Terrorism is the attempt to advance political objectives by killing, maiming and terrifying innocent people. Terrorists instrumentalise people like you and me, deliberately harming us and using our deaths, injuries and fright to force change. We should try to comprehend terror, never justify terror. Terrorists should never be permitted, still less encouraged, to view themselves as heroes on the ropes. Terrorists should view themselves, at best, as murderers who had to cauterise part of their conscience and humanity to commit their acts.
Caught this on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme yesterday (0836, Monday 17 Aug 09) and because its response to Miliband’s apology for terror was good, thought I’d try to capture it for posterity before it disappears from Listen Again.
“Shadow foreign secretary William Hague has condemned the Foreign Secretary David Miliband for saying there are circumstances in which acts of terrorism are “justifiable” and “effective”. Mr Miliband was speaking on Radio Four about the anti-apartheid activist, Joe Slovo. Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell and terrorism expert Andy Hull examine the foreign secretary’s comments.”
“JH: “Menzies Campbell, there are two questsions. Is he philosophically right when he says that terrorism is justifiable, and should he have said it as foreign Secretary?”
MC: “Well let’s take the second of these first. If I may say so I think William Hague’s quite right indeed quite reticent in describing the Foreign Secretary’s remarks as ill-judged. The timing of this! We’ve got 9,000 men and women in Afghanistan – what are they doing, they’re fighting against terrorism among other things. And to give any kind of succour to the notion that terrorism is a legitimate activity seems to me to fly in the face of that commitment. But of course as far as the first of these things is concerned, I would say no. Why – because I am someone of a liberal persuasion who is committed to peaceful change, and if you consider that terrorism almost certainly involves innocent people, it is rarely successful – how many instances can you point to of people being able to bomb their way to the negotiating table – and of course it hardens attitudes – you’ve only got to look at Israel to see how the attitudes of the Israel public have hardened – why – because of terrorism.”
JH: So in absolutely no circumstances – I dunno – the Hitler bomb plot, you would say that that was out of what should be considered.
MC: What I say is that the use of violence for political ends is unacceptable.
JH: Ah. That’s pretty clear. Andy Hull?
AH: You can’t kill your way to justice. I think however legitimate your grievance, terrorism is not a legitimate tactic.
JH: Not in any circumstances at all.
AH: No, I don’t think we should seek to justify terrorism. But I do think it’s important to comprehend it. I think if you take the current neo-jihadi Islamist threat that we face, I think that with all the best cops and all the best spooks we’re not going to be able to arrest or spy our way out of the problem. Which means we’re going to need to get to a place where people no longer want to blow us up, and in order to do that I think we’re going to have to try to understand what makes a bomber tick.
JH: And where do you stand on the wisdom or otherwise of a Foreign Secretary saying something of this kind?
AH: Well I think it was unwise because I think it’s wrong. I think, as I say, that however legitimate your grievance terrorism is not a legitimate tactic. And it isn’t effective either. It wasn’t bombs in Pretoria that ended apartheid and it wasn’t bullets in Belfast that ended the troubles. Al Quaeda bombs won’t bring about a global Caliphate.
MC: I agree with all of that. If you look at South Africa, for example, what it was was economic reality. De Klerk realised the economic future of South Africa was not going to be in any way sustainable if there was the continuing political divide. If you look at the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, their terrorism has not proved fruitful, and if you look at the Basque separatists in Spain, they have not achieved any of their political objectives by the use of terrorism.
JH: Can you, Andy Hull, point to any examples where the use of terrorism has been effective, putting aside any moral judgement one may make about whether it was right or wrong?
AH: No. It’s always the politics in the end that has the effects. But I do think that what we need in this country is a grown-up political debate that understands that you can understand terrorism without endorsing it. And I think that moral outrage about terrorism is understandable but we do need to get beyond it.
JH: Is there a danger, since you mention moral outrage, that moral outrage about a remark like that of the Foreign Secretary, stifles genuine debate – that there’s something we ought to be talking about here, but aren’t?
AH: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there is a danger that that moral outrage stifles productive debate, and I think it’s a shame. We saw it previously with some comments that Jenny Tonge made about Palestine. I think it’s important that we have an honest, open, grown-up debate about these issues, and that does mean that it’s reasonable to seek to understand the motivations of terrorist bombers.”
In Caroline Lucas’ response to Mumbai I missed this kind of genuine will to comprehend terror. Caroline Lucas blamed Mumbai on Israel and called this “looking at some of the root causes”. She politicises her ‘understanding’ to fit a well-known and pre-existing agenda; she extends this ‘understanding’ to some and not others. Compare her ‘understanding’ to Andy Hull’s and it quickly becomes clear why Andy Hull is heard respectfully when he calls on us to understand the motivations of terrorists, but Caroline Lucas provokes outrage.
Andy Hull wants to understand.
Update: on openDemocracy from a couple of years back, a different question is addressed: does terrorism work. Of course, even it if did work, not everything that works is good.