Tim Farron and the search for an equilibrium that wasn’t there

Tim_Farron_Glasgow_2014

One of the sub-plots of the recent General Election was the discomfort of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron any time he was asked about LGBT issues. It reached its  endpoint today with his resignation. In an e-mail to party members he reported that:

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I wrote back before his election as leader, that there were issues when Farron’s faith became politically relevant. Nonetheless, I would still endorse Jennie Rigg’s defence of his actions as a public servant. I also share Isabel Hardman and Nick Cohen‘s sense that there’s something (ironically) retrograde about our unwillingness to let a man’s private thoughts stay private.

I would also stand by his performance as leader more generally.

In many ways, he became leader at the wrong moment. A personable northern bloke in a wax jacket representing a farming constituency in the Lakes who had stayed aloof from the coalition, would have been the perfect antidote to Nick Clegg in 2015. Likewise, he would have worked well in a 1997esque period of progressive harmony, in which the Party’s ambition was to defeat the Tories in individual constituencies where Labour would fear to tread. But as an alternative-alternative Prime Minister in place of the (apparently) doomed Corbyn, or as a spokesperson for upmarket remain voters? For that we needed someone urbane, a bit posh, someone who’d have convivial lunches with Times opinion columnists and get puffy columns in return, basically an Emmanuel Macron from Southwark, or a Nick Clegg from an alternative dimension where the coalition never happened.

Both of those figures being figments of my imagination, Tim Farron stepped up and, while not ideal, still made a series of broadly correct decisions. He realised we needed a clear answer on Brexit. And that we continued to need it after the vote. That decision allowed the party to (modestly, electorally and in the short term) co-exist with a Corbynism that proved to be much stronger than we imagined. Angry remainers gave both Labour and the Lib Dems opportunities to make gains off the Tories. It will also – I hope – ultimately serve to solidify the party’s identity.

Nonetheless, he still had to go. I say that regretfully and as a matter of political calculation, rather than convicition. The reason is not Farron’s views. It’s not even their potential unpopularity. They did not represent some huge inundation that would sink HMS Lib Dem, but an ongoing problem that would have required the leader and his followers to be constantly bailing out water. Using up energy that might carry the party forward to stop it sinking, is not something a party with as many head-winds as the Lib Dems could afford.

It might have been different if Farron had been more assured in his stances, but as his resignation email made clear, he was wrestling with internal conflicts. Indeed, let’s be honest, the interviews he was giving before the election made that pretty clear too. It is hard to watch them and conclude that Farron was ever going to find a stance from which he could have dodged, repeled or absorbed those questions. Had he stayed on as leader, he would have been signing himself, and the party, up, for an ongoing beating. His decision to forestall that was correct.

 

My hurried, ill-thought through and provisional reactions to the election

Written in a rush, so expect errors of fact and grammar. Also, full disclosure I have been out of the UK since February.

General

1 – There is a (possibly apocraphyl) story that during a state visit to Paris in the 1970s, Zhou Enlai – Mao’s Primeminister – was asked what he thought of the French revolution. He is suppposed to have replied that ‘it was too early to tell’. I basically feel the same way about this election.

2 – Relatedly, this election feels like it marks a transition from one phase of British politics to another. Like when we moved from Butskellism to Thatcherism. I confess I cannot really tell what the new epoch is however (and I suspect neither can you!)

3 – Can we all just agree now that First-Past-the-Post is an unbelievably crap electoral system! Even with the two main parties winning a far higher share of the vote than they normally do, we still haven’t got one of the stable, single party governments that are supposedly its benefit.

Conservatives

4 – Regardless of my more sobre assesement of who would be a better Primeminister, I find it intensely gratifying that voters didn’t reward May’s defensive, condescending and cynical campaign.

4 – I do not envy Theresa May having to try and run a government. The Tory/DUP alliance has a tiny commons minority. A figure I saw recently was 5. By-election loses and the like will likely chip away at that. That means that she must ensure that the entire spectrum of Tory opinion is content, from the most rabid right-winger to wettest wet.

