Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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With all due respect

24 May 2004

Al Qaida and Fathers 4 Justice may be a very far cry indeed from one another, but they occupy, nonetheless, two places in a continuum of political failure.

In 1989 the ugly baronial black gates that dominate the entrance to Downing Street were erected to protect Margaret Thatcher from the IRA. Londoners were denied a shortcut into St James' Park past the door of number 10 and the closing of the street became a powerful symbol of the then Prime Minister's increasing isolation and detachment.

The intention was to stop a bomb attack, but one consequence was a subtle erosion of the mutual respectfulness of government and people. The small groups of well-behaved protestors that would occasionally assemble outside the famous front door became larger, noisier, more urgent and more frustrated as, corralled outside the gates, they were obliged to address themselves to the shiny bullet-proof windows of the prime ministerial limousine.

The gates may have prevented an attack on Downing Street, but they could not have prevented the Brighton bomb of 1984 and they did not prevent the string of bombings in Kent, London, Manchester and elsewhere that took place between 1989 and 1996. So, if the IRA had contemplated Downing Street as a target before 1989 the most that can be said for the gates is that they caused attacks to be redirected. Whether fewer or more people were injured and killed as a result of the hardening of Downing Street's defences is a moot point. What the gates certainly did not do is to reduce the violence of the IRA's campaign.

Fast forward fifteen years, to a set of expensive and similarly alienating screens in the public gallery of the House of Commons. Like Downing Street's gates, these screens can prevent attacks of a certain sort; although, like the Maginot Line, they failed rather spectacularly at their first test because the attackers turned out to be on the wrong side of them. Now, presumably, more screens will be built, and government ministers are already wringing their hands at the "inevitable" restriction in access arrangements between the public and their MPs.

No doubt the louder reactions to the hurling of coloured flour at Tony Blair in the House of Commons last week reflects, as much as anything, the shock of the journalists and MPs who were present in the chamber. As they rushed to their keyboards and television studios their minds were filled with visions of a chemical or biological attack that could have killed them all. It's not surprising they were upset.

The fact remains, however, that what was thrown was a packet of flour. In the general run of things that would have achieved precisely what the throwers intended, which was to draw attention to themselves and their cause. The physical harm done will prove to have been as minor as the criminal damage of which they are accused. The worst that can be said of them is that they failed to appreciate how inappropriate was this particular choice of protest at a time of fevered anxiety about silent killers in powder form. Like wearing flip-flops to a funeral, it just wasn't a great idea.

This is not to say that no one would ever want to hurl a toxic phial into the chamber of the House of Commons. If extremists on the al Qaida model have access to condom-sized containers of lethal agent, the thought may well cross their minds. That, alone, is said to justify increased security measures, even at the cost of detaching the political class still further from the citizenry.

On the face of it, this is reasonable. Logic appears to suggest targets should be hardened in proportion to their attractiveness. In theory, all targets are then equally in danger. This is because the attacker is willing to make more effort for a more attractive target. The "moral" logic is that, if done correctly, there is no predicting where the blow will fall. At least that is fair.

The difficulty with the al Qaida model of attack, however, is that the attractiveness of a target is hard to estimate. The evidence of 9/11 and subsequent attacks in Bali, Madrid and elsewhere is that although the location and timing of attacks has significance the identity of individual victims is not an issue. This frightening unpredictability is part of the purpose, seeking to undermine Western governments by wearing away at their popular support and fracturing an already tenuous U.S.-led coalition.

If this is so, an attack on the House of Commons could be counter-productive, awaking in Britons a hitherto unacknowledged fellow feeling for their legislators. A more likely target for a phial of lethal toxin would be a packed church, concert hall, theatre or cinema. Assuming access to the necessary weaponry an attack of this sort would be impossible to prevent. Denial of opportunity is therefore not a sensible approach.

If, as security officials appear to believe, it is only a matter of time before useable chemical and biological weapons become available to al Qaida and its surrogates, two of the three elements necessary for mass murder will be present. Means (the weapon) and opportunity (the target) provide the mechanics for a terrorist operation against which little defence is possible. All that will be wanting is the more elusive element of motive.

Motive (the reason or desire to attack) appears the most difficult element to deal with precisely because it is not mechanistic. It is not susceptible to the hardware of the security people; the use of force generally makes things worse. A motive has to be acknowledged and understood before it can be challenged. But, unlike opportunity (which is everywhere) and means (which are only a matter of time), once it is acknowledged and understood it can be deflected, given effort and persistence.

Violence is not a necessary aspect of political opposition, but it breeds on the failure of mutual respect. The people who threw purple flour at the Prime Minister might, in theory, have wished to be in a position to cause terrible harm, but in reality it is clear from their choice of "weapon" that they consciously sought to avoid doing damage. What the episode represents, therefore, is the tiny beginnings of the fraying of respect, represented by a symbolic gesture on their part in response to the perception that their views and interests (as separated fathers) has also not received the respect they deserved.

To respond to the incident as the escalation of a threat, therefore, is bound to be counter-productive. Making parliament less accessible helps to degrade the social cohesion that encourages people to want their protests to be respectful. To observe the House of Commons from an open gallery is to participate in the proceedings in an almost tangible way. To watch from behind a closed screen is simply that - to watch, helpless. This is a context that discourages engagement. Frustration and anger may grow in its place.

It is too much to suppose that al Qaida-sponsored operators, sitting in an open gallery of the House of Commons, would go all misty-eyed about parliamentary democracy and be diverted from their purpose. The gap between the U.S.-led West and militant Islamism is too large for that. But it is important to remember that the key elements of this divide are to be found repeatedly throughout the Middle East, in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and now Iraq, a heady cocktail of arrogant, oil-thirsty imperialism on the one hand and political humiliation on the other. This mixture of perceived arrogance (of the government) and personal humiliation (of fathers separated from their children) was precisely the force behind the purple flour bomb.

Al Qaida and Fathers 4 Justice may be a very far cry indeed from one another, but they occupy, nonetheless, two places in a continuum. In both cases the established institutional structures have failed. Only repair will solve the problem. Anything that adds to the alienation will simply make it worse.


©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004