After the third terror attack in England in so many months (one in Manchester, two in London) it behooves us to consider if we are pivoting to a true clash of civilizations, in Huntington’s sense, and if the world we inhabit is more dangerous, or more risky, than the one we grew up into (let’s say, between 1970 and 2010 or, if we want to align the focus of our analysis with the great tectonic shifts of history, between 1989 -the year of the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War- and 2001 -the year of the attacks that felled the twin towers in New York on Sep-11 which in turn triggered the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003).
But before we discuss the issue at hand, let me give a little background of my upbringing, as it has surely colored my understanding of this “terrorism” thing. I grew up in Madrid, in the 70’s. A little separatist group had been recently established vying for the political independence of a small corner of the country, the Basque region (that group was the only recently disbanded ETA, whose two first murders happened in 1968, although there is an apocryphal attribution of the killing of a 22 month old girl in 1960, most historians today think they were not the culprits of that one). In the second half of the decade they were killing between 60 and 80 people a year, more than one per week: mostly policemen and soldiers (members of the “occupation army” both in the Basque provinces and in the capital) but also businessmen who didn’t pay the “revolutionary tax”, bus drivers, teachers, owners of bars and restaurants, patrons and simple passers-by gunned down or blown away just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again, rare was the week that didn’t bring the news of another attack, or another victim. Some were, as mentioned, members of the “state security forces” in the terrorists parlance (as if such category were not just another kind of salaried worker, directly providing a much needed service for the well-being of most), but unavoidably many of them were not.
Later, well in the 80’s the band would lose its initial “legitimacy” (in the eyes of a part of their populations of origin, who still saw them as freedom fighters again Franco’s dictatorship, many years after such dictatorship had been replaced by a democratic government) by perpetrating ever more savage acts, bombing apartment blocks and public places were scores of women and children would be killed (like a shopping mall in Barcelona in 1987, causing 21 deaths, or the blowing of an apartment building housing policemen in Saragossa in 1987 also, resulting in 11 deaths, or in Vic in 1991, with 9 dead).
All that may sound like ancient history, like the wars of the Greeks and the Persians: some historians tell you who were the good boys, and who were not so good. All equally removed from us, burdened with concerns and preoccupations very different from ours. Until it all becomes awfully close and clear. I remember very vividly the morning of the 14th of July 1986, as a car bomb exploded just three blocks away from my house, as a bus transporting policemen passed, killing 12 of them and wounding scores of bystanders. The bomb went off besides the entrance of the tube station I sometimes used to go to school, and although I wasn’t taking it that particular day, it felt near enough to make it uncomfortably real. And it was not just my country.
On some summers we would go to Ireland to practice English, and learn of the state of slow motion civil war up North (Bobby Sands was already in jail, he would die in prison in 1981, after a hunger strike) and the renewed activity of the IRA, both in Northern Ireland and in London. In Germany we heard of the RAF (Fraction of the Red Army) led by Ulrike Meinhof (suspiciously found dead in her cell in May 1976, she apparently hanged herself with a towel, something I propose my most venturesome readers to attempt, just to realize how difficult it would be) and Andreas Baader (even more suspiciously found dead, also in his cell, within a high security prison complex, with a difficult to explain shot in the head in October next year). In Italy the “red brigades” were conducting a terror campaign that culminated with the kidnapping and killing of the Christian Democracy leader Aldo Moro in 1978 (I personally remember with great clarity the images in the news -still in black and white back then- of the just found corpse of the politician). In most of Latin America those were also the “lead years” that would end in the rise of more or less sinister military dictatorships.
So I have an intimate, first person experience of what it is to live in a society besieged by terrorism, where terror attacks are not an exception or something that every now and then seem to come out of the blue, to be quickly forgotten, but part and parcel of everyday life. Where you know some of your countrymen are actively dedicated to the overthrowing of the (more or less) legitimate form of government. You wake up in the morning and go about your life (go to school, to the Uni, to work, buy groceries, visit a friend, go to a movie) knowing that a certain number of those you cross paths with are devoting all of their waking energy to plot for mayhem and destruction. In “secret locations” they store weaponry (machine guns, pistols, revolvers, explosives, pressure cookers, nuts and bolts, ignition switches, catapults, truncheons, balaclavas, knifes… their arsenal, luridly shown when arrested, always has some shockingly outdated, incongruous materials), they train in their use, they follow political leaders, members of government, industrialists, famous journalists or just look for busy places where they can cause the maximum carnage. And as they more or less successfully carry on their grim trade and the list of casualties grow by the day you become number and number to a certain amount of pieties: the rule of law, presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, the unconditional evil of torturing a prisoner to attempt to extract some information…
Indeed, I recall that being (as it still is nowadays) the absolutely predictable reaction of a growing segment of the population: harsher punishment for terrorist; Bring back the death penalty! Mix them with common criminals, so they are regularly beaten, and raped! (in the mind of a certain segment of the public, “normal” incarceration is supposed to be a Holiday spa, certainly not much of a punishment for such grisly acts as terrorists have committed. And of course, not only the perpetrators, but their accomplices must be similarly prosecuted. And not only current accomplices, but potential ones. To prevent their hateful ideology from propagating, freedom of the press (and of association) can and should be curtailed. You don’t want to provide the killers with a bullhorn and allow them to form a political party so they can better spew their credo of violence and aggression against innocent people! In my own country, the “German solution” (difficult not to reach the conclusion than the country’s security forces had something to do with the “suicide” of the Baader-Meinhof leaders) was almost universally praised.
