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Knowing your enemy
Without a clear definition of what "terrorism" means, governments have created a threat which can continue on indefinitely; a threat which the media are all too happy to maintain
Phillip Knightley
Monday, 05 November, 2007 | 06:23

Something odd is happening in the War on Terror. Although there have been apparent successes, the overall picture is by no means rosy. In the United States the media has turned on the architects of the war, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, with a viciousness that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

A recent edition of the influential New Yorker magazine blamed Cheney for what has been happening. It accused him of manipulating a “callow, lazy and ignorant” Bush into refusing to accept that the laws of the United States can in any way stop them from doing whatever they want in their “endless, endlessly expandable war on terror.”

The magazine says they have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on America’s moral and political standing by launching the Iraq war under false pretences, conducting it with “stupefying incompetence” and has accused them of crippling America’s armed forces, “which no longer overawe and will take years to rebuild.”

Further, any pretence that Muslims per se were not being deliberately singled out as terrorist suspects by the American authorities has vanished after the recent humiliation of Britain’s first Muslim minister, Shahid Malik MP, at Dulles airport, Washington DC.

He was on his way back to Britain after a series of meetings with the Department of Homeland Security when he was detained and searched by officers of the very department he had just visited. He complained later: “A couple of other people were also taken to one side. We were all Muslims – the other two were black Muslims, both with Muslim names.”

This is the second time that this has happened to Mr Malik. Last year he was detained at the John F. Kennedy International Airport for an hour by Homeland Security despite the fact that he was the keynote speaker at an event organised by – Homeland Security.

There appear to have been no such blunders on this side of the Atlantic, as yet. But there have been other worrying developments. Admiral Sir Alan West, Gordon Brown’s new Security Minister, warns that the War on Terror is not going to be won quickly and could take ten to 15 years or longer. He says the government has failed to get its anti-terrorism message across and what is now needed is some “un-British snitching.”

But how extensive this informing on your neighbours might become was highlighted by Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Intelligence Studies at Brunel University. The same day as Admiral West gave his downbeat assessment of the War on Terror, Glees estimated that there were “up to 200,000 potential martyrs at universities at home and abroad who are susceptible to recruitment” by terrorist groups: if true, a worrying thought for the counter-terrorism services.

In my view, the problem is that, from the beginning, governments have failed to define what they consider terrorism to be. Is it simply, in the words of Professor Richard Rubenstein from the Centre for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, “a form of violence you don’t like"? Is it attacking civilians, rather than soldiers? But, according to British author Phil Ress, the USA and Israel are bigger killers of civilians than their terrorist foes, so such a definition would sweep both governments into the net as well. And if you leave terrorism undefined or defined loosely so as to get agreement, then you have to accept that it will never go away.

Next, we have refused to consider what the terrorists’ motives might be. Instead we simply wrote all terrorists off as “evil people” out to destroy our way of life. But this begs the question: why do there appear to be more evil people around today than there used to be?
We ruled out in advance any negotiations of any sort with our terrorist foes. But anyone who has studied recent history knows that the best chance of ending terrorist attacks is through negotiations. Terrorism in Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, and especially Northern Ireland, ended because negotiations brought compromise.

And, finally, we allowed those with a vested interest to exaggerate the terrorist threat. Counter-terrorism has proved a boom business, providing thousands of new jobs for security and intelligence officers, surveillance and forensic experts – and, yes, authors and journalists. All of these naturally tend to paint any threat in strong colours, because it is in their professional and financial interests to do so.

When commentator Christopher Hitchens writes that the dominant fact of our future will be that nowhere is safe from terrorist attacks, that no matter where you live, “it’s coming.” That makes headlines. But when anyone points out that it is irrational to spend billions of dollars a year on anti-terrorism measures when food poisoning kills far more people, no one wants to hear.

Dame Stella Rimington, former head of Britain’s security service, is one of the few experts to try to put it all into perspective. “We are tending towards this sense that we must all be 100 per cent safe. A better way of presenting it is to say that the world is a difficult and dangerous place and [if we want to be safe] then we have to make choices about how much of our civil liberties we want to give up.”

My answer is: none.

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