Saturday, August 12, 2006

Some rather better post-terror-plot commentary

Although there's a great deal of repetitive, unimaginative or simply tendentious verbiage being generated by the alleged terror attack on planes bound for America from Britain (some of which I mentioned in my last post), I have run across a few things which are far more compelling and thought-provoking.

1. First up is Slate national correspondent William Saletan's 'The Liquid World: How to Survive in an Age of Death'. Despite it's curiously optimistic title, Saletan has very few comforting words - let alone a how-to plan - on improving your personal odds. (And, yes, I realise that it may say more about me than I care to admit that I find this title 'optimistic'. You may focus on the 'death' bit, but I find anything with the phrase 'how to' in the title to be terribly positive: after all, it suggests that there is a solution and promises to impart it to you.)

Quoting British Home Secretary John Reid, Saletan considers what the possibilities suggested by this (alleged) plot point to for the near future:

So, what do we do? As Reid put it,

What happens when the threat to our nation, and hence to all of us as individuals, comes not from a fascist state but from what might be called fascist individuals? Individuals who are unconstrained by any of the international conventions, laws agreements or standards, and have therefore, unconstrained intent? Individuals who can network courtesy of new technology and access modern chemical, biological and other means of mass destruction, and who have therefore unconstrained capability?

The answer is, some of us die. And the rest of us grieve, but we go on, doing our best to fight the bad guys and heal the world. The grieving and fighting and healing never end the dying. "We are probably in the most sustained period of severe threat since the end of World War II," Reid observed. "While I am confident that the Security Services and Police will deliver 100% effort and 100% dedication, they can never guarantee 100% success."

And in case you hadn't gotten the grim message (here, as with regard to 9/11, there is no pony), Saletan drives the point home again, while, at the same time, trying to suggest a way forward:

That's the bottom line: We die. In a liquid world, you can't seal off evil. All you can do is fight liquid with liquid. You have to absorb the tragedy, flowing around and through it. You need the strength of a river, not a rock. You need resilience. You can't be untouchable, but you can be undefeated.

Be like water. Yes, Grasshopper, that is today's lesson.

But despite the seemingly strange (and, perhaps for some of you, possibly useless) Taoist implications of Saletan's message, I think there's an essential truth here.

I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb here, but I think that there will be no ultimate 'solution' to terrorism.

This doesn't, in any sense, mean inaction or defeatism. But it does point to the need for a different kind of mindset, one of
chronic and fluid conflict rather than acute and well-defined warfare. I think Germans, for instance, are quite correct to use the word 'struggle' (Kampf) rather than the word 'war' (Krieg) in describing the condition in which we all find ourselves these days. And this is one struggle in which 'Mission Accomplished' banners are not, ever (or at least probably in my lifetime), going to be appropriate.

And Saletan's article is as good a roadmap into this world as any I've seen recently.

2. Second, Michael Clarke, Professor of Defence Studies at King's College, London has written an interesting article 'Here's Why Jihadis Just Love to Fly' for the Times. It's about what seems to have become the obsession of Radical Islamic Terrorist groups with the destruction of jetliners. It's not exactly path-breaking, but it apporoaches this question from an interesting symbolic angle:
It is still aircraft and explosives that loom large in the jihadi imagination. There is nothing quite so photogenic as a stricken aircraft, or quite so obscenely violent as a mid-air explosion. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses begins with this very image. Jihadis are drawn to the images of Dawson’s Field in Jordan during September 1970 when four hijacked airliners were blown up by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The memory of Lockerbie still sticks in the mind. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the chief operational planner of al-Qaeda until his arrest in 2002, lavished attention on a plan in 1995 to blow up maybe ten US airliners over the Pacific. Al-Qaeda terrorists tried to bring down an El Al airliner taking off from Mombasa in 2002 with two Stinger missiles, and to this day it’s a wonder that they missed.

Commercial aircraft represent globalism and high technology — they shrink the world and threaten cultural conservatism. The Boeing 747 was the last of the “great machines” that characterised the 20th century: it opened up air travel to the mass market. And it was so very American; big, brash and useful. But aircraft also appear vulnerable. In truth, civil aircraft are a lot more robust than people think, but the aviation industry is selling safety almost as much as it is selling transport and passengers need constant reassurance that aircraft are operating well within their technical limits.

As someone who flies fairly regularly to and from Britain, I find that last bit about robustness somewhat reassuring.

And had I not read article #1, above, I might have been significantly calmed. But it's too late now....

Of course, there is likely to be a much simpler reason for the airline-obsession on behalf of terrorists: giant metal objects filled with fuel and a few hundred people make for a comparatively spectacular and attention-getting way of committing heinous forms of media-friendly mass murder.

But to stick with this symbolic stuff for a moment...

3. Third, Momus follows up on Clarke's piece in his thought-provoking (if somewhat meandering) discussion of 'The Cosmopolitanism of the Poor'.

The trouble with the argument that radicalized Muslims hate modernity is that it ignores the fact that they are completely a product of it. Without 747s, without the globalization of the economy (and without, of course, a history of Western imperial adventure) there would be as few Muslims in the UK as there are in Japan. Bin Laden is as much a part of "modernity" (or post-modernity; the society of the spectacle) as a Boeing
This is an argument developed in intriguing ways a few years ago by John Gray in Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern, which connects modern jihadist movements not with medieval primitivism but rather with quintessentially modern forms of totalitarian thinking. This was a connection made in a somewhat different way also by Paul Berman in his fascinating book Terror and Liberalism. (Though despite all these convincing connections, in the end, I remain unconvinced that the term 'Islamic Fascist' is a very useful one, as it seems designed to inflame more than explain.)

I strongly recommend both of these books as useful for getting a grip on the world we face.

But as for any all-encompassing answers...I'm still working on it.

Till then, I'm planning on being a bit more like water. Or, as my wife in all her wisdom has just suggested: like a whiskey and water.

Yes, that makes the world seem much brighter.

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