' here is both significant and misleading, I think. Elsewhere in the same piece he argues that, if the Iraq war was 'right', then
no blame attaches to those who led, prosecuted and supported that war, even if it has entered the causal chain leading to the bombings, by way of the motivating grievances of the 'militants' and 'activists'
This, it seems to me, imposes an artificial distinction between the war and its consequences, assuming that the war is justified whatever its consequences may ultimately be. It seems far more appropriate to assess the consequences of the war and judge its 'rightness' or not accordingly. Similarly, if we cause outrage and offence by challenging a world view which we regard as deeply unjust, it is hard not to say that we are in the right - and, by extension, it is hard to say that we can be 'blamed' for causing offence. Nevertheless, we might prefer - if only for the sake of a quiet life - not to outrage and offend those people any more than we have to. Of course, we could - and Blair sometimes seems to think that we should - make a virtue of offence and tackle "the ideology of this evil" head-on, wherever it can be found. However, this is a rather more ambitious - not to say open-ended - version of 'ethical foreign policy' than we have been accustomed to; never mind Iran, we'd be lucky to escape without declaring war on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The other argument, also invoked by Blair, is that any grievances roused by the war are irrelevant. Geras again:
Me, David and Sam are chatting. I make a remark to David, David gets cross because of the remark and he punches me in the mouth. Sam says 'You had it coming'. In this story it is uncontroversially true - I can tell you this, being the story's one and only author - that my remark to David and Sam is the cause of David's anger. Is Sam, then, right to tell me in effect that I either share the blame for David's punching me in the mouth or am entirely to blame for it myself? Well, the content of my remark was 'I love the music of Bob Dylan'. David for his part doesn't like the music of Bob Dylan. I think most people will recognize without the need of further urging on my part that, contrary to what Sam says, I didn't have it coming, David is entirely to blame for punching me in the mouth and I, accordingly, am not to blame in any way at all. If, on the other hand, my remark was not about Bob Dylan's music, but was a deeply offensive comment about David's mother, then without troubling to weight the respective shares of blame here, I'd say it would have been reasonable for Sam to tell me that I must bear some of it.
What this tells me is, primarily, how difficult it is to construct a really good thought-experiment. I have never been punched in the mouth, I'm happy to say. I did, however, once go to Spain with a friend; after travelling together for a week or so we split up in Madrid one morning, both agreeing it was best, and returned home separately. We hadn't come to blows, but we parted on very bad terms. The immediate cause of our separation was an acrimonious argument about the lyrics of the songs "Tangled up in blue" and "If you see her, say hello". (Twenty years later, I'm absurdly gratified to find, courtesy of, that I was right! Ha!)

So it seems to me that, in the right circumstances, "I love the music of Bob Dylan" could be a grossly provocative statement. Moving away from one-line utterances, to think in terms of actions and their consequences, makes it harder to come up with a definitively 'innocent' intervention. Confining ourselves to political interventions - attempts to alter the balance of power or the distribution of resources, favouring one group or another - makes it harder still. (And confining ourselves to the category of political interventions known as 'wars of invasion'... but enough already.) True, jihadist terrorism didn't start with Iraq; its motivations range from the religious deficiencies of the house of Saud to the existence of Spanish rule over Andalusia. But the war has created - and continues to create - grievances which can be channelled into support for the jihadist world-view.

To borrow a bit of sociological jargon, it's a question of frame-bridging: gaining adherents to one set of beliefs (or 'frames') by stressing how much they have in common with another set. Blair seems to realise that some such process is going on, although he doesn't seem to realise (or admit) that taking Britain into the Iraq war made it eminently foreseeable. More to the point, he doesn't show much sign of realising that the best way to counter frame-bridging is to do it yourself. You certainly don't deal with it by telling everyone responsible to stop it at once ("I am sorry, we are not having any of this nonsense"). If there is anything that people need to be "going into the communities" and saying, it's more along the lines of "Yeah, sure, Britain needs to get out of Iraq - but restore the Caliphate, are you crazy? And blowing people up - that's just sick."

