Communicating the War on Terror

An open public debate is key to striking the right note in the war on terror.

Bill Durodié

Topics Politics

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The recent car bombs in Riyadh should remind us that whatever precautions are taken, determined terrorists will always manage to get through our defences. A balance must be struck between restricting terrorist movements and maintaining a free society. But are we getting this balance right?

This is the question delegates will be asking at Communicating the War on Terror, an upcoming conference in London.

Riyadh also illustrates the gulf between the hype and the reality of terror. For the past 20 months, many in the media and elsewhere have focused on the threat of so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These encompass chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) devices and vary in importance and impact according to what you read.

However, despite these fanciful and, some might say, speculative or anticipatory scenarios, the actuality of terrorism remains rather more mundane. Since 11 September, terrorist attacks have largely consisted of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and car bombs. Indeed, some commentators have noted that detonating such devices in the Saudi capital is a bit like blowing up your own living room to get rid of an unwanted guest.

As the US State Department’s own ‘Patterns of Global Terrorism’ statistical report for 2002 reveals, out of the almost 200 terrorist attacks that occured in 2002, fewer than 10 were perpetrated in north America or western Europe. This is not to suggest that we can all relax – only that we should maintain a sense of perspective.

Al-Qaeda is not equivalent to the Red Army, against whom the Western powers maintained a stand-off for almost half a century under the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The Soviet Union was known to have a vast nuclear arsenal and a significant chemical and biological weapons capability.

Nonetheless, we seem to have turned al-Qaeda into a very potent threat in our minds. Is it possible that our fears about Osama bin Laden and his acolytes tell us rather more about ourselves and our attitudes to unexpected risks, than about the enemies we now face?

In February 2003, the USA published its National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. This covers some well-rehearsed ground among intelligence and security circles, suggesting that the best form of defence is offence. Yet many of the terms used in this ‘4D strategy’ (defeat, deny, diminish, defend) appear remarkably defensive in outlook.

Despite allusions to a ‘war of ideas’, the document seems somewhat bereft on this front. There is a tendency merely to assume that which needs to be spelt out. Freedom and democracy get a look in, but their content remains unexplored. There is little by way of a positive promotion of what Western society stands for, what we expect those who are ‘with us’ to fight for, and where it is we think we are heading.

Surely, it is not too much to ask our leaders to spell this out more fully? After all, if we believed in and felt inspired by a common sense of mission, then not only would our societies be more resilient in the face of adversity, but there may be others, in less fortunate parts of the world, who would wish to buy into those aspirations too.

There are calls for new protective equipment and better detection instruments, but defeating terrorism cannot be limited to better gadgetry. The desire for better intelligence or new structures of governance are also rather narrow and technical aims. If we are not careful, the vast sums of money being poured into the blue-light services and other emergency response operations may all go to feeding a new bureaucracy, rather than truly protecting ourselves.

It is vital therefore, that the public get involved in these debates about how we organise our priorities. Many argue that there is little time for such niceties. We face a real enemy now, that has to be dealt with. According to this view, there will be plenty of time later for more philosophical discussion as to the future of society or engaging the masses in such a discourse. I could not disagree more.

‘Communicating the War on Terror’ is designed to engage the public first-hand in dealing with these issues. What should governments tell the public about terror threats? What is the role of the media in the war on terror?

These debates cannot be left until ‘after the war’. What we do today is informed by where we believe we are heading, and it will affect where we are tomorrow and the kind of debate we will have then. Responding to security threats by monitoring our neighbours, or installing more security cameras, may make us feel safer for a short while, but eventually this approach will serve only to further fragment the human bonds that bind us together as a society.

I have heard it said that we need to understand why it is that a small number of Asian youth are attracted by fringe Islamist groups. This strikes me at best as an inversion of the real issue, at worst as a form of self-denial. In truth, we need to understand why Asian youth, and many others besides, are no longer attracted to our vision of the future. What is it about our societies, at the beginning of this new century, that leaves them bereft of the ability to inspire allegiance, and provide purpose, meaning and structure to people’s lives?

And the problem of disillusionment with Western society impacts well beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in Bradford or Brick Lane. I would suggest that even if we managed to rid ourselves of every last member of al-Qaeda tomorrow, the problems we face would not go away. Our exaggerated sense of fear would still be with us and, more significantly, by consistently elevating our perceived vulnerabilities since 9/11, we have effectively educated a new generation of terrorists, cranks, hoaxers and disaffected loners as to how to undermine our societies and our sense of wellbeing using such rudimentary tools as box-cutters and bags of sugar.

‘Communicating the War on Terror’ aims to address the culture of mistrust and cynicism in Western societies. Why is it, for instance, that if a bucket of white powder or some other agent were to be discovered in Baghdad tomorrow, many of our domestic population would believe, regardless of the evidence, that the Americans had planted it?

Perhaps some of the greatest battles we will face in the war on terror are battles on the home front, or battles in our minds. Refusing to recognise this and continuing to prosecute a traditional campaign against enemies ‘out there’ may well be a failure to recognise what truly changed at the end of the Cold War. This could lead to a far longer and more destructive campaign than anyone yet anticipates.

I hope the debate continues long after the event. There has never been a more pressing time to examine our beliefs, our fears and our sense of purpose.

Bill Durodié is director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at King’s College London. He is the author of Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation after BSE, European Science and Environment Forum, 1999 (download this book (.pdf 679 KB)). He is also a contributor to Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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