Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reasons not to be terrified

I was pretty sceptical when the media reported the Mumbai-style terror attacks on European cities had been foiled after zapping some people who might have something to do with a plot they didn't actually have the details about, and in any case was still at the planning stage. If indeed there was a plan, and these were the people involved. It was like the RAF dropping a few bombs on Berlin in 1940 and announcing the invasion of Britain had been thwarted.

Now it seems the authorities have also had second thoughts and it's alerts all over again.

At some point of course, the terrorists will get through. However, what strikes me is how limited the existential threat to the West really must be. Certainly the terrorist's penchant for committing suicide provides a frightening frisson, but given the general level of hysteria you would think attacks would be a lot more common. And this can't just be thanks to our wonderful security services - look at the IRA.

In London, from the 1970s to 1990s, terrorism was commonplace. From an early teenage trip to the centre with French exchange students when a big bang and distant pire of smoke signalled a bomb that had hit a bandstand, the shocked survivors moving toward us across the grass like zombies, to my twenties when explosions were so commonplace I got to know the minutiae of their tactics ('What was that?' asked the Southern Irish girl across the computer bank in our office off Oxford Street. 'Sounded like a bomb,' I said. 'No,' she said, 'the back of a van.' 'There'll be another in a minute, as they run from the first,' I said. When it happened, she burst in to tears. 'Only a two-pounders,' said a chap from Northern Ireland in a vain attempt to comfort her) terrorism was just a fact of life. Indeed, attacks were considerably more numerous than the wiki entry. For example, the buggers even blew up my local YMCA.

All this, despite the thorough infiltration of the Irish Republican movement by the intelligence services - the IRA could still muster enough manpower to stage comprehensive and long-running campaigns. And remember - these were people who cared about getting caught. Given this, one can only conclude that active support for Islamic terrorism in the West must be infinitesimal. Yes, some terrorists will succeed, but they are never going to be a threat to our way of life, unless we let them.

Of course that's not the case in the "East" - the Islamic "crescent" from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Middle East and Africa. This is where the "real" war is being fought - indeed, from what little the media could gather about the current supposed plot, it was to bring the fighting in Pakistan to the West in response to drone attacks. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia, violence resulting in multiple casualties is a regular occurrence.

The West is embroiled in a conflict essentially internal to the Islamic culture (and has inadvertently, and incalculably, empowered the forces of Islamism by its approach). It is worth remembering that even 9/11 was viewed by its perpetrators as a response to Western influence on Islam and not as a precursor to some kind of Red Dawn-style invasion - from their perspective the West orbited the Islamic sun, not the other way around.

In this context, I suspect terrorism in the West will always be a "sideshow", no matter how much it feels to us like we are centre-stage.

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