5. This is not a straightforward defeat. The Party gained a strikingly large number of seats including from Labour. That suggests that like Labour it is metamorphising. The resulting butterfly seems to have a rather Trumpian hue:

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6 – This seems like a reasonable criticism:

7 – Whatever else good comes out of this, I suspect that May and Timothy haven’t got the votes to bring back Grammar Schools. For which thank goodness!

Labour

8 – This result challenges my preconceptions about what voters in the UK would accept, as much as Trump’s victory did about the tolerances of American voters. I genuinely assumed that both Corbyn as an individual and his platform would be toxic. I was clearly wrong.

9 – However, it does not follow from the above that Corbynism is not electorally problematic. Merely, that we potentially need to substantially revise downwards the size of that problem. We should expect oppositions to gain seats. That’s what oppositions generally do. Especially, when faced with a Primeminister who campaigns with the caution of a gambler but none of the flair. Not saying that he wasn’t an electoral asset mind. Simply, that we have to explore the question more.

10 – Labour supporters do need to remember it got fewer votes and seats than the Conservatives. What many in the part have achieved is objectively impressive. However, a way milder than expected defeat is still a defeat.

11 – Speaking of which, my sense is that the next step for Labour is going to be harder. They have convinced the electorate to trust them as an implement to humble the Tories. Now, they must persuade voters to they deserve to take power in their own right. That is a bigger ask, and I don’t think they are ready yet.

Lib Dems

12 – I’ll write about my own party’s performance in more detail elsewhere. But suffice to say, what a relief! That was looking scary for a moment, a further loss of seats would have made a return to relevance into something like the ascent of Nanga Parbat.

13 – Despite my previous support for him, I suspect that Farron probably needs to go. I suspect that Swinson is the right person to replace him but I reserve judgement for now.

Sinn Fein

14 – I’m curious (as an ignorant outsider) whether they will start to face pressure from within their own community to take their seats in Westminster. I appreciate that there is a lot of history behind the decision not to. However, if the price of that is letting the DUP hold the balance of power in the Commons, then surely the temptation to start voting must be there?

Terrorism makes us feel fear, anger and compassion. We should aim instead for apathy.

Human, all too human

It is usually the details that allow you to grasp the full horror of a tragedy. Earlier today the BBC reported that the first victim of the bombing at the Manchester Arena to be named publically was Georgina Callander, an 18-year-old in “the second year of a health and social care course”. The realisation that a young woman heading towards a lifetime of caring for others, had been murdered by people who cared only for their glory and their twisted political agenda, came to me as an almost physical sensation, as if rage was replacing out the blood in my veins.

I confess this in order to acknowledge that what I am about to ask of you is very difficult. Once you have finished reading this, you may think I am imploring you to respond like a robot rather than a person. In that regard, you would be right, and that is the point. Terrorists know that their adversaries are human and have designed tactics that prey on the vulnerabilities of the human psyche. They want to draw attention to their movement, so they cause pain, knowing that our empathy will make it hard for us to ignore the harm they are doing. They need our resolve to waver, so they generate as much fear in as many people as possible, knowing that being scared can make us fight, but it can also put us to flight. And they need us to make mistakes in how we respond to their atrocities, so they act with such callousness that we cannot help becoming mad with rage. You see, not only do terrorists know we are not calculating machines, they are relying on it.

In a situation where our humanity has been weaponised, the wisest cause is to be more than Vulcan than man. Our sympathy for the victims may feel helpful, and if allied to concrete actions it can be. When it motivates taxi drivers to turn off their metres while they ferry survivors home, or increases the determination of police and spies to prevent future attacks, then such feelings are a powerful force for good. Otherwise, they are dangerous. Sympathy is a positive emotion, but where terrorism is concerned it will almost invariably be intermingled with darker emotions. When I read about Ms Callander’s demise, my first thought was not that I wished I could comfort those close to her, but that I regretted that her killer’s death was likely instantaneous. I fantasised about a more lingering and hopefully agonising demise.

