Thursday, 10 May 2007

Combating Terrorism - Responding to whose Agenda?

In the 1970s-90s, West Germany and then reunified Germany suffered a series of terrorist attacks from a group calling itself the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction) a group set up in 1970 and commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang after two of its founder members. The group received funds from the East German secret police, the Stasi, and in the early 1970s had training from the PLO (the Palestine Liberation Organisation). The group espoused radical left-wing policies though it can be argued that they were really simply spoilt rich people who got excitement from the bank robberies and assassinations, usually of businessmen, that they carried out. The group formally ended in 1998, partly as the world had moved on and they could no longer use the excuse of a need to promote a revolutionary and/or Communist society.

The Gang claimed that many of their actions in the 1970s were about challenging the authoritarian state that they saw West Germany to be. The result was that their actions actually pushed West Germany more towards authoritarianism: people with left-wing leanings, even if not supporters of the Gang, were removed from public sector positions such as the post office; the West German border police and police for the protection of the constitution (as these were federal as opposed to Land, i.e. regional, police forces) were strengthened and anti-terrorist units were created such as GSG9; the law was changed so that lawyers felt to be sympathetic to the gang could be excluded from any trials. When a number of the Gang were captured in 1977 three were murdered in prison and one severely injured. They had been sentenced to life imprisonment, West Germany not having the death penalty, but it was clear that the German state preferred to kill these convicts without any legal process, a so-called 'extra-judicial execution'. Thus, by the 1980s the Gang had effectively made West Germany more the kind of the regime it had argued it was from the start than if they had done nothing. All democratic states face the danger of losing what they seek to defend from terrorists.

One reason why there was bitterness in Europe over the American reaction to the September 11th attacks was that the Americans seemed to think that they were the only people who had ever suffered such things. Britain had been experiencing bombings throughout the 1960s-1980s and Northern Ireland after that too, killing and maiming numerous people. As a child in the 1970s I remember being separated from my mother so that she and I could both be searched, like all the other visitors, for weapons when we went to the Tower of London where there is still a plaque to mark where tourists had been killed by a bomb. I witnessed the Docklands bomb of 1996 from the window of my flat and I have known people caught up in the London bus bomb and Manchester bomb of the same year, this was all before anyone had even dreamed of the term 'al-Qaeda'. Countries like the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain have had such incidents repeatedly over the last few decades from various groups and yet we did not whine and expect the whole world to follow us in using the incidents to go off at a tangent and kill unrelated people. Given how the USA had behaved, particularly in carpet bombing Vietnamese people over so many years (and the mutations of Vietnamese children due to chemicals dropped by the American forces continues even now) it seemed very rich for them to then expect everyone to be so sympathetic to them about a single incident. Do not get me wrong, what happened was tragic, but that does not excuse the Bush regime's subsequent behaviour.

Adopting a sober reaction to terrorism is always hard for democracies. The UK fell into behaviour such as internment and the 'shoot-to-kill' policy of SAS (Special Air Service, the most famous UK special forces unit) against IRA (Irish Republican Army, since the late 1960s usually referring to the Provisional IRA or 'Provos' guerilla group as opposed to the broader organisation of the 1920s) suspects. However, what is apparent is under the cover of responding to terrorism, governments take the opportunity to extend their control over the population. As with the West German example at the start of this post, such a clampdown affects far more than any suspects. In the USA you had the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security, effective censorship of dissenting voices, the suspension of due process for suspects thrown without trial into the concentration camp at Gunatanamo Bay and so on. The UK has adopted similar policies allowing for longer detention without charge or trial, the greater monitoring of the population, the introduction of identity cards and so on.

You may argue that to defend democracy needs harsh measures. However, in turn you are doing more damage to democracy than the terrorists themselves. Even experts argue that things such as identity cards would not have stopped the 7th July bombers in London. Yet, the powers implemented to stop terrorism can easily be turned on others, for example, anyone protesting against the war in Iraq or even about a by-pass being built over a woodland. As has been proven in states like 1930s Germany, by the time people generally realise what freedoms they are losing they are in no position any longer to do anything about it. Defending democracy needs democracy to be strong, its institutions to stand for fairness and democracy, to unite, not divide a people.

So, we have the erosion of democracy in the name of defending it. No-one can deny that there is terrorist activity in the UK, but certainly not of the scale that we have been warned about repeatedly since 2001. A scared population is a compliant one and that is what governments like. To some degree most Britons have seen so much of terrorism in their lives that the 'warnings' just wash over them, in contrast, it seems to many Americans, who have experienced far fewer incidents of this kind. I do not believe al-Qaeda exists, certainly in the form it is portrayed with Osama bin Laden sitting like a villain from a James Bond movie hidded in an underground base, watching a map showing all his cells operating across the world. Al-Qaeda is like a brand that local terrorist groups can attach themselves to; it is a short hand for use by government and the media but one that fails to reflect the complexity and the diverse motivations of those who turn to terrorism. This is why, if we simply focus on rooting out al-Qaeda we will come nowhere near to ending Islamist-influenced terrorism. Watch 'The Power of Nightmares' series from the BBC, it is very good on these issues.

The current governments of the UK and USA, though, have not stopped at simply making their own countries more authoritarian, they have found an additional use for 'the war on terror' and that is, to advance economic and geo-political goals. Everyone knows that Saddam Hussain was no supporter of Islamist terrorism. He ran a secular state and was having to keep the different Muslim sects in his country in check. Support for that kind of terrorism was more likely to come from the British and American ally, Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussain had been an ally of the West during the Cold War and after the Ayatollah's regime came to power in Iran in 1979, but by the 1990s his purpose was over. For the West he was becoming too nationalistic (this is the time when Western powers usually intervene, for example, with Nasser in Egypt in 1956) and of course, as I have discussed in the post 'Oil. What's it Good For? War!' the USA needed to secure a good source of oil for itself that the Chinese were not involved with yet. So, the war on terror was used as an excuse for a neo-colonial war to secure resources, so familiar in the 19th century, but seemingly less common now, or so we thought ...

Back to the UK perspective. I think Tony Blair, poor man, did genuinely believe that he was fighting a major threat in Iraq. He liked the fact that the terror 'threat' allowed him to be stricter in the UK, because, as I noted in '10 Years of the Blair Party', he has always had some authoritarian tendencies. However, he also allowed himself to be convinced, not by his own intelligence services, but by material from them distorted by political players, that Iraq was a threat. In addition, Saddam Hussain was a cruel dictator who needed to fall, but the West had already failed at that once in 1991 and while they actually removed the man this time, they unleashed all the forces that his strength had kept in check, all for the sake, not of countering terrorism because that has increased since the war, but for the oil reserves his regime sat on. In reviews of Blair's career today, Iraq overshadows everything else he did. This is fair, it was his greatest blunder, the blood of thousands of people is on his hands and it showed that despite his charisma and his belief that he controlled events, he was a weak leader, too easily influenced by one of the most brainless politicians a democracy has suffered. It showed, too, at the end of the day, he lacked the confidence in himself to divert Bush's plan. In 1950, Prime Minister Clement Attlee (unintentionally turning into a bit of a hero on these pages) flew to the USA and successfully persuaded President Truman not to drop atomic bombs on North Korea. Though this is an overlooked historical incident, it no doubt saved the fates of millions and a lot of the Korean peninsula is not a wasteland. Blair would have gone down in history if he could have acted as such a brake on Bush, but instead decided to not only roll over for his objectives but actively support such a foolish, and probably illegal, step.

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