On terrorism and cynicism

Officials worry that we aren't taking their terror warnings seriously - but what do they expect?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Bush, Blair and their supporters in the ‘war on terror’ are peeved that their latest terror alerts have been received by a cynical shrug of the collective shoulders.

Tom Ridge, America’s man in charge of Homeland Security, warned on Sunday that al-Qaeda operatives were planning to target the New York Stock Exchange and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington. When it was subsequently revealed that Ridge’s warnings were based on four-year-old intelligence, he was ridiculed for using fear of terror to ratchet up support for President Bush in a ‘clear-cut display of election-year politics’ (1).

The British police claimed on Thursday that they had foiled a planned attack on Heathrow airport by arresting the alleged ‘British chief’ of al-Qaeda – someone codenamed ‘Bilal’ – on a tip-off from Pakistani intelligence. Yet within hours, news reports pointed out that Pakistani officials had denied passing any such Heathrow-related info to their British counterparts. One correspondent wrote to BBC Online: ‘The ongoing scare tactics of the UK and US governments are designed for political advantage….’ (2)

Those who think we should take the threat of terrorism more seriously are worried. ‘It has become fashionable to dismiss the campaign against terrorism with scepticism, if not outright cynicism’, complains The Times of London. One conservative commentator in the US goes so far as to argue that ‘cynicism is the new terrorism’, slating the claim that terror alerts are ‘fictitious inventions of the evildoers in the Bush administration’ (3).

But what do they expect? Cynical responses to terror alerts are – at least in part – a product of the American and British government’s wolf-crying antics in the three years since the attacks of 11 September 2001. The public have become so used to talk of an ‘imminent’ or ‘inevitable’ terror attack – which, thus far, has not occurred anywhere in Britain or America post-9/11 – that they greet each new alert with a sense of doubt.

From panic-mongering over dirty bombs and anthrax assaults to the US government’s closure of bridges and the UK government’s stockpiling of smallpox vaccines and its deployment of tanks to Heathrow in February 2003, every new attempt by the authorities to demonstrate their preparedness for a terror attack has made the war on terror look more and more like a political stunt. Terror alerts have become, in the words of the New York Times, part of ‘the background noise of daily life’ (4).

The timing and content of Ridge’s warning in particular left the war-on-terror brigade open to ridicule. He issued his alert – the ‘most serious yet’ – in the weekend following the Democrats’ convention, during which John Kerry and co promised to focus on fighting terrorism if they get into the White House in November. And Ridge made a point of saying that ‘the kind of information available to us today is the result of President Bush’s leadership in the war on terror….’ (5)

No doubt he was motivated as much by clumsy electioneering as he was by concern for the safety of the American people – as endless numbers of critics have pointed out. But the continuous terror-alerting of the past two years is not the Orwellian exercise in winning the public’s support for extreme political measures that some paint it as. Rather, it is motivated by panic on the part of the authorities, and increasingly received with mistrust by the public. The terror-conscious US and UK governments are motivated by blame-avoidance, so that if anything does happen they can at least say ‘We did warn you…’, and a desire to demonstrate their concern for public welfare and safety. They aren’t manipulating us, so much as projecting their own anxiety on to the rest of society.

While cynicism may be an understandable response to overblown terror alerts, those who have taken it upon themselves to become the public voice of such cynicism – the journos and politicos who ridicule Ridge and the rest – deserve some ridicule of their own. Theirs is not a serious criticism of the war on terror, or the idea that the antics of a handful of al-Qaeda-related cranks pose a threat to Western civilisation. Indeed, these cynics are just as happy to blow up the terror threat if it suits their arguments.

Veteran left-wing writer John Pilger criticises the British government for the ‘grotesque absurdity’ of its terror warnings, claiming that they ‘border on orchestrated hysteria’ (6). Yet one of Pilger’s central arguments against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was that they would ‘make Britain a target’ of terrorism. ‘Blair’s belligerence is dangerously irresponsible’, he wrote, because ‘we want an end to terrorism, not a new war. He is endangering the people of this country….and risks nurturing a new generation of suicidal killers.’ (6)

John Humphrys, presenter of the ever-more cynical Today programme on BBC Radio 4, responded to the latest terror warnings by wearily asking ‘What is it this time?’ and berating various officials for scaring the public. This is the same John Humphrys who at the end of 2002 wrote: ‘[T]errorism is an ever-present threat which can strike us out of nowhere.’ But back then he was making a case against the British and American invasion of Iraq – when presumably it is okay to scare the public with overblown claims of terrorism striking against any one of us at any time and in any place.

Over the past three years, raising the terror spectacle has become a lazy way to show that you’re serious. The authorities do it to demonstrate that they are caring and concerned; their critics do it to bash government officials, obviously lacking any convincing arguments of their own against the wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and ‘terrorism’. Both sides are marshalling the overblown threat of terror for their own ends. No wonder the rest of us don’t know who to believe.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Be very afraid – or not, Kathleen Parker, Michigan News, 4 August 2004

(2) Terror alert: are you worried?, BBC News, 5 August 2004

(3) Be very afraid – or not, Kathleen Parker, Michigan News, 4 August 2004

(4) An American debate: how severe the threat?, New York Times, 5 August 2004

(5) An American debate: how severe the threat?, New York Times, 5 August 2004

(6) See Pre-emptive inaction, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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