Car bombs: packed with explosive nihilism

The attempted attacks in London and Glasgow show that contemporary terrorism is driven by a haughty disgust for society.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

It remains to be seen who drove two cars packed with gas canisters, 60 litres of petrol and six-inch nails into central London in the early hours of Friday morning and parked them outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub on ladies’ night. We’ve seen only grainy mobile-phone snapshots of the two men who crashed a fiery jeep into the terminal entrance at Glasgow Airport, but we don’t know who they are yet. We await the justifications these wannabe car bombers will give for their actions, which could have caused unimaginable carnage amongst nightclubbers and holidaymakers: will they say they were moved by Iraq or Palestine or Chechnya perhaps? It’s been a while since any of the murderous rabble who occasionally launch attacks against civilians, commuters and workers in Western cities cited the eccentric Chechen cause as the motivation behind their explosions, so that might make a nice change.

But we have seen and heard enough to be able to make some observations about contemporary terrorism and its impact on society. The attempted car bombs show clearly that such terrorism is not a product of political engagement with an issue, but rather of its opposite: a profound disengagement from society and a loathing for those who inhabit it. For all the claims that these alleged attempted bombers may be motivated by disgruntlement with Britain’s foreign adventures – by what one commentator has already referred to as ‘legitimate outrage at a nominally “Labour” government’s neo-colonial foreign policy’ (1) – in truth their actions look like brutal expressions of a nihilistic outlook rather than violence driven by political conviction. From the events of the past few days, we can also see that the impact of the terrorists’ actions is exacerbated by our fearful response to them. It is society’s fragile sense of security and identity that allows tiny handfuls of deluded Islamo-fantasists to have a pernicious impact on our way of life.

The car bombs show that we face an unusual terrorist threat today, one that is not grounded in a political campaign and which is indiscriminate in its execution. Those who parked the lethally booby-trapped cars in central London on Friday morning and crashed a potentially explosive jeep into Glasgow Airport on Saturday afternoon must surely be possessed of a hatred for the world around them and a deep indifference to the potentially horrific consequences of their actions. Like the 7/7 sect – as well as the failed jihadists of 21/7 and the Crawley plotters who wanted to blow up ‘slags’ and football fans – the failed car-bombers would seem to view British society as disgusting and depraved. Their targets were not political institutions or political actors, but young women on a night out and people flying off on holiday. Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament and the Foreign Office are all just two minutes’ drive from Tiger Tiger in central London; yet the bombers chose to park their deadly load outside a club rather than anywhere else. If successful, their bombs might have incinerated scores of people, as if they were little more than insects.

Such terrorism is a product of dislocation rather than political engagement. And this makes it dramatically different to the political violence of the past. Those who have planted bombs in Britain in recent years, or who have planned or attempted to do so, seem to be driven by a powerful sense that the world out there does not belong to them, and is vile and corrupt. Where political groups in the past used violence to demonstrate how serious and capable they were, and potentially to win control over a piece of territory or a community, today’s tiny sects of jihadists use violence to express disgust with society and to show that they want no part of it. Political violence was once about forcing a change in society; today’s jihadist violence simply says ‘Fuck society’. They may discuss their violent desires in relation to Iraq, Palestine or Chechnya, but these are little more than off-the-peg political dressings to disguise their base nihilistic urges; such foreign issues have become, in Faisal Devji’s words, a ‘litany of complaints used to justify the jihad’ (2).

It is precisely because contemporary terrorism is rootless, an expression of dislocation rather than political ambition, that it can be so indifferently murderous. Campaign groups in the past tended to have political goals and grassroots supporters. Thus their violent acts took place within a moral framework. They had to measure whether their violent actions would advance their political cause or damage it, and they had to take care not to outrage or isolate their supporters. Today’s nihilists, because they lack any political grounding and have no responsibility to a community, have little compunction about planting bombs on crowded trains or packed streets and causing the death and mutilation of scores of random people. Hence the disturbing sight of a car bomb in London allegedly designed to create a massive fireball as women left a nightclub on a Thursday night. Violence driven by disengagement, by a kind of haughty disdain for society, can be even more lethal than violence driven by ideology.