I don't know if anything like that is happening right now, but I hope it is. I think it's our best hope for peace and reconciliation. If it's not happening - if the government and its friends are succeeding in their attempt to equate opposition to the war with support for terrorism, opposition to the jihadists with support for New Labour - then I'm afraid that things can only get even worse.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Last boat leaving

I find I've nothing to say about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes that hasn't already been said by Chris, by Jamie and (slightly to my surprise) by Oliver Kamm:
If the police tailed him from Tulse Hill, did they have any grounds for regarding his behaviour as potentially threatening, and if so why did they not apprehend him before he boarded a bus or a train? Did they hear him speak? If so, were their suspicions in any way allayed or were they heightened? Or were they unable to tell, so shot anyway?
Mistakes do happen, and sometimes for understandable reasons - but those reasons don't protect those who have failed. ... there will have to be resignations at the least, and at the top. I'm surprised that Tony Blair's normal political instincts seem to have deserted him on this. It is of course true that the police would have been criticised for failing to act if the suspect had been a terrorist, and that anyone who knows the identities of the real bombers has a duty to tell the police. But these are truisms, and a man has been needlessly killed.
Chris also hits the right note:

Jean Charles de Menezes deserves justice every bit as much as the 52 people who were murdered on July 7th, and that means removing the false and dangerous idea that just because a decision is difficult, one should be absolved of responsibility for its outcome.

"So what would you do?" I don't know - but whatever I did, I hope I'd take responsibility for doing it.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Tired of being upset

Apparently the government's much more left-wing now than it was a few years ago: much less authoritarian, much less pro-capitalist and generally much more sensible. I didn't know that. Did you know that?

Nick Cohen, 2001:
The first Labour government for a generation, blessed with office in a time of peace and plenty, spent a smaller proportion of gross domestic product on the hospitals and schools than John Major's 1992 administration. Then there's privatisation. Not even Thatcher at her most imperial shovelled public money and patients into remarkably inefficient and understaffed private hospitals, whose death rates are five times above the NHS average.

If you vote for Blair you will also be lending your good name to the curtailment of the right to trial by jury, the turning of demonstrators into 'terrorists', the persecution of asylum-seekers, the imposition of tuition fees, the incessant manipulation of the media, the rigging of elections, the refusal to renationalise the railways, the abasement before corporate interests.
Nick Cohen, 2005:
Britain still has a Labour government. It isn't going to be out of office anytime soon, however loudly its opponents scream, and its policies are generally sensible. Why bother with the battle of ideas?
Why indeed, Nick; why indeed.

(Hat-tip: Simon.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

All those pretty lies

A few weeks ago I spotted a really dazzling example of stupidity - and cynical exploitation of same - in the LRB. David Runciman was writing about the American campaign to repeal death duties ('estate tax'), which succeeded despite the fact that the change only really benefited the top 1%. Ah, but...

A poll conducted by Time/CNN on the estate tax issue in 2000 revealed that 39 per cent of Americans believe that they are either in the wealthiest 1 per cent or will be there ‘soon’.

There it is. If you think you already are obscenely rich - or that you're going to be obscenely rich some day soon - you aren't likely to identify with all those little people down there. People who aren't obscenely rich and probably never will be. People like you yourself. In the immortal words of Kermit, stupid, stupid, stupid.

But there's more to this than stupidity - quite a lot more. There's the politics of aspiration (got to keep selling the Dream, or the people will vote for somebody who will); behind that, there's the politics of division and atomisation (treat the workers mean, keep the workers keen); and behind that there's the 1% themselves, pursuing business as usual by swinging a 'democratic' government behind their interests. The layers fit together only too well.

Still, only in America, eh?
Charles Kennedy yesterday sought to capitalise on the feelgood factor from the Cheadle byelection victory, calling on his colleagues to be "bold, positive and united".
Mr Kennedy said the party was not afraid of redistribution, but added: "High taxes are not a moral good in themselves. We were correct to point out at the general election that only 1% of all taxpayers would be affected by our proposals on top-rate taxation. But we must not lose sight of those who aspire to achieve income levels which will bring them into the top rate taxation band in time to come."

Do they really believe this - do they really think we won't vote for them if they don't sustain our 'aspirational' illusions by lying to us? After May 7, surely not - the party's great successes were against Labour, and much of its political capital derived from the appearance of being a little more honest than Labour, willing to tell a little more of the truth. The simplest explanation is the most depressing: that the Lib Dems have finally taken the blue pill and rejoined the neo-liberal consensus.

"Yellow Tories"? Not quite. 'Tory' has to mean 'worse than Labour', to my mind - 'worse than New Labour', even - and I can't see that the Lib Dems are quite that bad. But by God, it's getting to be a close thing.

Meaders can have the last word:

"Left-wing"? This shower?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Never even not known

Just to clarify, I'm not saying Johann Hari is crazy.