You may feel that a suicide bomber would have earned such a fate. I probably wouldn’t disagree. Nonetheless, fear and anger tend to be corrosive.  Unmoored from a constructive outlet, they can create a distressing sense of impotence. Taking a flight or a metro ride can become an unsettling experience, because you now feel powerless to protect yourself against the terrorist you imagine to be lurking amongst your fellow commuters. Even worse things happen when we try to shake this sense of impotence. Denied good ways to respond, we find bad ones. We shred our civil liberties, start wars, seek out scape goats, and look to strong men for protection.

Behind cruelty lies weakness

The tragic irony behind all this is that a clear-headed analysis would actually be rather reassuring. Worldwide, more people are killed by snakes than terrorists and their attacks account for just 0.0006% of all deaths. They target teenagers dancing along to Break Free partly because they are wicked, but mostly because they are desperate. If they could have instead destroyed the White House or an aircraft carrier, we can be sure that is what they would have done, but they are military and geopolitical minnows, and the vast majority of people could safely ignore them.

Killer attention-seekers

We don’t do that, however, because terrorism is an exhibitionist malady. They use cruelty to draw the spotlight to themselves. For example, the perpetrators of the Paris attacks wore bodycams and livestreamed their atrocity. They also benefit from an unfortunate paradox: Precisely because terrorist attacks are so rare, when one happens it seems remarkable and we take notice. Media across the world will cover last night’s attacks and people living continents away from Manchester will be frightened and upset. It shouldn’t be like this. Like most attention seekers, terrorists do not merit much consideration.

Just to reiterate, I do know how difficult what I’m suggesting is. While I was writing this post, a notification from the BBC news app came through on my phone, relaying the ghastly news that an eight-year old had died in the Manchester attack, and once again I felt an intense hatred for people who could do such a thing. However, we could perhaps try acting as if we already feel, how we hope one day we will really feel. If we think that terrorists do not deserve our attention, we shouldn’t do things that draw attention to them. Tweeting out “sympathy for Manchester” or posting on Facebook about how angry killing children makes you is a very human response, but as we’ve seen terrorism prays on our humanity. In this case, it is using our empathy to generate publicity for their attacks. If you want to defy these killers, offer them the one emotion they have no use for: apathy.

 

I recently wrote a long series of posts exploring the theme of this post in much greater depth. I hope regular readers will forgive the repetition but making those arguments in the abstract, felt rather different from doing so in the direct aftermath of an attack. It is in precisely these moments that the most acute decisions about responding to terrorism are made and I felt that if I could not make my arguments speak to times like this then they were of little value at all.

How I became a reluctant monarchist

Sunday Express front - 21/05/17

It seems a bit much even now!

Monarchy is both a stupid idea and a good choice

On days like this, it is hard to defend Britain’s monarchy. It is beyond me how people manage to care about stuff like Pippa Middleton’s wedding. It has the banality and irrelevance of celebrity news, but lacks the colourful characters and outrageous behaviour. That combination is made even more grating because it is presented in a tone of fascinated obsequiousness, and in staggering volume. Every paper in the UK apart from the Guardian put the wedding on its front page today. By contrast, none found space for Iranians deying hardliners and re-electing their moderate president, an objectively significant story.

It is hard not to be aware of the absurdity of the Royal Family as an institution and, perhaps even more so, our reaction it. I laughed for several minutes when I first read a headline in the Daily Mash, Britain’s answer to the Onion, that went ‘Duchess wows easily-wowed crowd‘.

Despite all this I now consider myself a monarchist. That’s not always been the case. I was a republican up until 2011. That was the year of the William/Kate wedding. As you can probably deduce from what you’ve just read, I found that a rather trying period. Never has so much attention been paid to so little. Would her dress have sleeves? Oh seriously, who gives a ****?

I retreated to thesis writing. But as usually happens when I do that, procrastination followed, and for me that meant perusing blog after blog. Naturally, most of them considered the Royal Wedding in one way or another, and plenty of them considered it as strange as I did. Nonetheless,  many also found convincing rationales for the paegentry.

Two arguments particuarly stuck with me. The first from Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling:

John Band makes a superb point:

“I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) [he might have added Japan – CD] also tend to be monarchies.”