Now we know that some countries went along those lines further than others. Spain dabbled in “state terrorism”, and a “counterterrorist” group was founded (GAL, the not terribly imaginative acronym for “Counterterrorism Liberation Group”) with funds and material support from what were then called the “states’ sewers”. Active between 1984 and 1987, they killed a number of militants accused of belonging to ETA or their political arm (HB), but also up to 10 people with no relationship whatsoever with the band. They contributed to the end of what was known as the “French sanctuary” (where people accused of terrorism in Spain, a democracy on the verge of joining the EU, could roam absolutely unimpeded) but also helped a significant segment of the public opinion in the Basque provinces stay resolutely in favor of the terrorists’ activity (presented as a legitimate defense from an equally bloodthirsty national state that had no qualms to resort to similarly indiscriminate violence) for many years. However, due in part to their sheer bumbling incompetence (the “GAL affair” would be used against the then-governing socialist party once the many links between them and the government became public, and the Home Secretary that probably oversaw their creation ended up serving time in jail) they did not irreversibly degrade the still very recent democratic institutions of the country, and the final disappearance of ETA was due to the vast majority of the population turning against their methods, rather than the “military defeat” that many dreamed of in their worse days. Although militarily defeated they were, with their commandos being regularly dismantled by the police and a growing number of members behind bars claiming for a “negotiated agreement” being one of the factors that undoubtedly accelerated their demise.
In a certain sense, that’s the better outcome that could be expected. European democracies were never really threatened by left-wing radicals in the late 70’s (we now know that they had some modest material support from the Soviet Union, but not so much between their own citizenry to ever have a realistic shot at seizing power, or just triggering a popular response that would seriously destabilize democratic governments), and even the separatist movements (IRA and ETA) that continued into the 80’s and 90’s never had much of a chance, no matter how serious the grievances against the local populations from which they drew their support truly were.
Thus, the societies they tried to terrorize, just by staying resolutely democratic and not deferring to those between them that claimed for more “extraordinary powers” to better combat the scourge of terrorism, defeated them at the end of the day. But not all the countries were so lucky: in Latin America, as I mentioned, democracies were indeed overturned (in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador…) and replaced by military rule, that in most cases ended being worse for the majority of the population than the terrorists ever were, and most have still not fully recovered from the cronyism, corruption and loss of civic spirit that totalitarian rule entails. Not only that, but they are probably much less equal societies than they were back then, with solidarity between elites and the majority of the population significantly eroded by the former’s support to military regimes, and the latter’s bearing the brunt of the repression and abuses of said regimes. I’m not saying that terrorism is the only explanation for the rise of the harvest of strongmen and military juntas that seized power in the region in the 70’s and 80’s (a wide number of additional reasons explain that, including the interference of USA’s State Department and the more or less open support of the CIA), but ti definitely had an oversize role in such developments.
Talking about myself, I can say that now (with Basque separatists’ terrorism all but extinct for a decade, although the latest terrorist attack in Spanish soil was pretty spectacular: on March 11th 2004 ten explosions in trains at peak hour would cause the death of 192 people and injured more than 2,000) I oppose the recourse to “extraordinary means” to combat violence as much as I did back then, when my political philosophy was forming, and basically consisted in being against what the majority of my countrymen would be for (always the contrarian). Always against the death penalty (the state has no business taking any of his citizen’s lives, no matter what unspeakable evil they may have perpetrated). Always against limits to a free press (heck, if we allow “The Economic Approach to Human Behavior” by Gary Becker to be widely discussed and sold, I can’t see why we shouldn’t do the same with “Mein Kampf”, “Das Kapital”, or any similarly demented manifesto from whatever half-addled visionary psychopath). Let us not forget I’m a Kantian, so in particular always against torture, which is for me a line in the sand beyond which I do not think it permissible to go ever (not even in a “ticking bomb” scenario, and furthermore I think the plausibility of those scenarios is mostly hogwash). A society that grants certain “extraordinary powers” to its government so it can more effectively provide security and “fight terrorism” may be in for an ugly shock, when the behavior of the government ends up being as immoral as that of the baddies it had to purportedly fight.