Language is weird - weird and treacherous. It gives thought a medium and a structure, and yet it has its own properties - both formal regularities like verb forms, and arbitrary quirks like puns - which cut across whatever it is you're trying to say. (With the result, if you believe Freud, that what you want to say can leak through.) When I was much younger I worked as a psychiatric nurse, briefly. Looking back on the way the people I was caring for talked, one of the things I can hear is how language can betray the person using it; language is full of trap doors and dead ends. Language is a place where you can get lost.

A character in the Residents' Not Available uses what sound very much like schizophrenic speech patterns:

To show or do
Or to be shown
Some questions never
Even not known
Not even by many
To exist, to show

Or to be shown
Some questions never
Even known
Not even by many
To exist...

The character is plagued by these "never known questions" - questions he can't answer and can't ask anyone else, questions which have never been asked before. Questions like, for example:

How much marriage urges a windmill to paint infinity?

It's a tough one, you'll admit.

I'm not saying Johann Hari's crazy. I don't think he's a very good columnist (I could name six people who could do a better job without drawing breath, and without even naming myself); I like Nick's suggestion that he would have made quite a good Jon Ronson/Louis Theroux-type interviewer, drifting inscrutably between charmingly genuine naivety and calculating faux-naivete. (I mentioned Jon Ronson on alt.folklore.urban once, years ago, and he mailed me shortly afterwards. Hi, Jon!) But there's something strange about the way his mind works (Johann Hari's, not Jon Ronson's) - there's something strange about the places language takes him.

I'm not going to fisk his column from Saturday's Indie - it would take far too long. Besides, what can you say about weird, overworked constructions like "with one leap of faith" or "defuse the ticking-bomb of jihadism"? (Better a ticking-bomb than the exploding kind, I suppose.) "We are more likely to discuss Coke vs Pepsi than justice vs injustice" - possibly because there's room for discussion on the difference between Coke and Pepsi. "It took seventy years and fifty million deaths until nobody would kill or die for Bolshevism." Shame Stalin didn't step up his work-rate, it could all have been over in half the time.

Figurative language, in particular, does strange things when Hari gets hold of it.
We have all seen the Rumsfeld approach. Fill screens across the Muslim world with the orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo and the Muslims-on-a-leash of Abu Ghraib.
"Muslims-on-a-leash"? But anyway...
The Galloway approach is just as dangerous: give them what they want. Meet Osama's immediate demands and hope they'll leave us alone. Both encourage the totalitarian ideology to spread faster, one by beating it with a bloody stick and the other by offering it a carrot.
The basic problem here is asymmetry: you can't just follow that 'bloody stick' with a carrot. It should be an Iraqi carrot, perhaps, or a Jerusalem carrot. An oily carrot, maybe. And does Osama bin Laden even like carrots? It doesn't really work.

Then there's the oestrogen:
No ideology can survive on terrorising half the population indefinitely. When it comes, the Islamic Reformation will be drenched in oestrogen.
That first sentence is deceptively tricky, incidentally. The message seems to be something like "Any community in which the dominant self-understanding of social norms is such as to mandate terrorising half the population cannot perpetuate itself unchanged indefinitely" - only with 'community', 'norms' and 'self-understanding' collapsed into a lump labelled 'ideology' and the possibility of change edited out.

But the oestrogen... My problems with the oestrogen begin with the disconcerting physicality of that 'drenched': an abstraction collides with a (physical) liquid substance and gets (physically) wet. It gets worse when you remember what oestrogen is: a hormone. Which means that it's carried in the blood. Which suggests that Hari's envisaging a Dantonesque heroic generation of Islamic feminists, cut down (literally) by some Islamic female Robespierre. Presumably that wasn't quite what he wanted to say. (Unless you believe Freud.)

All this and a carrot for Osama, not to mention a ticking-bomb and some Muslims-on-a-leash. Some images never even known, not even by many to exist...

Well, well, well

I heard the other day that I'd been awarded a doctorate. Which was nice. I started doing it at the beginning of 1999, walking out of a perfectly good job in the trade press in the process, and several times in the intervening six years it had looked as if it wasn't going to happen. But happen it did, and I'm now an accredited authority (sort of) on the Italian Communist Party's relationship with the cycle of contentious activism which ran from 1973 to 1979. (A subject which has turned out to have a lot more contemporary relevance than I thought it would.)