This, he says, is because monarchies remind us that our fate in life is due not solely to merit but to luck, and thus increases public support for redistribution. Is it really an accident that monarchical Spain is more equal than presidential Portugal, or Canada more egalitarian than the US, or Denmark more than Finland?

The Observer says that “meritocracy and monarchy is one marriage that just doesn’t work.” True. But a true meritocracy would, as Michael Young famously pointed out, be even more horribly inegalitarian than the fake one we have now. So given the choice, give me monarchy.

The other came from the philosopher Mark Vernon:

A republican will say that a president can [also embody a nation], along with the pageantry that surrounds the dignity of their office. Or that a country should be founded on explicit values, like liberty, fraternity and equality. Clearly, some countries opt for such alternative institutions – though I remember being persuaded that a monarchy has the upper hand when, after 9/11, it became almost impossible to criticize Bush without being taken as criticizing America too, because the political leader and the head of state were embodied in the same person. Similarly, a list of values will run into trouble when they conflict – as liberty and equality clearly do. A symbolic figure seems better able to hold together inevitable contradictions because they’re symbolic not explicit.

That the monarch is born, not chosen, is therefore also a good thing. In a democracy, where political power rightly rests with elected representatives and the electorate, hereditary ensures the head of state is above the political. Their power is soft, in all the good things they stand for.

After this, I came to see my own (and I confess other’s) republicanism as rather literal minded and, dare I say it, a bit adolescent. Not every institution needed to conform to every desirable ideal. Sometimes anachronisms that make little logical sense, can still serve a purpose. Events like royal weddings are inherently silly, but the people excited by it weren’t: They were enjoying a moment that bonded communities. So, when the Diamond Jubilee came round the next year, I gladly went along to a (as it turned out very wet) celebratory barbecue, safe in the knowledge that its absurdity was something to savour rather than reject.

The meaning of Moon: 8 thoughts on the progressive victory in Korea (Cable from Korea #12)

Whilst much of the world moves to the right South Korea goes left. Here’s what I think that means.

2017-05-10 15.34.20.png

 

Apology 1: I wrote this in a hurry to ensure you could read it whilst it was still topical. As a result there will be more grammatical errors, and fewer references and hyperlinks than I would usually aspire to.

Apology 2: While I live in Korea, I do not speak Korean and good writing about Korean politics in English is sparse. So please treat this post as a collection of intuitions rather than anything more definitive.

A quick note of background

On Monday, South Korea held a presidential election. This was unexpectedly early because the previous holder, the conservative Park Gueyn Hee, was impeached as the result of a bizarre corruption scandal involving her soliciting bribes on behalf of her shamen. Against this backdrop, it is probably unsurprising that a liberal won. A former human rights lawyer and presidential chief of staff Moon Jae-in received more than 40% of the vote comfortably defeating his divided opposition.

Some observations and speculations

1. Everyone seems to be voting just at the moment

Last Thursday, there were local elections across most of the UK, on Sunday there was a presidential election in France, and then yesterday there was one in South Korea. That’s three consequential sets of elections in less than a week.

And it’s not stopping. A week on Thursday Iran will also vote for a president. Britain and France will follow up the votes they just had with parliamentary votes next month. Later in the year, Germany will have to decide whether to keep Angela Merkel or replace her with the SPD’s Martin Schulz, and even China will come as close to electing its leaders as it ever does, when the 19th Central Committee meets to select the members of the politburo.

2. The curious failure of anti-establishment politicians

The wave of populism that is supposedly destroying all before was only weakly discernible in last week’s trifecta of elections. Yes, Macron was running outside France’s traditional party structure, Theresa May’s platform centres on implementing Brexit, and Moon’s victory was powered by the massive anti-system outrage engendered by his predecessor’s scandals. However, none of them is that much of an outsider. Macron was the finance minister in the government he just deposed. May is the most small c-conservative of Conservative politicians and deeply wedded to the party as an institution. She seems to be using Brexit primarily as an opportunity to bolster it. South Koreans were given the chance to vote for some clearly anti-system candidates: a radical mayor who touted himself as the Korean Bernie Sanders, a businessman running for a new insurgent party, and a far-left labour activist who spent much of the eighties on the run from a military dictatorship. Instead they went for Moon-Jae In, who by more or less any definition is the ultimate machine politician.* He was the Democratic Party candidate in the last presidential election, when he narrowly lost to the now impeached Park Guen Hye. Before that he was chief of staff to a previous president. All of three of these politicians use populist energy, however, none of them really represents it.

