Losing the plot

After '10/8', we’re back stumbling around in an atmosphere of confusion, hysteria and cynicism – a familiar experience in the 'war on terror'.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Where I live in Walthamstow in north-east London was like two different places yesterday, 10 August. On one hand it was the usual dull multi-ethnic suburb, full of people from all over the world going about their everyday lives. On the other it was at the centre of a major international terrorism alert, as armed police raided four properties near my home, pursued suspects in a dramatic car chase that ended outside the dog track, and arrested around 10 young men, all of them apparently British-born locals of Pakistani descent.

That sense of living in two different worlds can also be seen as a theme running through the dramatic events of the day now to be known as ‘10/8’ (or ‘8/10’, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live).

On one hand it was a large-scale but relatively low-key police operation against a group of terrorism suspects in London, Birmingham and High Wycombe, Bucks (no Forest Gate-style fiascos of 250 coppers blundering about this time). In its own immediate terms, this appears to have been successful, at least in the sense that the main suspects the police wanted were all rounded up. What actual evidence they collected remains to be seen.

On the other hand, it was turned into a political battle in the ‘war on terror’, where the government, the police and many in the media sought to talk up the terrorist threat, while unprecedented security measures were imposed on London airports. This looks like another disaster, which has only succeeded in spreading more confusion, cynicism and insecurity.

The New Labour government recently passed a controversial law allowing the police to hold terror suspects for up to 28 days without charge. This was supposedly to give them time quietly to build a case in difficult circumstances, away from the eyes of the media. Yet top politicians and police commanders could barely restrain themselves for 28 minutes after the raids before announcing to the world that they had scored a big victory in the war on terror.

Home secretary John Reid announced that the suspects were planning a series of attacks on flights to America that would certainly have caused loss of life on an ‘unprecedented scale’. Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson said the alleged plotters were all set to commit ‘mass murder on an unimaginable scale’. These bold statements were no doubt intended to assure everybody that the threat is real but the authorities are in control and the public is safe. The effect, however, was the opposite.

In the absence of any evidence of the ‘unimaginable’ horror, the facts were largely left to the imagination. Media outlets primed by the government’s endless broadcasting of grim ‘what if?’ scenarios during the war on terror stepped in to fill the gap with feverish speculation about how the attack might have been carried out, what the targets might have been, and how many might have died. We were soon in an ugly auction where experts tried to outbid each other in worst-case scenarios. It would have been the biggest terror attack since 9/11, the biggest on Britain since the Second World War, etc. Anybody could have been forgiven for forgetting that no attack had actually taken place.

Before long, however, the deep cynicism towards anything the authorities do in the name of the ‘war on terror’ had also raised its head among those who, perfectly reasonably, believe the government and police have cried wolf once too often about plots and attacks that did not exist. That cynicism was strengthened by the fiasco at London’s airports where, in the middle of the mass holiday season rush, flights were brought to a standstill by the sudden and unexplained imposition of new security measures, including a ban on hand luggage. Many of the passengers seemed to take it with the usual stoicism. But questions were soon being asked about why, given that they were boasting about having rounded up all the main suspects, these stringent controls were being imposed now? And why were people being prevented from taking their budget flights to European holiday resorts, in response to an alleged (and apparently thwarted) plot to attack major American airlines and cities?

The official response was, as ever, to describe these as ‘precautionary’ measures, taken to deal with ‘what if?’ scenarios. As one BBC correspondent put it, ‘the fear perhaps is that there is another, parallel group, who are also going to carry out similar attacks. What if they remain at large, and what if they decide to move because they’ve seen another group disrupted and arrested?’ On that hypothetical basis, of course, you could simply close airports down for good. And as ever, extraordinary ‘precautionary’ measures imposed apparently to soothe public anxieties only ended up raising the temperature further. The air of chaos, confusion and gridlock at London’s airports early on Thursday seemed a suitable image for the entire ‘war on terror’ on the home front.

At the same time as they were talking up the terrorist threat and their determination to win the ‘war on terror’, the authorities were also scurrying around reassuring the Muslim community of their commitment to fighting ‘Islamophobia’. Indeed, in some instances you might have needed a photo-finish to spot which came first – the banging on a suspect’s door or the polite phone-call to tell Muslim community leaders what was happening.

We were left with a strange but familiar mixture of bravado about waging all-out war against ‘Islamic fascists’ (President Bush’s words) with an apologetic defensiveness about not wanting to hurt Muslim feelings.

The responses were as predictably scripted as the official line. Some radical Islamic groups told the media they suspected the entire plot was a government conspiracy to distract attention from its problems over the Middle East. Many others, from mainstream UK commentators to MPs and Muslim moderates, insisted that terrorist attacks over here are an inevitable product of British foreign policy – not only in Iraq and Palestine but also, it seems now, towards Lebanon (ignoring the fact that this plot was supposed to have begun long before that conflict). It is striking that, at a time when nobody knows anything about the alleged plot or plotters, so many can be absolutely certain that it is all about the Middle East and the government is to blame. These claims seem to bear as little relation to events in north-east London as President Bush’s overblown rhetoric.

So we are left with a war of empty words, further removed from the real world where facts about the alleged plot remain thin on the ground. The police seem certain that the suspects were planning something. But did they pose an imminent threat of mass murder, or were they just another bunch of overgrown adolescent fantasists full of big talk and impractical schemes? We don’t know. But in the fantastic world where the ‘war on terror’ is played out, it often seems that the less we know, the more we have to say.

As the maelstrom of media speculation, claim and counter-claim continues, let us try to return to the real world and remember a few things. Whatever the truth about the alleged London airports plot, our society is not facing its ‘greatest threat since the Second World War’. The relative handfuls of nihilistic homegrown youth dreaming of martyrdom are certainly a symptom of society that has lost its way. But they are certainly not the foot-soldiers of any powerful Islamist movement threatening to overthrow Western civilisation. Our society is in far greater danger from the internal loss of its moorings typified in the confused and confusing ‘war on terror’ debate.

At the same time, whatever the truth about the allegations of individuals being wrongfully arrested, Muslims in Britain are not facing any wave of ‘Islamophobia’. Like others in society today, however, some Muslims are living under the influence of a powerful victim culture that encourages them to see everything in terms of grievance. What reinforces that outlook is not so much foreign policy or a few police raids as the political and media reactions to these things.

In the aftermath of 10 August, we are back stumbling around in an atmosphere of confusion, near-hysteria and cynicism – a familiar experience on the dark battlefields of the ‘war on terror’. Like those poor tourists left queuing around London’s airports, many of us could do with a holiday from all that.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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