But, as opposed to today’s dominant narrative, I don’t think such opposition aligns me instead with your average wishy-washy liberal (in the American sense): I’m not especially fond of a number of progressive shibboleths, from identity politics to representative democracy itself (although I don’t know of any historical example of single party polity that was supportive enough of a free press to win my admiration), and I believe in a number of tenets (from the moral superiority of what, from lack of a better term, we may call the Western tradition to the existence of biological differences between races and sexes, plus a certain irrational allegiance to heteronomous norms for organizing collective existence that have been definitely out of fashion for at least a couple of centuries) that put me waaaaay beyond the pale for your average run-of-the-mill left-leaning enlightened citizen. However, as usual in this blog, I don’t think my own highly idiosyncratic thoughts and opinions are as interesting for my readers as a wider analysis of why the majority think as it does. So rather than discuss what I personally think about the terrorist threat (that can be summarized as: it exists, it is blown out of all proportion by a frenzied media, as it is much less serious than it was four decades ago, and it is best combatted with good police and an exquisite application of the rule of law) I want to devote the remainder of this post to consider why it gets so much attention and what is the most rational attitude towards it (towards the attention, that is, not towards terrorism itself: it goes without saying that the only rational attitude towards terrorism is of unqualified condemnation -without forgetting that one man’s terrorism is another man’s dignified struggle for liberation and recognition, see Menachem Begin and Hotel King David bombing).
But first, to put things in perspective, let’s remember a couple facts: the number of people who have died in terrorist attacks in the whole wide world in the last years hovers between ten thousand and forty thousand:
That looks pretty bad, doesn’t it? But if we decompose the figures a bit, we quickly see that most of those victims, sad and heartbreaking as they are, are very much concentrated in a few trouble spots, which (and I know I’m being admittedly rude and insensitive here) we could summarize as “Muslims killing one another”. The majority of casualties of terrorist attacks, as publicized as disasters like the Bataclan shootings, the Lockerbie bombing or Madrid train explosions are, com from bombings and shooting of Shia Muslims at the hands of Sunni ones (and a considerably lower amount of the opposite). So much so that some newspaper have already noticed that while journalist in the West routinely look for the “human interest” angle of the victims of the (comparatively few) attacks in the West, they give at most a statistical summary of the much more violent carnage relentlessly unfolding in the rest of the world (Terror attacks in the West and elsewhere ). Now I don’t want to convey the impression that not all acts of terror are similarly tragic, or that there are different classes of victims, some more deserving our sympathy and commiseration than others, but as I want to center my subsequent analysis on Western media and Western society reactions, I’ll zoom in the number of victims in Europe and the US, namely:
So in the worst year (1988: 270 people died over Lockerbie and about 100 in Spain due to a single terrorist group, the already discussed ETA) a bit more than 400 Europeans died in terror attacks. Within a population of about 250 million.
What about the USA? For all practical purposes the USA has suffered a single, very traumatic big attack (Sep 11th) and then a drip of smaller ones (the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 being the most notorious, and deadliest, of them):
So on a typical year terrorism, that modern scourge, that deadly plague, that most awful threat of our times, is likely to kill a couple hundreds Europeans and a couple dozens North Americans. Some plague! Just to put it in perspective, in 2016 deaths directly attributable to tobacco use reached 7 million worldwide, and slightly less than half a million in the USA. Deaths in car crashes amounted to 1.25 million worldwide, almost 35,000 in the USA.
And of course, the number of fatalities in car accidents in the USA is actually below that of people killed using a gun:
Yup, I know the source is the Communist News Network, not a reputable source like Taki or Breitbart (just kiddin’ folks) but the numbers add up with what I’ve been researching in other sources. And the majority of those deaths (about two thirds) are suicides anyway. And the statistics do not reflect the hundreds of thousands of acts of violence prevented by heroic and well-trained armed citizens protected by their sacrosanct right to keep and bear arms, enshrined in the 2nd amendment. Yadda, yadda, yadda, my point is, a society inured to that level of violent death (self-inflicted or otherwise) has no rationale for taking every sort of constitutionally dubious measure (special tribunals, state-sanctioned “enhanced interrogation” methods, foreign detention sites with no judicial supervision, discretionary powers to snoop into the communications of ordinary citizens with no explicit warrant, and on and on and on…) because some weirdo or other decides every few months to kill one or two of his countrymen whilst shouting “Allahu Akbar” (instead of shouting “gimme your wallet” or the plain ol’ “you talkin’ to me?”).