I'm also Dr Phil Edwards - a name which you've probably seen in print already, and not referring to me. I've told the Guardian that they're attributing quotes to a pseudonym a number of times, most recently in response to this rather unedifying story. Greatly to my surprise, the writer actually rang me up to talk about it. She was quite apologetic and had obviously never heard the story before; I got the impression that relations between the Guardian and the BNP are already a bit strained (which is probably no bad thing).

But that's just one story and one writer; I should imagine I'll have it all to do again before long. Perhaps I'll change my name to John Tyndall.

Enough is enough

"Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear" - Harry's Place, strapline

"Why don't you all just fuck off to your own websites. I'm sick of reading your crap on my site now." - Harry

"In an era when extremists shout loudly, it is time for men and women of good will to shout even louder." - David T

We're people of good will and we don't have to take any more of this. Silence the enemies of democracy! Down with the enemies of peace! We want our freedom!

Freedom from the reds and the blacks and the criminals
Prostitutes, pansies and punks
Football hooligans, juvenile delinquents
Lesbians and left wing scum
Freedom from the niggers and the Pakis and the unions
Freedom from the Gipsies and the Jews
Freedom from leftwing layabouts and liberals
Freedom from the likes of you.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The spreading chestnut tree

[Revised 15/7 in response to Jarndyce's comment - thanks, J.]

More on terror. I think Pearsall's right to say that refusing to describe the bombers as Muslim is wishful and self-deceiving. They're not representative of Muslims - any more than they're representative of young British men or of the population of Leeds - but, insofar as they describe themselves and their activities as Muslim, the world of Islam is stuck with them. (Just as Christians are stuck with Mary Whitehouse and Fred Phelps, Marxists are stuck with Lenin, and Germans... well, you know.) I also think Jarndyce is right when he says (in comments here and here) that there are people out there whose political project is based on the restoration of the Caliphate, from Jerusalem to Andalusia, and that there's nothing in this project that we can negotiate with. In short, I agree with the basic premise that there is a strand within the global Muslim community which is profoundly inimical to the existing world order, wishes to assert the dominance of a form of political Islam and is prepared to use terror to further its cause.

It would seem that a separation between this small, violent, revolutionary-Islamist strand and the great majority of Muslims is profoundly desirable; you might think I'd endorse the appeals we've heard recently from Blair, Prince Charles (God help us) and Blogland's own 'Harry'. But there's a problem with this approach, as Chris says:
We have been granted the courtesy, by society at large, of the assumption that we abhor acts of mass murder. But mainstream liberals and racist reactionaries alike have no problem demanding ritualistic condemnations and apologies from Muslims when an extremist splinter of that massive, mindbogglingly diverse religion commits mass murder. And I have to say I expect it from the reactionaries. But I'm naive enough to be stunned when people who claim to be liberals trot out arguments that closely parallel demands for black obeisance issued by the likes of the White Citizens Councils. And when such people ... are presented with evidence that prominent Muslim clerics have in fact denounced the murders, and floridly, that somehow isn't enough. [They] want Muslims to fine-tune their public statements painstakingly, carefully watching to see if they are being obsequious enough. ... Somehow, the average Muslim is exempt from the presumption of innocence, not only in deed but in basic human sympathy.
The point here is that we already know that Muslims are, by and large, opposed to terror, because we already know that Muslims are human beings. Asking the local imam whether he denounces the terrorists is a bit like asking the Russian ambassador whether the Russians do, in fact, love their children too. Viewed as an ethical appeal addressed to the entire Islamic community, the appeal to denounce terror is nonsensical at best, racist at worst. (I use the word 'racist', albeit with misgivings, because (like Chris) I think the demand carries with it the assumption that Muslims are less than human.)

There is another possibility. As I outlined here, there are real or imaginable situations - for all but a very few of us - in which acts of terror can seem appropriate, however vile and unforgivable they may be in themselves. There are situations in which politics temporarily trump ethics, in other words - and different groups will identify those situations differently. What we are dealing with is not some Temple of Doom death-worshipping tendency within Islam, but with situations and tendencies, within the world of Islamist politics, which promote the use of terror as a tactic. While they may use the language of an ethical appeal to Muslims at large, the recent appeals to renounce terrorism may best be read as an intervention in that political milieu: specifically, an attempt to steer or 'orient' a fringe political milieu, voiced by a 'gatekeeper' of the political mainstream. Here's 'Harry':

What is surely needed now from Muslims is more than just a rejection of violent Islamism but a clear opposition to it. It is not enough to regard the terrorists as ‘brothers who have erred’ and simply reject their tactics - there needs to be an active opposition from mainstream Muslims to the Jihadists in the UK, their supporters and apologists. ... None of this, of course, would involve any weakening of the Muslim faith on the part of those who would make up an active opposition. None of it would necessitate silencing criticisms of British foreign policy, support for a Palestinian state or other issues that may be of concern to Muslims. It requires only a clear, ideological opposition to Islamism and a commitment to democracy.
(Those who would make up an active opposition, indeed. You could form a kind of coalition, couldn't you, and it'd be united by its respect for moderate and democratic values. That'd work. Somebody ought to do something.)

