The dangerous gap between terrorism and counter-terrorism
Earlier this year, a group of activists peacefully obstructed a plane deporting migrants from the UK. Following their arrests, the group were charged with terrorism offences. A high-profile case, these events sparked a renewed focus on the potential for anti-terror legislation to infringe on the rights and civil liberties of individuals.
However, a discussion on the actual nature of terrorism has, for the most part, been absent from the mainstream discourse. Whereas the media take it for granted that everyone knows what terrorism is, academics are still trying to decide what the T-word means. Whilst there is no explicit consensus, scholars generally accept that terrorism is ‘an act of violence targetting the general population, to create fear within that population, to further a political objective’. This is a far cry from the actions of the Stanstead 15 who were peacefully obstructing the deportation of migrants to potentially dangerous environments.
The academic definition encompasses the events which spring to mind on hearing the word terrorism — the 9/11 attacks, the London and Madrid bombings, Paris, the Manchester Arena. The list of horrific tragedies goes on. Horrific, in part, due to the indiscriminate nature of the violence. People were able to imagine themselves in place of the unlucky victims, the majority of whom were civilians. The media did exactly what the attackers wanted them to do — in covering the tragedies they became a platform for the attacker’s agenda. This is terrorism. It is an unacceptable form of political protest.
Since 9/11, the events which marked the beginning of the US’s self-proclaimed global War on Terror, terrorists have become a common enemy, filling the post-Cold War void left by communism as America’s ideological opponent. However, unlike communism, terrorism is not an ideology. It is a tool, albeit it a highly unethical one, that any individual or organisation can utilise to further their political agenda. The war on terrorism seems eerily similar to the war on drugs that America is currently losing. It is impossible to destroy a concept in the way you would a conventional enemy.
So as it stands, the war on terror will never end. But then who and how are we actually fighting? State anti-terror capacity in many Western countries has been steadily funded and strengthened. Much of the legislation, in particular, legislation relating to surveillance and intelligence gathering, has been criticised as infringing on civil liberties. The rationale behind these laws is that desperate times call for desperate measures, the violent images of 9/11 and its ‘America under attack’ headlines existing in the collective memory of everyone old enough to remember it. Although the bulk of this technology has been used militarily in the Middle East and Africa, we now see this same infrastructure and legislation being turned towards those who are a far cry from the al-Qaeda sponsored hijackers.
What permits this to happen is the lack of mainstream public understanding of what terrorism is. It seems to have become conflated with political resistance in any form, paving the way for Orwellian suppression of democratic freedoms. I have no qualms with standing up to indiscriminate violence against civilians, but our civil liberties need not be eroded in the process.
Another worrying trend is the inconsistency with which terrorism charges are applied. Muslims and people of colour are more likely to be charged with terrorism-related offences than white, right-wing extremists, even when those extremists have plotted attacks which meet all the criteria of terrorism. In this way, the war on terror has become an institutionalised manifestation of the xenophobia and racism that’s currently on the rise in the UK. If we are to tackle terrorism effectively, we need to do so in a way that is coherent and consistent. This can only happen if terrorism, as a concept, is scrutinised more heavily by the public. Only then will we be able to effectively hold the government to account.