The apologists for terrorism and the apologists for intelligence failures should be equally condemned. But UK Government prefers to gloss over these failures, the latest involving three teenage girls who were virtually (in both senses of the word) abducted by ISIS. Apart from a handful of academics, the Muslim community in Britain has largely been excluded from the prevention process, even though some may argue it is best placed to intervene early. However, there are signs that the Government and its agencies are beginning to reverse their hardline stance and work more closely with that community. This change in direction, if genuine, is even more an imperative given the rise of a new phenomenon – the ‘terrorism of the spectacle’.
Fifty years ago, two French anarchist philosophers, Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord, coined the phrase ‘the Society of the Spectacle’ and warned how the world was moving into a condition whereby everything that happens is but a reflection of our growing anomie – a ‘spectacle’. Vaneigem and Debord, to some degree, influenced the events that led to ‘Paris 68’, which saw hundreds of thousands of students occupy public buildings, millions of workers taking strike action and President de Gaulle seeking reassurance from his army chiefs that he had their support in any crackdown. Today we witness this ‘Society of the Spectacle’ phenomenon in the so-called radicalism of religious fundamentalists – specifically of the continuum that began with Al Qaeda and which over years has extended to its rival, ISIS, a religious-based variant on fascism. In the age of social media and reality TV shows it is not surprising that terrorism has been commodified and its adherents, despite their barbaric acts, given near-celebrity status. Thus, we are served terrorism as spectacle, which in itself is a form of terrorism – an assault on our rationality on an almost daily basis.
Terrorism as spectacle is in itself a catalyst for exacerbating the divisions within society – particularly those divisions that serve only to accentuate the differences between cultures. In such a confused environment it is no wonder that rationality on all sides takes a back seat, as we can see…
The UK Government and its agencies recently demonstrated crass ineptitude in dealing with terrorist threats. Here are just a few examples:
1. Over the last six months around 700 UK citizens have reportedly left for Syria (with around 60 under age 21). The UK Government’s response has been to label all – regardless of their intentions – as terrorists or potential terrorists. Pronouncements were made and various measures implemented, including automatic arrest and imprisonment if returning to the UK. There were two flaws in this: one: not everyone who travels to Syria goes there to support or fight alongside ISIS or similarly proscribed organisations; two: those UK citizens who did go to fight alongside ISIS but who realised their mistake and decided to return home (and, in doing so, possibly provide useful intelligence on ISIS to the authorities) have also been threatened with imprisonment. This hardline approach may well have proved counter-productive, resulting in more recruitment of jihadis rather than less.
2. Only the other day a former senior police officer with the National Association of Muslim Police criticised Prevent – the UK Government’s counter-terrorism agency that specialises in early intervention – and asserted that those who worked in that agency lacked basic understanding of the Muslim community and the skills needed to successfully intervene. Moreover, that the agency was perceived as just another intelligence-gathering tool.
3. Three young, very vulnerable girls traveled from Britain to Syria without their parents’ knowledge or permission. Prior to this, the police had sent a letter warning that a friend of the girls had already traveled to Syria to join ISIS. But instead of sending the letter direct to the parents, they sent it to the three girls, who reacted by bringing forward their travel plans. At every stage of their journey to Syria via Turkey there was no attempt to rescue the three girls, who were not terrorists but victims of ISIS grooming. The police have now agreed that the children will not be prosecuted on their return to the UK.
The backdrop to all this is the failure and inconsistency of UK and US foreign policy – in particular, of misjudged adventurism and interventions, of rendition, of torture and war crimes, all of which fed into and succoured the rampant terrorism that is characteristic of our times. Thus the sectarian conflict in Iraq continues unabated, as also Assad’s war on its citizenry, and the fundamentalist expansion in Saharan and even sub-Saharan Africa. The consequences in these war zones have been devastating. As a result of the current conflict over three million people have been exiled from Syria alone – most now ‘living’ in vast refugee camps in Lebanon or Turkey – while in Iraq whole communities have been decimated.
The spectacle of terrorism
If asked about their perceptions on terrorism, most people would answer in terms of bombings, small and large scale (as in 9/11); or shootings (as in Charlie Hebdo); or other kinds of murder, often dramatically carried out (as in the execution of soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London, or the beheading of innocent aid workers and journalists by the alliterative ‘Jihadi John’). These acts are very public, shocking and ideal for television consumption and, consequently, achieve what is seek – to strike fear into the populace at large. The destruction of the Twin Towers in New York by Al-Qaeda was probably one of the most heinous and spectacular acts of terrorism in modern history. And now there is a state – ISIS – whose Year Zero approach is based upon terrorism as a way of life and which carries out acts of brutality on a daily basis with thousands of Shia or Kurds or Yazidis displaced or executed. And it was only the other day that ISIS provided another spectacle – that of the wanton destruction of the archaelogical treasures of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. These senseless acts are calculated to provoke horror and induce further conflict, for the underpinning ideology is entirely amoral.
In the West the narrative of government is that terrorism is a real and present danger, that measures have been put into place to make it more difficult for terrorists to carry out their evil acts or to inspire the vulnerable, and that the anti-terrorist agencies are doing their utmost to safeguard the citizenry. Curiously, however, the agenda of these intelligence and security agencies overlaps with that of the terrorists, in that while the latter seek to create a climate of fear, the former invariably exploit that climate of fear and so, paradoxically, end up depending on it.