What 'Harry' really seems to want from the Muslim community is simple: division. Yes, yes, you're all divided among yourselves already, but this is different - this is a really important kind of division. We'll get you started - we'll denounce the extremists and the radicals and the militants and so forth, and those of you who want to can join in. We'll give you a bit of time to get yourselves sorted out; then, for those of you who haven't joined in - well, then we'll know who the extremists are, won't we! What do you think?

For anyone who's studied Italy in the 1970s there's an obvious analogy, which 'Harry' himself helpfully drew:
A similar process occurred on the far left in Italy. There were some communists [sic] who saw the murderous actions of the Red Brigades merely as a tactical error and those who carried out the crimes as ‘comrades who have erred’. Their primary mistake was to have adopted ‘armed struggle’ as a method when the correct line was to focus on mass struggles through trade unions and the political process. Through a process of argument and re-positioning this view was widely defeated and the terrorists were named as such and regarded as enemies of democracy and indeed enemies of the left. None of this involved anyone on the far left abandoning their critique of capitalism and their view of the necessity of socialism. It meant drawing a clear line between the democratic left and the terrorists. It meant being prepared to link arms with their political opponents in the centre and the right in opposition to terrorism.
Unfortunately, this is grossly misleading. The Italian left-wing 'armed struggle' phenomenon dated roughly from 1970 to the mid-1980s; the Red Brigades were a big part of it, but not the whole thing by any means. The Communist Party - the largest mainstream Left party in Italy - was intransigently opposed to the left-wing armed groups from day one; it was also intransigently opposed to all other groups to the Left of the Communist Party, of which there were many. During the 1970s, the Communists applied labels like 'terrorist', 'provocateur' and 'hooligan' more and more widely, as the party moved to the Right and attempted to stitch up an alliance with the ruling Christian Democrats. By the time extreme Left activism peaked in 1977-8 - followed by the peak years of 'armed struggle' activity in 1979-80 - the Communists were outflanking the Christian Democrats in their enthusiasm for a clampdown and their impatience with civil libertarian arguments.

As 'Harry' suggests, there was a sizeable contingent on the Left who regarded the armed groups as 'mistaken comrades'; the big debate on the far Left, in fact, was over whether the armed groups were compagni che sbagliano ('mistaken comrades') or compagni e basta ('just plain comrades'). But those people weren't persuaded back into line by a "process of argument and re-positioning" - and the idea that lining up with the Communists against the Red Brigades didn't involve anyone "abandoning their critique of capitalism and their view of the necessity of socialism" is simply false. In fact, the Communists mounted a sustained ideological scorched-earth campaign: anyone who disagreed with the Party's own abandonment of its critique of capitalism - or dissented from its increasingly frank authoritarianism - could be branded an extremist, a splitter, a provocateur, a terrorist sympathiser, a terrorist. The consequences ranged from being smeared in l'Unita to arrest and detention without trial. Longer-term, the consequences were to wipe the extreme Left off the map for several years, while at the same time removing a large part of the Communist Party's own raison d'etre as a left-wing party. (The party's membership declined every year from 1976 on.) For the more organised armed groups, ironically, the crackdown on the extreme Left was good news, as it meant that they were the only game in town: as I noted above, the peak years for 'armed struggle' actions followed the crackdown on the mass movements.

There are reasons why this operation failed so badly - and why a comparable attempt to divide the world of political Islam into 'democratic' sheep and 'extremist' goats would, in all probability, fail in the same way. We could say that the attempt to divide the extreme-left movements into 'extremist' and 'non-violent' was bound to be resisted, as it didn't correspond to any pre-existing division within the movements. And we could say that Communist-led 'orientation' gave the movements a choice between two equally unacceptable alternatives: either follow the Communists and abandon their own political programme, or retain their independence and be denounced by the Communists. It's also arguable that the position of the Communists was inherently dishonest: their main priority was to demobilise a potential rival, so the price for political acceptance could be raised any time the movements looked like meeting it. (To quote a typical formulation, written by a l'Unita columnist in May 1977, "while their decision to disown the men of violence must be considered a step forward, the fact remains that this decision was taken late, equivocally and opportunistically".)

