Thursday, June 15, 2006

This New Terrorism

Today is the tenth aniversary of the IRA bomb attack which damaged a sizable part of Manchester's city centre. More than two hundred people were injured in the blast which caused an estimated £700m damage. It was just the latest of a series of attacks which had started that Febuary with the Dockland bomb in London which killed two people.

John Major was Prime Minister. His willingness to embark on a longstanding association with the Carlyle Group after the '97 election suggest that he's not the most scrupulous individual ever to have occupied Number Ten.

Major, nevertheless responded to the attack in a reasonably sensible way. He said:
This act by a handful of fanatics will be regarded with contempt and disgust around the world.
Clearly, his assertion that that these attacks were the work of "a handful of fanatics" was true.

Importantly, by emphasising this fact, Major sought to counter any suggestion that these fanatics should be allowed to dominate the political agenda. Part of the standard strategy adopted by terrorists is to attempt to use random violence to create a climate of fear. This climate can give the terrorists a degree of power which is disporportionate to their actual physical ability to inflict harm. In this, target government have, often unwittingly, done more to help the cause of the terrorists than they themselves ever could. Major was, it seems, determined not to fall into that trap.

Michael Howard, again, not my favourite ever Home Secretary, gave an interview to John Humprys the next day in which he elaborated on the government's strategy. He said the government was attempting to "exclude and isolate the few extremists who continue to be prepared to use violence to get their way".

Howard, like Major, rightly downplayed the importance of a"few extremists" and made it clear that they would not be allowed to set the agenda.

He also said this:
[W]hat we can't do is offer any guarantee that there will not be another attack. Open, free, democratic societies are always vulnerable to those terrorists who are prepared to use force to achieve their ends and nobody can ever offer a guarantee that we won't have such an attack in the future, that we can prevent every such attack. What I can say is that we are vigilant in the extreme. We are prepared to take any action that we regard as likely to be effective to combat this menace and that we pull no punches, we do everything in our power to bring those responsible to justice.
This is true and it's important that the public be reminded of the fact on occassion. (It always surprises me that the people who tend to say things like "wars are inevitable, deal with it pinko" are the very same people who say "we must be prepared to pay any price to stop terrorism". Baffling.)

Terrorism, almost by definition ("what definition?", you rightly ask), is carried out by handfuls of fanatics and it's very difficult to stop them. Even the most repressive totalitarian regimes are unable to completely stop terrorist activities so democratic societies are always going to be vulnerable to terrorist attack to some extent. That is, much as we might wish it otherwise, a fact.

As usual, since ridiculous preconceptions, misrepresentations based on logical fallacies and moronic tribal name calling are par for the course whenever you mention the T word these days, I'll stress that stating this fact does not in any way imply that I believe we should do nothing. Although, I feel slightly queasy doing so, I refer you back to what Michael Howard said.

The central stategy of random terrorist violence as a means to project disproportionate power and thereby dominate the agenda has not changed. Nevertheless, there are differences between 1996 and 2006. Major's strategy, which included pursuit of an active peace process with clearly identified groups, could not simply be transfered wholesale to today's situation. There are, however, central stategic issues which are just as relevant today. Major, it appears, understood those issues to some dgree. Blair does not.

It might be interesting to speculate as to how Blair would have reacted had he been in Major's shoes in 1996. Suffering in the polls and facing the prospect of losing power at the election the following year, would Blair have made a genuine attempt to deal with these complex issues even though it was politically risky? Or would have have introduced a raft of tabloid pleasing tough new anti-terror laws designed to be opposed by the opposition so that he could claim they were "soft on terrorism". A genuine attempt to deal withe the issues or the exploitation of a terrorist attack to make political capital for himself and his lackeys?

Does anyone have even the slightest doubt which option he'd have chosen?

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