So back to my original question: if you live in Europe, or the USA (or Australia, or Japan, or Korea, or Canada) these are still pretty peaceful times compared with historical standards, and your chances of dying or being hurt in a terrorist attack are as slim as those of being struck by an actual, honest-to-God lightning, and much, much lower than being involved in a car accident or contracting a cardiorespiratory disease due to second-hand smoke. Just to clarify, things are much grimmer if you live in Iraq, Afghanistan or South Sudan, but that’s not what we are talking about here. I do not read Iraqi, Afghan or Sudanese newspaper, but I do read European and American ones, and rare is the day when terrorism is not in them. Months after any substantial attack we are still discussing them, obsessing about them, analyzing how the perpetrators radicalized, who they talked to, what they were like, what they posted in social media and what signals if any they did give of their growing alienation.
And I think that is the key to the fascination of the media with terrorists (or, more precisely, with terrorists who strike in our midst, as they really couldn’t care less about the ones that choose to blow themselves up in Helmand or Lahore): they are the perfect example of the “other one” in our midst that most substantially reject our value system. As a brief aside, what is that value system made of? A rule for assigning social precedence (who gives orders and who has to obey), a set of socially sanctioned desires (what is it considered legitimate to strive for) and, most conspicuously, what a life well lived consists in. The trifecta of dominant reason. Which is the real key of the attention we lavish on those that reject the three tenets wholesale: painting them as the most evil, most disturbed, most despicable and most deserving of scorn (it is interesting to note how frequently they are depicted as “losers”… well in a sense they are, and that’s part of the reason they chose not to participate in the common criteria for assigning positions in the social hierarchy) serves the purpose of increasing the social cohesion, by emphasizing the worst outcomes of stepping out of the majority’s consensus of what serves as an intelligible reason for action (those conforming to the dominant, desiderative one).
Indeed, a crumbling dominant reason that is questioned (or openly rejected) by a growing percentage of the population can not expect to obtain new allegiances through positive messaging: that is what being exhausted entails, it has stopped efficiently convincing the newer generations of its validity, and can only resort to pointing out how much worse any imaginable alternative is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the terrorists’ credo is a valid, viable, imaginable alternative (I have not studied whatever form of reason was dominant in Xth century Arabia, but I doubt it can function to instill XXIst century globalized society with a functioning set of shared values), I’m saying we find it endlessly highlighted in the news, in the press, on TV, in memes and FB posts and incendiary podcasts because a number of actors see it as a useful foil (“don’t like desiderative reason? Look how much worse the alternative looks like”) with which to prevent further social degradation. And again, it’s not that I think preventing social degradation is an unworthy goal. I’m all against social degradation, but presenting a boogie man, a red herring and crying wolf all in one is not going to do the work.
It is not going to do the work because when a dominant reason loses its grip on the collective imagination the only way to revive the fortunes of the suddenly rudderless group that it previously helped to coordinate is to replace it with a new one. As far as I’ve been able to see, no dominant reason ever was revived by the oversized depiction of an external threat. Rather, such strategy has frequently backfired and accelerated the demise of the old set of values, and their replacement by a new one. Like Burke fulminating the incoming Romantic Reason by associating it with the excesses of the Terror phase of the French Revolution (did Burke, and many like him, manage to sustain Economic Reason? Nope, Shelley and Byron and Wordsworth were in the end more influential than Condorcet and Rousseau and Voltaire in overcoming the venerable dominant reason he so much cherished, but overcome it they did, and thus Romantic reason ended reigning supreme in England as much as in the Continent). Or like Heidegger fulminating against bureaucratic reason in the name of god ol’ romantic one (well, in his home country romantic reason did experience a comeback, and a whole world war was needed to unseat it again), or Adorno, Benjamin and Horkheimer fulminating against the then rising desiderative reason (from their bureaucratized perspective, it was so much better in their eyes to have a cadre of humane, well-trained, cultivated public servants organizing society and deciding on the social hierarchy, rather than the messy business of leaving it to the market!).
So don’t get too fixated on the barrage of news of atrocities in the great Western capitals (atrocities that can, and should, be stopped by patient police work, not by the granting of “extraordinary powers” to governments too prone to abuse them). Whatever hodgepodge of half-baked value system comprising legitimate desires, criteria for social precedence and what a life well-lived looks like as are proposed by people that try to advance them by indiscriminately blowing people up will not prevail, I have little doubt about that. But neither will our own current set, if only because it has shown itself incapable of physically reproducing those that should embody it. Decrying and denouncing and belittling the former will do little to bolster the latter. Accelerating the advent of self-driving cars, and thus reducing the number of accidents, on the other hand, seems like a very worthy endeavor...