In the aftermath of any major event, certain tropes crop up in the speech of politicians and unimaginative journalists, tropes which can often provide the key to understanding the deeper significance of that event. In the case of the riots across England two weeks ago, the politicking slogan became “mindless violence”. This gem was of course intimately linked to the belief that there was no socio-economic reason behind the riots, that they were not a political act.
Leaving aside the debate about all this (although I have my own opinions), let us engage in a bit of hypothesis. If there is no genuine larger political or economic reason behind the riots, how do you deal with them? More crucially, how do you prevent them from recurring? To anyone admitting of a political explanation, the answer itself is fairly simple – deal with the socio-economic imbalance – although implementing it is somewhat more tricky. But if you refuse to believe that an imbalance has anything to do with it, what are you left with as a cause other than rampant, unalloyed thuggery on the part of swathes of the population? And, as the act of rioting is therefore a purely personal problem rather than a political or an economic issue, the only way of dealing with it is to undertake wild acts of judicial vengeance in the hope of dissuading people from further violence. Cameron himself has said that “people are not afraid enough of the justice system”. This is completely incorrect. A number of people in this country do have a problematic attitude to the justice system, but what they lack is not fear. It is respect. People fear a system which is harsh and arbitrary (four years for a Facebook riot that no-one attended?), but they respect one which is just. That is what we should be striving for, not the 21st-century equivalent of “string ’em up, it’s the only language they understand”.
There is something of the tragic short-sightedness of electoral democracy in all this: is it just as hard for a democratic government to look forward (to something which will happen well beyond the end of their term, such as climate change) as it is for it to look back? Democracy is not created for long-term trends, because long-term trends require long-term solutions, over years or even decades; “the people” demand action now. Riots? Bung them in jail. Terrorist attack? Invade/bomb/whatever. Even if it doesn’t actually help things, it will make the punters happy, and whatever disastrous consequences come about as a result will hopefully appear while the opposition are in power. Fingers crossed!
Which brings me to the subject of terrorism. The phrase “mindless terrorism” seems to be so common as to have become a tautology, and the attitude Western governments display towards terrorism is much the same as that exhibited towards the riots – it is mindless, unthinking, and essentially springs out of personal hatred rather than political or socio-economic forces. As our ‘explanation’ is the same, so is our cure: punishment, arbitrary collective punishment to put the fear of God into the bastards so they know damn well who’s boss. This is particularly the way that various right-wing Israeli governments have viewed the Palestinian resistance movement, in both its violent and non-violent incarnations. Refusing to explain terrorism – which is emphatically different from justifying it, something no sane person would want to be accused of doing – merely leads to idiotic reasons like “they hate our freedom” which were so prevalent during the weeks after 9/11 when searching for reasons was tantamount to having flown the plane yourself. Of course, one of the other reasons that this train of thought was so heretical was that many explanations led back to the activities of the United States – and America Is Never Wrong (copyright George the First in 1988 after the US shot down an Iranian passenger plane).
We can apply all this to another terrorist, albeit one who was swiftly branded an extremist outlier rather than a terrorist the moment it emerged that he was neither dark-skinned nor Muslim: Anders Breivik. The attacks in Oslo and Utøya were, undeniably, terrorism – violence undertaken against a civilian population for political ends (the exact definition of terrorism is controversial but that is a basic working definition). Yet he was not dismissed as “mindless”. On the contrary, the media took great pains to explore his demented manifesto and bring his conspiracy theories to light for the edification of all. We wanted to understand why this happened. And yet nobody, but nobody, accused news organisations of justifying Breivik’s homicidal rampage nearly a month ago, because they clearly weren’t. It is indisputably important, not to mention cathartic, for us to understand what motivated this man to murder 77 people. Yet the origins of an act which killed 3,000 people, led to two wars, the destruction of Iraq and the re-destruction of Afghanistan, must remain shrouded in childish mystery.
As a result of this animalistic simplification, there exists a tremendously damaging dichotomy which spreads across the Middle East – the philosophy of “us and them”, so concisely expressed by George the Second in the preamble to America’s greatest Middle Eastern folly. By demanding a monopoly over the analysis (and often the facts) of the Middle East, the quite reasonable criticisms which can be levied at various aspects of Western involvement there are suppressed. The Palestinians, for example, are trapped between the two extreme ends of a spectrum. At one end we have the PLO, an organisation historically led by Yasser Arafat, a man who was willing to do nearly anything – including torturing and killing thousands of his own people with tacit Israeli consent – to become head of a Palestinian state, and who went behind the backs of the hundreds of negotiators at the Madrid Conference in order to obtain a shameful peace agreement (the Oslo Accords) which undermined UN Resolution 242, the most basic article of international law in support of the Palestinian cause. This same organisation is now being driven by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian John Major, into a steady subjugation to Israeli and American will, all the while meekly absorbing accusations of terrorism. On the other hand, we have Hamas and a clutch of other Islamist groups, the only political organisations willing to make such criticisms of the PLO and of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and which therefore enjoy the support of a lot of people who would otherwise never countenance the idea of political violence.
Yes, the argument goes, they do use violence. They are extremists. But nobody else has the courage to voice these opinions, often quite widely held. Hamas, for instance, has stated that it does not feel bound to the idiotic ‘Road Map for Peace’ because it views that Israel has not held up its end of the bargain. Justified or not, this is an extremely popular opinion, and one which deserves to be dealt with. Suppressing it merely drives a huge number of people into the arms, and often the ranks, of organisations like Hamas, which would otherwise have been toppled years ago by the Gazans themselves for its shameful mismanagement and abuse of its seaside fiefdom. Hence why the Arab Spring has not yet sprung in Gaza – there is little reason to topple your government when it is the only group publicly expressing your opinions, however violently. This same phenomenon explains the enduring popularity of a man like Bin Laden during the videotape era, and is exactly the reason why his death represented practically no concrete victory at all – he only needed to articulate the idea for it to take root.
Perhaps this explains our penchant for movies depicting battles against zombies or monsters or unreasonably sadistic aliens: we, as a culture, are longing for an enemy who is justifiably ‘mindless’, whom no-one will defend, and whose motives we do not have to worry about because they quite simply don’t exist: an enemy who can be thoroughly and uncontroversially beaten by means of pure force. Now, what does that say about us? Nothing good, I’m afraid.