I don’t have a problem with the word terrorism. An act designed to kill and maim large numbers of people and provoke fear in many more, can reasonably be called an act of terrorism. But to conflate terrorism and terror is to treat cause and effect as one, when they are not.
The ability to spread fear lies largely outside the hands of the terrorists. How terrorized a population becomes depends on public officials and above all on the media. The media are most often and in the most literal sense, the agents of terror.
Simon Jenkins writes: I know who the real terrorists are. Some of them set off a bomb during the Boston marathon, killing three people and injuring 176. Such things happen regularly round the world. For those in the wrong place at the wrong time it is a personal catastrophe.
Such deeds are senseless murders, but they are not terrorism as such. What makes them terrorist is the outside world rushing to hand their perpetrators a megaphone. Murder is magnified a thousandfold, replayed over and again, described and analysed, sent into every home. A blast becomes a mass psychosis, impelling a terror of repetition and demands for drastic countermeasures. An act of violence that deserves no meaning is given it.
Today in Britain Margaret Thatcher’s memorial service was being “reviewed in the light of the intelligence and security environment”, as if Boston had suddenly rendered London insecure. Sunday’s London Marathon was likewise “under discussion”, as officials had to deny that it might be cancelled. David Cameron had to speak. Boris Johnson had to speak. Could the Boston bomber have been awarded any greater accolade?
I heard a radio reporter intone that it was “incredibly difficult to make sporting events safe and security”. It is not incredibly difficult, it is impossible. But who dares say so, when the great god terror stalks the land, hand-in-hand with the BBC’s World at One?
Joseph Conrad’s secret agent declared that the bomber’s aim was not to kill but to create fear of killing. That is why the terrorist and the policeman “both come from the same basket”. The terrorist’s achievement would be to generate such fear that the police would be reduced to “shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public”. Half his battle would be won “with the disintegration of the old morality” – by which Conrad meant liberal tolerance.
At present terrorism draws strength from the west’s adoption of extra-legal violence as a countermeasure. A democracy acting in what it regards as self-defence may differ from the mindless rage of the jihadist. But America is now taking the “war on terror” away from any specific theatre into a realm of “out of area” assassination, rendition and drone killing. As such it is easily seen as giving itself a license for random violence. [Continue reading…]