19 July 2005

Not why, but whence?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:16 am

petty2.jpgThis is from a nice cartoon by Bruce Petty in The Age last week. It contrasts this thoughtful fellow with your more typical Warrior-on-Terror cowering behind barbed wire with his fatalistic but perhaps irrefutable “Not if but when” placard, and I think it’s very good. Go and have a look at it, I’ll wait here.

I’m always quietly amazed at what political cartoonists get away with: I particularly like Cathy Wilcox, who does these little editorial throwaways all through the Fairfax papers that say exactly what everyone’s thinking. Alan Moir’s stuff is good and pointed but I think Wilcox is actually funny, and I like how it’s just slipped in with the news stories. I hope that when the media-ownership laws are a distant memory and we’ve only got the moguls’ word to go on, these guys’ll be the last to go. Cathy Guisewite, on the other hand, should be first against the wall.

So obviously there’s a lot to say about the recent London attacks and I’m not particularly qualified to say it, even though I have been to London and actually rode upstairs on a red double-decker bus. One interesting thing Petty said on the “Talking Pictures” segment of the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday is that Tony Blair at least seems to be backing away from the “war on terror” rhetoric, and certainly his speech yesterday calls for Al-Qaeda’s definitive whomping without using the word “war”, which I think is a sensible retreat.

Clearly terrorism is awful, but I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favours by declaring war on it. A war is a finite conflict from which there generally emerges a winner, and there is just no way we can win this one on these terms. There will always be people who are pissed off about something and keen to express their frustration through violence. We can’t stop that by bombs or invasions; we can’t stop it by olive branches and love-ins. Even if we somehow eliminate or appease every violent dissident now, there’ll be more later: it’s not like smallpox, the war against which we did win. For as long as we have any amount of personal autonomy—and I hope that will be a long time, though I’m wondering—some of us will use it in ways that hurt the rest of us.

Tony Blair says:

The extremist propaganda is cleverly aimed at their target audience. It plays on our tolerance and good nature; it exploits the tendency to guilt of the developed world; as if it is our behaviour that should change; that if we only tried to work out and act on their grievances, we could lift this evil; that if we changed our behaviour, they would change theirs. This is a misunderstanding of a catastrophic order.

Their cause is not founded on an injustice. It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can’t be moderated. It can’t be remedied. It has to be stood up to. And, of course, they will use any issue that is a matter of dissent within our democracy. But we should lay bare the almost-devilish logic behind such manipulation.

This seems a direct attack on our reasonable bibliophile pictured above, but it makes its own—probably deliberate—mistake about the motives of the people who ask why. Nobody pretends that there’s anything we can reasonably do in the Middle East or elsewhere that will stop terror attacks tomorrow. A certain cohort of extremists do seem to be intractably opposed to us in a place beyond reason and nothing’s going to change their personal minds. But this hatred of the West or whatever isn’t just something they thought up one afternoon: it must have historical roots not only in religion but in politics and economics—in all the books our baffled hero is ploughing through—and to understand them and acknowledge our role in some of them might help foster an international environment in which fewer young people are driven to blow themselves up going forward.

It might not be all bad news from Blair. Listen to this:

We must be clear about how we win this struggle. We should take what security measures we can. But let us not kid ourselves. In the end, it is by the power of argument, debate, true religious faith and true legitimate politics that we will defeat this threat. That means not just arguing against their terrorism but their politics and their perversion of religious faith. It means exposing as the rubbish it is, the propaganda about America and its allies wanting to punish Muslims or eradicate Islam. It means championing our values of freedom, tolerance and respect for others. It means explaining why the suppression of women and the disdain for democracy are wrong.

Well, it’s hard to argue with that, and I think they should start in on it right away. It seems to me that if we’re going to have a war on terror, one way to at least make a dent would be to refuse to be terrorised: to keep on with our democracy and our human rights and liberties, to keep on catching the bus. The worst response has to be this siege/bunker mentality that drives us to throw away some of our most important Western democratic values—how is that going to help us win? Everything we’ve done so far—you know, let’s bring back torture, let’s lock people up forever without trial, let’s have a war without rules—seems like we’re storming away from victory; it feels a giant capitulation. If they really do hate us for our freedom, then they’ve got their wish.

And it’s clear that for all the fine talk about true faith and legitimate politics, it’s the security measures that actually make it into print. The British government is already pushing new anti-terrorism legislation which it hopes will be in effect by December. The Guardian describes it like this:

If passed, the legislation will outlaw “indirect incitement” of terrorism, including praising those who carry out attacks. The new offense is designed to counter extremist Islamist clerics blamed for radicalizing disaffected Muslim youth in Britain.

The legislation also would make it an offense to receive training in terrorist techniques in Britain or abroad. A new offense of “acts preparatory to terrorism” would outlaw planning an attack and activities such as acquiring bomb-making instructions on the Internet.

Well, that might work, I don’t know. But “indirect incitement” sounds pretty broad to me: the example given is “praising those who carry out attacks&#8221, but that’s almost direct incitement. What about suggesting that London basically asked for it, as <a href="http://www.smh lowest price levitra.com.au/news/opinion/violence-begets-violence/2005/07/10/1120934125013.html”>Tariq Ali did last week?

The real solution lies in immediately ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Just because these three wars are reported sporadically and mean little to the everyday lives of most Westerners does not mean the anger and bitterness they arouse in the Muslim world is insignificant. As long as Western politicians wage their wars and their colleagues in the Muslim world watch in silence, young people will be attracted to the groups which carry out random acts of revenge.

Is that indirect incitement? I don’t think what Ali suggests is the real solution, but you’d certainly hope that he’d be allowed to say it. Otherwise, we’re not engaging in a persuasive democratic argument, we’re not the light on the hill. For the same reasons, I’m concerned about the Feds raiding Islamic bookshops and seizing books that allegedly incite terrorism. They’re books! Surely the best response to a book we don’t agree with isn’t to ban it but to write a better book. Otherwise it’s all starting to sound a bit North Korean. But that’s a story for another time.

3 Responses to “Not why, but whence?”

  1. Rose Says:

    Why worry about Obama? He’s still living in the “post-election media hemnyooon” and has yet to hear any critical commentary on anything he has done. While it has gone on for a longer time than normal, unless he seizes the media as he did the banking industry and the auto industry, the day will come when he begins to be dealt with critically by the editors.With his 1.5 TRILLION DOLLAR health care plan, on top of the TRILLION he has spent on economic aid, very shortly there won’t be any concern for the outside world as Americans will be back to exclusively internal concerns and again ignoring anything outside their own borders.I am in Toronto, Canada, just 20 miles from the border in a direct line. When I watch one “local” US TV channels – the ones who make quite a bit of money from Canadian advertising – the weather map ends at the border. Yes, we live in the land “off the map”, and it’s right next door. When it comes to local and provincial concerns, the US has usually got it’s head firmly planted in the 50 states and not a foot outside.Yes Israel is a concern, and yes, Middle East peace is something that, like the weather, is only though of when it’s stormy. The next storm will be in the US as this economy and it’s mishandling becomes the real issue.The world has learned to ignore Carter. Jimmy One Term does not get top billing anywhere anymore.I get the feeling that Mr Obama may also join Mr Carter in that category in 2012. It’s not the US President’s handling of the Middle East that gets him re-elected, but it is the US economy that makes the votes move. Carter did play a role in ending the Egypt and Israel conflict, but that didn’t help him in 1980 when everyone went to the polls.This too shall pass.

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