Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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The bomb and the ballot

15 March 2004

The outcome of the Spanish election is not a victory for the terrorists but a recognition that international terrorism is a symptom of a global political and social malaise that the rich, western world has the primary responsibility to address.

One thing everybody agrees upon in the aftermath of an act of terrorism is that the terrorists must not be allowed to win. When the attack takes place in a democracy the concern is to avoid surrendering democratic values in the face of the outrage. Measures designed to combat terrorism that have the effect of compromising human rights or political freedoms play in to the hands of the terrorist's anti-democratic agendas, so the argument goes.

A simple solution is to clear up the mess, bury the dead and carry on as before. Like extortionists whose targets refuse to pay up, terrorists whose provocations elicit no response will eventually be forced to find another way. The IRA's bombing campaign on the UK mainland had something of this character. Appalling as the consequences were for the individual victims, the population at large declined to be stirred. This could be a testament to British stoicism, or it could be that the number of deaths caused by any single attack was never sufficient for the situation to become politically critical.

The pattern was similar through a string of international terrorist actions in the 'seventies, 'eighties and 'nineties. Each hijacking or bombing was a big news story, but when it was over the world had only changed for those who were directly involved. Even an airliner blown up over Lockerbie was a "manageable" event, reduced in historical terms to a painstaking criminal investigation that inched forward to the closure of a trial and (ultimately) financial compensation to the victims from the government of Libya. Events like this were manageable because there were perceived as strictly the exceptions to the general experience. Normally they did not happen.

This perception changed in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001. It is debatable whether the change is attributable to the scale of the attacks on that day, or the political response to them. At the forefront in formulating that response was the British prime minister Tony Blair. His apocalyptic analysis of the global reach and threat of terrorism found a ready echo in the United States and lead directly to the formulation of the war on terror.

The scale of the attacks cannot be ignored. Three thousand fatalities is a lot fewer than occurred recently in the earthquake at Bam, in Iran, but it illustrates the potential of terror to enter the territory of fictional imaginings. This, together with the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear agents, creates still worse imaginable horrors that go well beyond the scope of natural disasters.

Coupled to this is the specific nature of the attacks, carried out by people willing to kill themselves in the process. This is particularly frightening because the "normal" rules do not apply. It is one thing to look out for unattended luggage on railway stations and in trains. It is quite another when that person dragging a large trunk across the concourse may be about to trigger an explosion of which he himself will be a certain victim.

The three factors - indiscriminate, large scale attacks; the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons; and the delivery opportunities presented by those willing to kill themselves in the process - have combined into a terrifying cocktail of possibilities that politicians around the world have stirred shamelessly for their own ends. It has been used to justify repressive measures from Chechnya to Belmarsh jail, via Afghanistan, Israel, Zimbabwe (yes, really), Iraq, the Philippines, Indonesia and the U.S.'s leased territory on Cuba, to mention but a few.

By this measure the terrorists are beginning to win what counts as a victory according to their own distorted values. They have caused the United States government to spend something like a hundred billion dollars that it can ill afford on a war that is now seen to offer neither economic advantage nor political gain; they've caused thousands of war casualties and, as a consequence of successfully provoking that war, have reinforced anti-American sentiment in the middle east and strewn it liberally around the free world; they've driven a wedge between the U.S. and its powerful continental European allies. In Britain they have almost destroyed a prime minister's integrity, derailed his government's plans and made a sane and reasonable home secretary seem authoritarian and extreme. And these are just a few of the unforeseen, damaging events that have flowed from the attacks of 11 September 2001.

What are we to make, therefore, of a terrorist attack that dictates the outcome of a general election? That must surely be a stunning victory, to oust from power in Spain a government that had strongly supported the American line and which the opinion polls had marked down as sure to be returned to power. In the argument between ETA and al Qaida it should not be lost on anyone that both groups are the apparent beneficiaries of the sudden turnaround in the electoral fortunes of the Spanish Socialist Party. For not only has an American political ally been dethroned, but with it an implacable opponent of ETA and its political agenda.

Such has been the choreography of the past few days that a conspiracy theorist would have no difficulty in reading into it the purpose of a malignant mind. Coming so soon before the election, the attacks left the governing conservative People's Party with no time to think and a difficult dilemma. From the political point of view it had to be ETA, and they put up spokespeople almost immediately to ram that point home. A white van piled with ETA explosives was conveniently on hand to corroborate the assertion.

If the ETA line had stuck, it ought to have favoured the People's Party with their strong line on domestic terrorism. Unfortunately for them, the period between the Madrid attacks and election day was just too long to prevent closer scrutiny under which the ETA argument began to fray. By then the government were branded as political opportunists of the worst sort, climbing on the backs of their dead countrymen. That was bad enough; what was worse was the linking of the attacks to al Qaida as payback for Spain's hugely unpopular participation in the war on Iraq.

If ETA and al Qaida had planned it together, the outcome could not have been more satisfactory to the two of them. Does that mean that the Spanish electorate has been exploited, or that the victorious Socialist Party are the beneficiaries of a tainted inheritance? Not at all. The mistake, for which they deserved to be punished, was on the part of the People's Party for seeking to make political capital on the war on terror. The desire to seem strong, and to make political opponents seem weak, to assert confrontation and counter-aggression as the only responses to the complicated tapestry of political violence, to reduce the argument, George Bush-like, to a crass "us-or-them": all these play into the hands of terrorists by stripping out the subtlety of political allegiances and relationships and making enemies where there could be friends.

The political opponents of the Bush-Blair-Aznar line have difficult, intellectually demanding arguments to make about the way of dealing with international terrorism in a world of extremes - war and peace, poverty and wealth, freedom and oppression, comfortable security and lethal anarchy, free spirits and religious orthodoxies. Often enough the deceiving allure of a policy of violence wins out, because it is easy to understand. What the Madrid bombs have done is to remind the Spanish electorate that violence begets violence: what was started in New York (or long before) was continued in Afghanistan and Iraq and is set to continue on the streets and railways of Europe and elsewhere.

To say, in the face of this, that there must be another way, is not a victory for the terrorists but a recognition that international terrorism is a symptom of a global political and social malaise that the rich, western world has the primary responsibility to address. The solution will be found, ultimately, not in tanks and aeroplanes and high-tech weaponry but in the World Bank, in global trade talks, in middle east peace negotiations and everywhere where the interests of the global poor and the global rich are negotiated. These problems are enduring and need to be addressed. Confronting the terrorists who exploit them will not make them go away.

 

©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004