Putting Terror Acts In Context

Today’s headlines are dominated by an incident in the centre of Sydney, Australia, involving an armed gunman and about 15 hostages.

He has been waving an Islamist flag and asked for an ISIS banner – and now turns out to be an Iranian refugee. This suggests a classic ‘terrorist incident'.

It could equally be the case that we have an unhinged lone nut responding to the ‘leaderless resistance’ strategy of the Islamist extremists and that this is just one of those things we are going to have to put up with in a free society with internet communications.

Tragic for the victims who are clearly frightened and distressed, the incident may not bear the weight of meaning being placed on it by an over-excitable media, posturing politicians, crowing Islamists and self-interested ‘commentators’ and specialists. We do not yet know what the man’s motivations are nor whether he is part of some plot whose tentacles reach back into Anbar. He was known to the police but the generality of people flocking to the banner of overseas gangster operations tend to be isolated or quite small groups.

The primary narrative here is that we should be afraid, very afraid. Very large sums of money need to be spent on a significant security establishment for public protection. A countervailing second narrative says the terror threat is a total fraud. It is being used to put in place a system to restore order to liberal democracies floundering in economic crisis.

In our view, the authorities have identified a genuine concern but one that they are probably exaggerating in order to try to seize back the initiative from centrifugal tendencies. This is not a conspiracy but a natural response by people whose prime concern is their own survival.

A third narrative looks back into history but not too far – current conditions could be analysed in terms of American inability to see beyond communism, Franco-British attempts to hang on to their assets beyond all reason, perhaps in terms of the Abbasids. Better to go back just 12 years and see Western vulnerability to terrorism in terms of a failure that mimics a past failure by another troubled system to deal with dissent and discontent - Tsarist Russia.

Each successive failure of a total system to accommodate a critical response to its own power ends up depressing the majority into apathy or even resentment leaving the field to increasingly small and violent minorities and reliance on a security apparatus. One signal failure was the non-violent Great Iraq Demonstrations of 2003 which were simply allowed to blow over without a response. The subsequent direct action strategy of Occupy has petered out into chaos in the emerging world - with a recent clear failure in Hong Kong.

There may be nothing left for the few remaining radicals but futile lone gun or isolated group violence – as in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. By the time, the Tsar got around to reform, the rebels killed him for it and his successor was more reactionary than ever. The moment to be both competent and reformist was lost and the path to collapse was set.

The future problem of terror is a creation of the West. It lies in its lip service to democracy as a form of control of the population through competing political parties where the underlying 'expert' technocracy sees the greater good as something on which the great unwashed can have no worthwhile opinion. Most learn the art of being ruled, some rebels learn to work within the system but some are so frustrated with their condition that they turn to violence or criminality – and the first to be frustrated will be those with fewest bonds and poor education but access to the internet. These are not the ones to fear in the very long run.

For the authorities, the next stage is to try to discipline and control the internet, not realising that this very process of control is the factor that will alienate and turns others to violence. A danger point comes when the violent start to speak for the peaceful majority as the lesser of two evils and then something, the classic ‘cadre, emerges to exploit any breakdown of a system that need never have broken down in the first place.

We are very far from that - most of the educated West remain liberals just as their mid-nineteenth century counterparts were loyal subjects of the Tsar - but the seeds of internal crisis, or external total war as the final flailing of a system out of touch with its base, are in the system if economic recovery does not return soon.