Saturday, September 17, 2005

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah

So what's so bad about making the glorification of terrorism illegal then? No, I'm not going to harp on about the problems of defining terrorism yet again. I will just point out one ridiculous effort to avoid the problem. It's this bizarre clause which exempts any terrorist act occurring more than 20 years ago unless the Home Secretary specifically decrees that it is included. Why is that necessary? If ever a bill deserved to be called Orwellian then this must be it. Just in case anyone from the government ever reads this, I must just say once again, George Orwell's 1984 IS NOT AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL! The government is not supposed to write history. It is a bad idea.

Anyway, I said I wasn't going to harp on about the difficulty of defining what it is you're not allowed to glorify. Let's assume that we're talking about the glorification of individual terrorist acts by muslim extremists. In fact, let's be specific and assume we're talking about someone praising the London bombers. If I heard someone doing this I'd be enraged. It sounds like common sense to make it an illegal act.

But I don't think it is. If you consider what sort of person is likely to praise the London bomber they are almost all what I'd call "potentials". They are not themselves involved in terrorism but they have the potential to become terrorists.* They are, in a sense, the battleground on which this "war" will be won or lost. Terrorism, especially suicide bombing, does not lend itself to longevity. The power of Islamic extremism comes from it's ability to recruit large numbers of these "potentials" to the cause. In order to win, we need to disrupt that supply line.

Give the spies a break
On a purely practical level, it might not be a good idea to ban this sort of behaviour. I should say that I don't like the idea that we've got spies running around the place but I accept that they're necessary. They keep an eye on those people who might be a danger to the public and I suspect they are really very good at it. If we ban the glorification of terrorism this is likely to make it much harder for the security services to identify "potentials" and, more importantly, new recruits. There's no doubt that every person who publicly praises the London bombings is on an MI5 watchlist. Making this illegal won't stop it happening but it will make it more difficult for the spies to spot when it does.

Your ideas are rubbish
This is the cruciall point and it's why Blair's policies sound convincing. We all agree that anyone who praises the London bombers is fundamentally wrong. In Blair's words they have "subscribed to a twisted ideology". That is not in doubt. How we react, however, is a different matter.

Blair wants to criminalise an ideology. History shows that this is unlikely to be a successful approach. (The Romans tried it once with Christianity and look where that got us.) It just is not possible to persecute an ideology out of existence without using extremely brutal tactics. Like trying to kill every single one of them. The most likely outcome of that approach is the creation of martyrs, the best ideology fuel ever invented. In essence, you simply cannot legislate the way people think. This law will not stop the "praisers" believing what they believe. If anything it will reinforce their beliefs. It will be interpreted as a sign that we are frightened of their ideology and have no answer to it.

So what should we do?
The most important thing our politicians and community leaders should be doing is engaging with the "potentials". We need to talk to them, to try to understand how they have arrived at the conclusions they have. We should have them explain why they are so angry with western society. Some of their grievences are legitimate even if their ideology is not. We must demonstrate that we are willing to try to address those legitimate grievances and an effort must be made to ensure that the "potentials" are included in this process. At the same time we must explain and justify our reasons for objecting to grievances which we do not accept as legitimate. We need to explain why it is always unacceptable to target civilians and we need to make sure we don't do it ourselves. In short, we need to win the argument. Unsurprisingly, that is the only way to win a battle of ideas.

It's an unsavoury business and it takes a strong government to be able to carry out such a policy. Unfortunately we don't have one of those so we're criminalising ideas instead. It sound great but it is, in fact, useless. This law won't combat the ideology and it won't stop it spreading; it'll just drive it underground. It is likely to gain in strength and popularity as a result.

* Remember that for operational reasons, those actually recruited to an active terrorist organisation prefer to keep a low profile. They don't want attention until they've done whatever they plan to do.

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