We can see all these traps looming for politicised Muslims who go down the route of 'moderation': the need for self-proclaimed 'moderates' to prove themselves by finding 'extremists' to denounce; the impossible choice between being denounced by New Labour and signing up to a New Labour agenda; the power of political blackmail which this strategy hands to a watchful gatekeeper ("I thought you moderates were opposed to Islamist terrorists?"). The underlying problem is that this strategy is inherently divisive and destabilising. As Salma Yaqoob of Respect writes:
the shoddy theology [which justifies 'martyrdom operations'] is driven by political injustices. It is the boiling anger and hurt that is shaping the interpretation of religious texts into such grotesque distortions. Such extreme interpretations exist only in specific political circumstances - they certainly do not predate them, and the religious/political equation breaks down if there is no injustice to drive it. This leaves British Muslims in a very difficult place. To bring in these wider questions requires them to dissent from the government line. This is difficult for them, keen as they are to avoid further marginalisation. However, if Muslim leaders succumb to the pressure of censorship and fail to visibly oppose the government on certain foreign policy issues, the gap between the leaders and those they seek to represent and influence will widen, increasing the possibility of more dangerous routes being adopted by the disillusioned.
Unfortunately, if you view political Islam as an incipient rival to New Labour, a strategy like this makes a certain kind of sense. Like the Italian Communist Party, Labour is a 'gatekeeper' of political legitimacy faced by a rival from outside the political system; like the Italian Communists, they are dealing with it by sowing division. In effect, what the Italian Communists wanted from the extreme Left - and what Blair, Carlo, 'Harry' and the rest now want from political Muslims - is to turn them against one another: more specifically, to turn them into informers against one another. Universal mutual suspicion, the 'moderate' against the 'extreme', the 'modern' against the 'faithful': nothing will serve better to undermine the coherence of the milieu and hamper its development as a political force.

It won't prevent terrorism, of course. By restricting the space in which a British Muslim politics can develop, independent of both Labour and the jihadists, it may even make the terrorist strategy more popular. (It certainly seems to have worked like that in Italy.) But preventing terrorism isn't really what it's about; there are much quieter and less divisive ways to divert young British citizens from a path of murderous insanity. Blair's real nightmare isn't a British Muslim suicide bomber, but British Muslims capable of denouncing suicide bombers with one breath and denouncing Labour with the next.

I'm aware that this conclusion may seem a bit highly-coloured and conspiratorial; surely I'm not suggesting that Blair is deliberately heightening the risk of terrorism for the sake of political advantage? No, I'm not. I'm suggesting that Blair believes he's involved in an international war against evil men with evil values, and that the front line runs through both London and Iraq. If a politically united British Muslim community would make that war harder to fight - as it almost certainly would - then dividing the community against itself is actually a constructive strategy, even if it promotes violent reaction in the short term. The bombing made this all the more urgent: given that the government had just been told about some of the issues which were prompting some British Muslims to gravitate towards jihadism, there must have been some concern that Muslim politicians might succeed in articulating those concerns while repudiating the bombers. Blair's intervention (and those which have followed) warded off this danger by pre-emptively reframing the issue: it's not a question of Britain vs the Muslim world any more; it's moderate vs extreme, peaceful vs violent, good vs bad.

One final question: if Blair were offered the choice between a continued British presence in Iraq and another 7/7, or no more bombs and a British withdrawal, which do you think he'd take? Which of the two would involve a smaller incidence of 'terror'? Which would best represent Britain standing firm against the terrorists?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Does anybody know any jokes?

[Also posted, under a different title, at the Sharpener. Fun Boy Three or Scritti Politti, the choice is yours.]

First things first: what happened in London last Thursday was horrific, unjustifiable and unforgivable. Faced with an outrage like the bus and tube bombings, it's entirely appropriate to express respect to the victims, defiance of the murderers who carried it out and solidarity with the people of London.

What happened on Thursday was terror: "personal violence against non-specific targets, with the immediate goal of causing panic and alarm". That word 'non-specific' is important here. Murder fuelled by personal hatred is a sad, grim thing, but it's always on a human scale; there's always a story in there somewhere, a sense of an interaction between two people which could have turned out differently. (Murder comes closest to being genuinely tragic - inspiring a kind of horrified awe - when it is most pre-determined: when it seems that, after a certain point, those two people could not avoid that final confrontation.)

