How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
The British blogosphere is up in arms, some of them quite literally. We’re under attack by nihilistic terrorists, with whom there is no negotiation. Their goals are ludicrous enough that it is almost impossible to countenance considering them, and thus we are at war. Even if it were possible and even moral to withdraw all of our, and all of the the rest of the West’s, troops from the Middle East, a move which would almost certainly destroy any chance of democracy taking root in their soil and which would condemn the people to rule by despots, dictators, and fundamentalist medieval-mindset clerics, we still shouldn’t do it for purely strategic reasons. This post was prompted by this, over at Chicken Yoghurt, where a few of us agreed that we really don’t know much about terrorism, and that the discussion that the British blogosphere is having is missing the point.
As I said over at Justin’s place, I’ve seen the bombings used in the last few weeks as an rallying call for support for mass redistribution of wealth, the closure of faith schools, the importance of increasing the size of the welfare state, massively decreased civil liberties, pulling out of Iraq, redoubling our efforts in Iraq, pulling out of the entire middle East, abandoning Israel to its fate, and I’d guess that Polly Toynbee somehow managed to squeeze Sure Start in there, although I can’t be certain about that last one.
Indeed, Polly did talk about Sure Start a few days later, but didn’t make a connection to the bombings, a small mercy for which I am eternally grateful. All of this talk though seems to me to be trying to fit a new phenomenon into our existing cultural/political framework. Not that terrorism itself is particularly new as such, but this brand of almost goal-less terrorism is certainly novel. It’s what Iain Banks called an Outside Context Problem – something so new, so different, that it shocks the world, that we don’t know how to react to it or deal with it, something that we can only hope is benign. Unfortunately for us, this most definitely is not benign. So our choice is stark – we either give in to their demands, or we carry on with the unhappy and uneasy status quo, accepting that some casualties on both sides are a feature of this war, or we try to win. I am voting for option 3. The problem is that not many people seem to have got past the point of accepting that this is new and different, and that our current toolset is inadequate to deal with the problem. Let’s go back over that list again. Over the last three weeks, I’ve seen people attempt to analyse the root causes of terrorism, and they have come up with the following:
and so on. Many more have put forward more theories about why we’re under attack, but few, if any, have put forward a coherent set of ideas about what we should do to respond. I suppose the unspoken corollary of the root cause theories listed above is that if only we do something about poverty, alienation, religious intervention in the state, our ‘imperialism’ in the Middle East, and so on, terrorism will just pack it’s bags and head on home, satisfied with a job well done. I don’t find this reasoning compelling, for all sorts of reasons, but chiefly because if we allow terrorism to influence our policy just once, it will become a more legitimate form of political expression. The other big reason is that I don’t think any of these things really cause terrorism, as such. It is certainly more likely to be a combination of factors, but I don’t think analysing it in terms of our own priors and prejudices is going to help. It’s an Outside Context Problem.
The question that I find most interesting is ‘what can we do?’, and I think there are actually some straightforward decisions we can make immediately to start reducing our risk. This is probably more contentious, but I thought I’d suggest a couple of things, then throw the floor open for debate. Maybe the wisdom of crowds here can give us some decent answers. For our less moderate, ‘nuke those towelheads back into the Stone Age’-type readers, please don’t suggest we nuke anything. I’m pretty sure our nuclear deterrent is well past it’s use-by date, anyway.
Firstly, we need to be far less tolerant of extremism within our midst. I’m as close to being a free speech fundamentalist as it’s really possible to be, but on this issue, I think there is some give. We shouldn’t be allowing imams to preach without some form of qualification to do so. Priests and vicars go through a seminary school to become clergy. I’m not aware that imams (or the correct equivalent – I’m not really sure that the terminology is correct – muftis, mullahs?) go through anything similar. If not, they should be doing, and extremism should be rooted out at that point. If that’s impractical, we need to get ruthless about deporting foreign-born clerics who preach intolerance and hatred. The ones who are British born are tougher to deal with, obviously, but certainly they should be under surveillance by the security services at the very least.
On immigration, we have to realise that there is a generation of immigrants that we have failed to integrate successfully, and particularly for Pakistani immigrants into the north of England, we screwed them over pretty badly when the textile industry died out. Their kids have grown up seeing their parents struggle financially, seeing overt racism and segregation, and the decline in our own culture, so they turn to other sources of authority. Simplistic, certainly, but there is at least a grain of truth there. What should we do about it? We need to break up the ghettoisation that has occurred in some of our cities, although as yet I have no idea how to do that (tax breaks for non-Muslims moving into predominantly Muslim postcodes?). We also probably need to limit certain types of immigration, like chain migration, or massive influxes of unskilled labour.
Tied to this, we should be asserting British culture aggressively. By that, I don’t mean going on about fish-and-chips and wet bank holiday weekends, but I do mean that we need to regain some pride in who we are and what we believe in. The political atmosphere of progressiveness and permanent revolution tends, I believe, to enforce the sense that we are progressing from something bad to something more positive. It suggests that what we have is worthless, or at least badly flawed. It isn’t. For all the moaning about Britain I do, especially about our politics, it really is the greatest country in the world, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else by choice. More people need to be saying that, and saying it publicly, and saying it often. We should have citizenship tests, and pledges of allegiance, and all that stuff, but it’s peripheral to the pride in our country that all of that represents. And we should fly the flag on all public buildings.
Finally from me, we should be setting an example of what justice and fairness and tolerance are all about. We need to stand up for our civil liberties when it is so easy to sweep them away. The police don’t need 3 months to question a terror suspect, or we end up with things like this. We should be celebrating our freedoms and our society’s virtues, not throwing them away.
I apologise for not having any silver bullets for this beast. It’s new, it’s different. Our current thinking and mindsets aren’t set up to accommodate its otherness, so there are no easy off-the-shelf solutions. It will take time to solve, and it is going to involve more innocents dying, but the alternatives are far worse. So, the floor is open – what else would you do and why?