This, surely, has led to Orwell’s ‘war without end’. We also see Orwell’s ‘collective hate sessions’, whereby the raising of the terror stakes have the chilling effect of eroding what is left of our moral sensibilities. In such times as these the oft quoted saying about ‘when good men do nothing…’ no longer has resonance, for the intervention against terror – at least by the West – has been reduced to war by proxy (via drones and local war lords). But this is not an argument for intervention by conventional warfare, rather a statement of how things are and a reflection of what we have become. And in better understanding this slide into helplessness we can, hopefully, determine how to reclaim our dignity.
The terrorism of the spectacle:
There is another narrative at play here – not the spectacle of terrorism, but terrorism of the spectacle. The latter is partly characterised by the way the mass media appears to take delight in serving up every detail, every nuance of acts of terror and of those who perpetrate acts of terror. In the last two weeks we saw the media delving into every aspect of ‘Jihadi John’ (aka Mohammed Emwazi): stories of anger management, how he felt pressured by threats from MI5, how he was a loner with poor social skills, etc, etc. But while all that is true and needs profound examination, Emwazi’s apologists, who were few, forgot entirely a crucial ingredient in this mix: the role of free will. Joining an army in a war – whether noble or otherwise – is one thing; participating in massacres (of Shi-ites) or enslaving hundreds of women (Yazidis) or carrying out dreadful acts of violence (beheading of humanitarian aid workers of journalists) is another. These horrendous acts can not and should not be apologised away, no matter what the circumstance: they are acts of terror on par with those carried out under the leadership of Pol Pot in Kampuchea, or the massacre of millions in Rwanda, or the thousands who were murdered in the ethnic cleansing assault on Bosnia.
Every day people are regaled via their television screens or newspapers with images and accounts of acts of terrorism, or of news of terrorists arrested or imprisoned, complete with details of how they became terrorists and whether there are lessons to be learnt by studying those details. Yet in our post 9/11 world it is still true that the reality of being an actual victim of this terrorism, unless you live in the main conflict zones, is exceedingly rare. It is essential, of course, that the world is told about these terrible wars and massacres, and in many cases we rely on courageous journalists to tell these stories. With Pol Pot one such, acclaimed journalist was John Pilger. With ISIS or of Gaza, news coverage has also been outstanding. But no matter how award-winning these news stories are, if viewers and readers become immune to them – with acts of violence equated with the violence of, say, a movie or a video game – then we simply end up negating the efforts of those journalists and – worse – provide credence to the terrorists, who live only to revel in the spectacle they manage.
Subverting the spectacle:
One major consequence of the terrorism of spectacle – and the spectacle of terrorism – has been the implementation of draconian surveillance measures by empire-building agencies such as GCHQ or the NSA – both of which pursue agendas far removed from merely combating terrorism. Indeed, it can be argued that by ensuring mass surveillance is the norm, then those agencies responsible for that surveillance have allowed the terrorists to meet their objectives – namely, the erosion of liberties and the end of liberty itself.
Nevertheless, government has largely succeeded in persuading the populace that if you are against terrorism – which all rational people are – then you must support all efforts, including mass surveillance, to combat that terrorism. Similarly, government has also won the argument that if you are against mass surveillance, then you – unwittingly or otherwise – end up supporting terrorism. Both these arguments are specious and need to be trounced, for there is nothing dichotomous in opposing terrorism while at the same time opposing mass surveillance – it is not an either/or.
The style of UK Government, particularly the current Government, in dealing with the Muslim community has been one of hectoring, lecturing, issuing insults, threats and demands: all of which serve to emphasise disengagement and create mistrust, so ensuring that the young, in particular, further question their identity in a Western society and their allegiances, and so fall victim to other influences, such as that of ISIS.
But rather than heal these fault lines, the Government has clumsily widened them and, in doing so, sidelined the Muslim community, fearing to truly engage with it – apart from issuing platitudes, or urging condemnations from its leaders or generally coming across as patronising. Thus the Government has ended up on a trajectory that is the exact opposite to that which would achieve the outcomes it seeks. Nor has the reliance on the more academic-driven initiatives via, say, the work of the Quiliam Foundation and ‘bridging’ agencies, such as Channel, worked – largely because these initiatives are typically bureaucratic in their processes and seen as ‘top-down’ in approach. And, so, the authorities have learnt the hard way that insincere engagement can only make matters worse.
Genuine engagement is not just about ‘policing’, or prevention, but is a two-way process The non-Muslim communities need to directly engage with the Muslim community and vice-versa – and not in a token way, but to examine and analyse commonalities, as well as disagreements, so that mutual learning can whittle away the mistrust that in turn leads to fear. Genuine engagement is also about enabling input into long-term strategy development, including UK foreign policy. Had Tony Blair not been more keen to arse-lick George W Bush (and so take Britain and the USA into wars that have no end point) but, instead, had engaged more substantially with the Muslim community, the consequences, perhaps, over the last decade in the Middle East and also in the West may have been far, far different.
In conclusion, it can be argued that effective counter-terrorism would see communities – in particular the Muslim community – taking a central role in early intervention. And – surely – it is by strengthening the bonds and ties that unite diverse communities that citizens will not only lessen the possibility of terrorism but, collaterally, succeed in subverting the terrorism of the spectacle.
This is real radicalism.