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A ‘Simple Sailor’ in a Crowded Place: Terrorism and Society

Commentary, 16 November 2007
Terrorism, Europe
The newly-revealed counter-terrorist measures (revealed 14 November) places an emphasis on protecting the very fabric of our society. It will be the continuing and necessary functioning of society, its ability to adapt, adjust and overcome, that makes terrorism so ordinary, pathetic, lethal and impotent.

The newly-revealed counter-terrorist measures places an emphasis on protecting the very fabric of our society. It will be the continuing and necessary functioning of society, its ability to adapt, adjust and overcome, that makes terrorism so ordinary, pathetic, lethal and impotent.

As the Prime Minister took to his feet in the Commons on Wednesday 14 November 2007 to provide further insights into his security vision, the good ship ‘Security and Counter-terrorism’ (SCT) was lolling in the water. The cause of this instability was his Security Minister, Lord Alan West, whose media utterances the morning of the speech had caused widespread confusion and derision as he appeared to back track on the subject of detention without charge.  The reason for his change of heart became the subject of much speculation and largely overshadowed the thrust of Brown's speech.

The PM’s speech itself was wide and varied. The much vaunted report compiled by Lord West received minimal mention, with only 1/6th of the content describing the measures and ideas that comprised West’s brief. Nevertheless this reticence to disclose West’s detail on the part of the PM is understandable: it would not do to provide the initiative to the ‘enemy’, informing them of our specific protective strategy and tactics, or our ‘who’s who’ of vulnerability. The vast majority of the speech focussed on the more familiar rhetoric of SCT: identity, community, legislation, radicalisation, finance and partnership. As Brown said in relation to communities but that can be more generally applied to his SCT approach, ‘this will be achieved not by one single programme or initiative and it won’t be achieved overnight.’

In speaking of SCT, Brown’s speech explicitly sets out the relationship between rooting out terrorist extremism and building more vibrant and cohesive communities: achieving the former requires the more comprehensive, deeply layered and consistent confrontation with the latter. Indeed the desire to build these vibrant and cohesive communities is clearly not a security issue but a fundamental quest for societal justice and opportunity: security becomes a benevolent by-product of this adventure. Yet this virtuous residue demands a difficult leap and one that social scientists as well as the general public continue to grapple and confuse. For what do ‘we’ as a ‘society’ know of terrorist extremism (sic) or radicalization whilst apparently living with it every day? The speech refers to road-shows and charity commissions, youth panels and centres of excellence but these initiatives and their direct relationship with criminally violent extremism (qua terrorism) remains elusive, ill-defined and socially problematic. From here and with real purpose in contrast to the elusiveness of the ‘P’ for prevent in the national CT strategy, our attention is drawn back to the 1/6th part of the speech which relates to the (non) publication of Lord West’s review.

Brown states that ‘the conclusions today of the review by the Noble Lord West on the protection of strategic infrastructure, stations, ports and airports – and of other crowded places – identifies a need to step up physical protection against possible vehicle bomb attacks.’ This is patently clear and resonates with Brown’s oft quoted position that security remains the first responsibility of government. But it also identifies much more, and offers succour to a society struggling to understand its place in the confrontation or reconciliation with criminal violent extremism. Lord West’s review tacitly identifies the ‘banality of terrorism’, and with it the hope that such recognition brings.

Hannah Arendt described the ‘banality of evil’ as she followed the trial unfolding of Adolph Eichmann, a senior Nazi ‘holocaust administrator.’ In Arendt’s terms, Eichmann was utterly bureaucratic, devoid of insight into the human or moral dimension of his actions, the victims’ experience or of rational engagement with his orders. The evil was ‘normalised’ and everyday, not extraordinary or beyond the limits of society’s ethical horizons. In this sense, in this normalisation of experience, the encounter with our terrorism reveals this retreat from extraordinary and a reconciliation with violent possibility. The everyday is deliberately targeted, specifically under threat, our modern existence bounded by ‘cinemas, theatres, restaurants, hotels, sporting venues and commercial centres, and all hospitals, schools and places of worship’ becomes a landscape of violence. But in as far as this is the every day of society, it also reflects the banality of the terrorist endeavour. Government is rightly grasping the ‘P’ of protection from our national CT Strategy (this is their first responsibility as we know) and taking actions to mitigate the threat and reduce the vulnerability but always offer the ultimate qualification of the impossibility of 100 per cent security. But it is the fabric that these everyday ‘targets’ make up, the continuing and necessary functioning of society, its ability to adapt, adjust and overcome, that makes terrorism so ordinary, pathetic, lethal and impotent.

Lord West, has revealed our reason to be positive. In recognizing the banality of terrorism our minds flit to those ‘slags dancing around’ , to terror suspects in their pants on balconies, to tube stations, and home storage depots, to Police surveillance answering calls of nature and to hook handed preachers on the street. Lord West has demonstrated, unwittingly or by design, that terrorism is all around. But when everything and anything in modern life is a target then society responds by carrying on regardless, by asserting its indifference and thus its strength: the ‘simple sailor’ has revealed the reach and possibility of (counter) terrorism in the modern age.

Neil Ellis
Head of Risk and Resilience, Homeland Security & Resilience Department

The views of the author are not meant to represent the views of RUSI.

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