Murder fuelled by a blank determination to kill someone is on a different scale altogether. Its particular horror lies, I think, in the way that it resembles death by misadventure and death by natural causes and death by who knows what: it's like the great crushing wheel of death that rolls through all our lives, in the form of accident and illness and bereavement.

Death says: you, here, now.
And Death says: no, it's not fair.
And Death says: no, there's nothing you can do about it.
And Death says: no, there's no more time.
Death says: you, here, now.

To commit acts of terror is to be like Death - or rather, to usurp other people's Death. To value life - to value living human beings - is to rebel against death, even if the rebellion is ultimately, inevitably, futile. It's also to rebel against anyone so shabby and vile as to usurp Death for their own ends, whatever those ends might be.

So, setting aside any consideration of motives and outcomes, it makes perfect sense to oppose terror in the name of humanity. You shouldn't have done that to us. You shouldn't do that to anyone.

But this is not the same thing as opposing disorderly political activism. Under the Terrorism Act of 2000, 'terrorism' is defined as the commission or threat of serious personal violence, serious violence against property or attacks on 'electronic system[s]', when these are carried out (or threatened) for political ends. Under this definition, it is difficult not to apply the label of 'terrorism' to political violence of any sort. There doesn't even need to be a human victim: 'terrorism' includes property damage; it includes hack attacks; it even includes threats. At the same time, it becomes extremely difficult to think in terms of 'terror' when talking about anything but direct action from below. If 'terrorism' is a challenge to the state's monopoly of violence, the state cannot itself be guilty of terror tactics, more or less by definition. If what we say about 'terrorism' has anything to do with a consistent definition of 'terror', these distortions need to be resisted.

Nor is opposing terror the same thing as opposing the terrorists. There was a particularly woeful contrast between Blair's and Ken Livingstone's statements last Thursday. Obviously only one of the two is a natural speaker: Livingstone delivered a genuinely eloquent speech in effortless, conversational style, while Blair delivered a disjointed stream of verbiage in a style that wasn't so much animated as animatronic. The contrast between what they actually had to say was more telling. Livingstone stressed the multi-cultural nature of London: this was not an attack on the elite of a 'Christian' country, but an attack on "ordinary working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old".

Blair, on the other hand, said that most Muslims were perfectly sweet once you got to know them:
We know these people act in the name of Islam but we also know the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad are decent and law-abiding people who abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as we do.
(Venn diagram challenge: draw sets representing 'these people', 'the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad', 'all Muslims', 'all British people' and 'all British Muslims'. Now draw a set representing 'us'.)

After that it got worse.
It is through terrorism that the people that have committed this terrible act express their values, and it is right at this moment that we demonstrate ours. ... We will show, by our spirit and dignity, and by our quiet but true strength that there is in the British people, that our values will long outlast theirs.
For Livingstone, terror is bad because it's terror: the constituency you rally against terror need only be defined - and should only be defined - by its resistance to terror. (You shouldn't have done that to us. You shouldn't do that to anyone.) Standing up against terror - like becoming a victim of terror - can become part of anyone's life, at any time. When it's over, perhaps, we'll congratulate each other on our stoical British sense of humour and London's indomitable spirit. (And perhaps we won't.) But at the time, we'll resist for no other reason than that we like our lives and want to get on with them. A dreadful, unforgivable attack happens; you name it as dreadful and unforgivable; you mourn the dead and defy the attackers; and then you get on with it. After all, it's not as if it's the first time:
The last time a bomb went off there was February 18 1996. ... a 21-year-old IRA member called Edward O'Brien, on his way to do who knows what, had accidentally blown himself up. No one else died. It seemed terrible, at the time; it was terrible, just as the Docklands bomb was terrible, and the Harrods bomb before that, and all the other bombs too. Another time, only 18 years ago, the King's Cross fire, 500 metres up the line from last Thursday's bomb, killed 31 people and made a great many others feel that they were never going to go on the tube again. They did, though. My point is that not only is this not the first time that the long street that includes Woburn Place has been bombed; it is not even the first time it has been bombed by a terrorist on a bus during the last decade.
(Emphasis added.)