If any kind of political agenda has had an influence on the alleged car bombers, and on other Islamist sects in Britain, then it is surely the contemporary politics of anti-consumerism rather than anti-imperialism. The Crawley plotters, jailed earlier this year, wanted to kill football fans by poisoning their beer and burgers; they also discussed blowing up Bluewater shopping centre, a hangout for so-called ‘chavs’, and planting a bomb at the Ministry of Sound nightclub in order to kill ‘slags, dancing around’ (3). Now we have the discovery of two car bombs outside a rather hedonistic London club, and an attempt to kill holidaymakers in Glasgow. This terrorism can perhaps be seen as an extreme expression of a generalised sense of misanthropy today; of an outlook that sees consumers as greedy, partygoers as selfish and toxic, and cheap flyers as enemies of the environment. Certainly the alleged car bombers would not have had to travel to Pakistan or Afghanistan or Wherever-istan to get the idea that young people and the working classes in Britain are depraved and deserving of punishment.

Some already claim that the car bombs in London were a political retaliation for Iraq. I am tempted to see them more as the mutant ugly cousin of the government’s smoking ban, which also was enforced this weekend. At one level we have a government measure designed to force Britons to stop smoking in bars and clubs and to become aware of how filthy are their habits – and at the far more extreme end we have car bombs seemingly designed to punish clubbers, presumably for the sin of getting drunk and having fun. Should the car bombs be seen as a violent accompaniment to something like the smoking ban, as the ‘terrorism of behaviour’ to the authorities’ ‘politics of behaviour’? (4) Of course, banning smoking in a club is not the same thing as trying to turn it into a fireball. But at different levels, there would appear to be an underlying attitude that links the two.

Not surprisingly, contemporary terrorism can have a disorientating impact on the public. Because it is ungrounded, and thus unwieldy and unpredictable, it can provoke fear and confusion amongst the population. We deal far better with risks and threats that we understand than with those that appear irrational and motivated by loathing. At the same time, however, the response of the authorities to terrorist threats can exacerbate their impact. The truth about contemporary jihadism is that it poses no political threat to Britain. The actions of the terrorists, by themselves, cannot change society. These are tiny groups of individuals who lash out against civilians rather than anything like an army that plans to storm and take control of the citadels of power. The only way these terrorists can change our way of life is if we allow them to. And the response to the failed car bombings – where sections of the media have called on the new Brown government to follow through its promises of enforcing tougher security measures – suggests that the British authorities may hand the terrorists a stunning victory by further shutting down our open society.

The impact of terrorism is inherently dependent on the institutional and moral coherence of its target society. And the problem today is that our fragile and disorientated society often reacts to terrorism in a way that further exposes our vulnerability and, in the words of one author, ‘amplifies the impact’ of the acts of terror (5). Thus we have a situation where two nail-packed cars parked by two people-loathing losers could lead to new restrictions on free movement in London, and, if Brown has his way, to the further denigration of democratic legal principles such as Habeas Corpus. Already, some airports have announced that cars and taxis will be banned from driving too close to the entrances; some are predicting a ‘summer of delays’ at British airports (6). In this instance the bombs didn’t even go off and still they could have a dulling impact on life in London and freedom in Britain – not because of what the terrorists did, but because of how society chose to react to them.

The weekend’s car bombs show how pathetic today’s Islamo-fantasists are, but also that we are unfortunately willing to capitulate to their fantasy threat.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill talked to the author of a novel describing a suicide attack on London and suggested that long before he became prime minister, Gordon Brown was obsessed by security. Munira Mirza showed how ‘homegrown terrorists’ are a product of Western self-loathing. Mick Hume suggested Islamic terrorism is real but overstated as a threat to our society. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

(1) Britain’s terror alert raised to critical, World Socialist Website, 2 July 2007

(2) See An explosion of pity, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) See Crawley plot: an Anti-Social Behaviour Outrage?, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) See Crawley plot: an Anti-Social Behaviour Outrage?, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) See Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) Summer of delays and disruptions ahead as airports tighten security, Guardian, 2 July 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today