Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A War on the "War"

It was widely expected that President Bush would not use the anniversary of September 11th to make a controversial or politically motivated partisan statement but last night that is exactly what he did (full speech here (pdf)). The willingness of the Bush administration to manipulate the deaths of 3,000 people for their own purposes apparently knows no bounds. It really is a sickening spectacle.

President Bush took the opportunity to urge the American people to back his "war" on terror but the "war" on terror isn't actually a war in any meaningful sense. The phrase was created for US domestic political purposes and continues to be used today primarily for the same. This article explains (and that, if you didn't know, is the reason why I write "war" on terror).

As part of an effort to put a stop to terrorist extremism, even the phrase "war on terror" is counter-productive. It elevates the murderous criminals who perpetrate terrorism against innocent civilians to a level they do not deserve. They are not an army against which it is possible to fight a war; they are thugs and criminals. For many years the British government resisted the demand that they give IRA terrorists POW status and for good reason. Bush's "war" on terror, on the other hand, gives extremists the status they crave.

Furthermore, by allowing these extremists to become the dominant issue in the most powerful country in the world, the “war” on terror actually validates their activities and encourages them to believe that their tactics are powerful and effective and that they are succeeding in spreading terror. This again, is exactly the opposite of what is required. The extremists should be marginalised as dangerous but ultimately unimportant. At the same time, quietly, intelligence and police sources should be used to track them down and bring them to justice.

It has been well documented that terrorism thrives on the symbiotic relationship between terrorist actions and media coverage of the same. If you're not convinced, consider the way the media have relentlessly bombarded us with stories and coverage related to the September 11th attacks over the last few days. Does that make you feel safer or less safe?

The media do not do this to intentionally frighten us and, therefore, further the goals of the terrorists but this is the result all the same. They have become unwitting amplifiers for the terrorists and the acts they commit. It is a process which is caused by the media's inability to exercise self-restraint when it comes to reporting sensational stories. Terrorists know this and quite deliberately exploit it.

And that same process is at work in President Bush's "war" on terror. It might be too much to expect the media in a democratic country to be able to exercise the sort of self-restraint which would break the symbiotic relationship which exists there but it should not be too much to expect our political leaders to understand this relationship and make sure that our government's do not fall into the same trap. Instead, the Bush administration has sought to exploit the threat for its own ends and, perhaps unintentionally, created another symbiotic relationship, one which acts as a further amplifier for terrorism and makes further attacks even more likely. Blair has done exactly the same.

On the radio today, there was a discussion about the fact that classical musicians can no longer take their musical instruments into the cabin when flying from the UK. When travelling abroad for performances, these musicians, who, for obvious reasons, are unwilling to entrust their irreplaceable instrument to the dark world behind the plastic sheeting at airports, have been forced to take the Eurostar to Paris and then fly on from there. This is, apparently, a serious problem and is threatening the livelihood of British classical musicians.

The reaction of most listeners was predictable; public safety must come before economic or other considerations so the musicians will just have to learn to live with these new rules.

And yet:
  • 3,180 people were killed in the 12 months to March this year,
  • 268,900 people were either injured or killed in the 12 months to this March.
In road traffic accidents.

More people die on our roads every year than died in the attacks of September 11th 2001. Over the last five years, three hundred times as many people died in the UK in road traffic accidents as in terrorist attacks.

When people talk to me about the importance of doing absolutely everything to fight terrorism, I tell them these statistics. Most people respond by looking slightly confused. When I go on to ask if they support a "war" on motorists, they start to look worried, like they might have accidentally become embroiled in a conversation with someone who's not quite right in the head. When I say that a mandatory national 10mph speed limit would save thousands of lives, they appear to become genuinely frightened.

Try it at home if you fancy it; it can be quite interesting to see people reacting.

Of course, I'm not actually arguing that we should have a mandatory 10mph speed limit but instead highlighting something about the society we live in, about our attitude to risk and about the importance of maintaining a sense of perspective.

Yes, we should do everything we can to stop terrorist attacks within the laws of our society. But we should not allow the terrorists to force us to change those laws or to abandon our freedoms. And we should not allow our politicians, whether through ignorance or mendacity, to become unwitting tools for terrorist extremists.

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. said...

I heard that bit of the show on the radio. As the geordie bloke came on to argue that terrorists could hide their explosives in a cello, all I could think was: has it come to this? That we've become so frightened/terrified of such a sinister enemy that people will jump at the chance to come on national radio to say that musicians should consider people's lives before their own monetary gain? It didn't seem to matter to this man that musical instruments can easily be scanned to ensure they haven't been hollowed out, just that these moaning musicians were putting innocent people's lives at risk through their pathetic, cowardly, whining.

You're entirely right about the media hype over the last few days and the connection between the fear. The sentimentality yesterday was crushing here, I dread to think what it was like in America. On some stations there were rerunning the events as they happened, which struck me as being more macabre and morbid than the very worst actions of a child rapist or serial killer being replayed. We're letting a rag-tag army of men with millenarian views win, and our governments are more than happy for it to happen because of short-term political gain. It's about time that we said enough is enough and actually showed that the threat is hyped up beyond all rational reason. That even if we did we'd most likely get nowhere shows just how much we've already lost.

Anonymous said...

(Sorry to post anonymously. My url will be at the bottom of this comment. I am using the new beta blogger and cannot comment except anonymously on anyone's blog who has not updated.)

I find myself shaking my head every day and wondering if this is really the section of history I am to be a part of.

Thank you for the little gem on the traffic accident statistics. I think I might use it at my family's next Thanksgiving dinner where I will be the only person in the room against the infringement on privacy in the name of a "war on terror".


Tim said...

You should (shouldn't) live in the US! I am afraid. Very afraid. I am convinced that the US government is neck deep in the blood others - even their own citizens....
Bush/Cheney is the modern version of Hitler/Goering

janinsanfran said...

Dear . -- the hype in America was nauseating. Thanks for thinking of us. It would have been worse, but our kind of football upstaged the Preznit's speech.