This is all a long way from Blair's world. For the Prime Minister, terror is not a type of attack but the distinguishing feature of a group of evil people. Those people and their values are the enemy we need to rally against; the constituency to be rallied is defined in terms of 'us' and 'our values'. This argument seems to spring from a certain kind of communitarian thinking, which holds that people can only be mobilised by appealing to the values of their communities - and that the bonds and symbols defining those communities are pre-political, if not pre-rational.

Whatever its roots, the implications of this argument are alarming: presumably those people would still be evil men with evil values (and would still need locking up) if they gave up terrorism. On the other hand, presumably we don't need to be judged by our actions. The British state may bend a few rules and tread on a few toes along the way, but it'll never be guilty of terror; on the contrary, it will be in the front line against terrorism, buoyed up by our strong and enduring British values. It's not far from here to Mary Riddell's truly appalling argument in Sunday's Observer:
No one savaged the legislature more effectively than Lord Hoffman, when the law lords rightly ruled as unlawful government detention of foreign terror suspects without trial. 'The real threat to the life of the nation comes not from terrorism, but from laws such as these,' he said. Liberals galvanised by Lord Hoffman's passion should also have been uneasy. ... Ask the commuters with their smoke-filled lungs what they think. Ask the maimed, the terrified, the mourners whose loved ones are lying in a mangled carriage entombed in a tunnel. Ask them whether the bomber or the over-zealous lawmaker more threatens British life. You will find Lord Hoffman's credo held in scorn.
"Magna Carta? Leave it out - we've got terrorists to defeat!" The dangers of this line of argument are obvious.

(Incidentally, thirty seconds with Google found this, slightly more accurate, rendering of Hoffman's words:
The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.
Hoffman rather specifically didn't say that terrorism posed no threat, or that bad laws were more likely to kill people than terrorist bombs. He said that the fabric of British society - a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values - can be damaged far more extensively by bad laws than by terrorist bombs. The point is not that the law is more violent than terrorism but that it is more important; 'Lord Hoffman's credo' means 'never allowing last week's spirit of survival to fester into hatreds and bad laws', in the words of Riddell's own conclusion. Given that Riddell appears to know and understand Hoffman's argument, her misrepresentation of it is contemptible; as as is her projection of her own half-considered 'scorn' onto the victims of the bombing. But enough.)

If we are to condemn terrorism, it should be because we condemn terror, not because we condemn anyone who challenges the state's monopoly of violence or anyone who opposes Britain. But these distortions of the 'anti-terrorist' message tell us something troubling about the message itself. The ethical humanist appeal to resist terror is a statement about how people should and shouldn't act - whatever social situation they occupy, however much or little power they wield, whatever cause they espouse. It suspends any consideration of motives and outcomes - any consideration of ways in which the social world should change.

As such, the anti-terrorist message is fundamentally not political. It's true that an act of terror is not like other forms of violence; one of its distinguishing qualities is that of being unforgivable. But it's also true that, like other forms of violence, acts of terror are always meaningful. The act was committed by a certain group, with its own aims and its own history; certain targets were chosen; the effect of the act was to shift the balance of power in particular ways; some causes were furthered and others hindered. In practice, this means that 'unforgivable' is not the end of the story. From London to Madrid to Algiers to Deir Yassin to Fallujah to Srebrenica to the via Fani to Brighton to Omagh to the Milltown Cemetery, we have always to ask (we cannot help asking), unforgivable and... what? Was that particular act unforgivable and irredeemably vile, unforgivable and contemptibly cynical, or unforgivable and horribly mistaken? Might it even, in some circumstances, be unforgivable but tragically constructive?

Opposition to terror and terrorism is an honourable ethical stance - arguably it's a necessary ethical stance - but it's not a political position; if anyone offers us anti-terrorism as a political programme, we should be very wary of what we're getting. If your opposition to terrorism has political implications - to reduce the amount of terror in the world, we should change this and this - the chances are that you've brought those conclusions to your stance on terror, not derived them from it. (Apart from anything else, how did you decide which source of terror needed most urgently to be changed?)

Opposing terror is not a political act. Which isn't to say that it's not a good thing: death has its due, and the dead should be mourned. All terror is equally unforgivable, and we should say so: to resist terror is to honour its victims. But when we've demonstrated our opposition to terror we'll go our separate ways, and within a month or a week we may well find ourselves on different sides of a political argument.

Which is how it should be: life goes on, which means that politics goes on - and it goes on without the terrorists, just as it did before. We defy terrorists, but there comes a point when the best way to defy them is to forget them.