3. Korean election graphics are amazing

4. Both the UK and South Korea are cursed with zombie parties

Jason Cowley, editor of Britain’s left-wing New Statesman magazine, as a zombie party because it ‘is too weak to win and too strong to die.’ It can neither win power but it won’t give way for another centre-left force that might. The local elections seemed to confirm that pattern as Labour lost seats but not enough to collapse, and make way for a less inert political force.

I wonder if the Korean right now has a similar problem. The impeachment of a conservative president owing to her abusing her office in order to get bribes for her shamen (no really that’s what happened. I’m not exaggerating I swear!), seemed to have broken South Korean conservatism. It split into three rival parties. Their supporters seemed to abandon them for Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist representing a party mostly composed of former liberals, who nonetheless said hawkish things about North Korea. Polls showed that for a while this combination of borrowed conservative support and his own base put Ahn level with Moon. By contrast, the combined rating of all three of the conservative parties struggled to break 10%.

However, it didn’t last. Some combination of lacklustre debate performances, conservatives noticing he wasn’t all that conservative, and Trump saying stupid things that tarred South Korean hawks by association, dissipated this surge and Anh came third.

In second place was Hong Jun-Pyo, standing for the same conservative party that just lost the presidency. He managed to rally older voters in the conservative strongholds in the South-East of the country, with furious attacks on both Moon and Ahn’s supposed leftism and North Korean sympathies. It repulsed most of the country but attracted enough of it to kibosh the chances of centrists and more forward looking conservatives. Unless that pattern is broken, Korea may also have a zombie party on its hands.

5. The regional divides in Korean politics are amazingly stark

The major division in Korean politics is not class, ethnicity or religion but province. The east of the country votes conservative, the west liberal. And it is a stark split. In the liberal pastion of Jeolla, Hong got barely 2% of the vote. To put that in context, when Tony Blair demolished the Conservative Party in 1997, they still managed to get almost a fifth of the vote in Scotland and around a tenth in Liverpool.

[N.B. lest you think this just a political thing, I live in the east of the country and have heard westerners described as gangsters and peasants]

6. The North Korean situation may now be even trickier to handle

I’ve been astonished how little of the coverage of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has mentioned that there were elections in South Korea, let alone considered how they might alter the dynamics of the situation.

To my mind that’s an especially grave error because it is on those subjects on which we should have the most reservations about Moon. He appears to wish to take a more conciliatory approach to inter-Korean relations and that involves risks.

During Moon’s tenure as presidential chief of staff, South Korea tried to buy off Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Il’s government took the money and the aid, whilst continuing to abuse human rights, develop nuclear weapons and threaten its neighbours. While a full scale resumption of this policy is unlikely, Moon has suggested re-opening a jointly operated industrial complex in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. That would likely breach UN sanctions on Pyongyang. That would make it almost impossible to criticise China for its lapses in sanctions enforcement.

Moon has also indicated an openness to withdrawing the ROK’s agreement to the placement of an American missile defence system in the country. That is doubly regrettable. Firstly, and most directly, that system would provide both the US and South Korea with a measure of protection from the North’s nascent ICMB program. Secondly, China has objected to the system on the grounds that its radar could potentially detect Chinese missile launches. It has responded in the manner of a petulant bully, and orchestrated an unofficial but very blatant campaign of economic intimidation: Chinese tourists have been discouraged from visiting Korea, K-Pop acts have been blocked from performing in China, and Korean shopping malls in China have suddenly been slapped with huge fines for supposed health and safety violations. This generated a backlash with Korean public opinion of Beijing suddenly turning very negative. If the system remains then this might teach China that it needs to treat its neighbours with more respect. If it goes then that will appear to vindicate its high-handed behaviour.

This would all be difficult to handle with an ordinary American president. With the current amateurish and unpredictable administration, that difficulty is magnified even further. I am not sure how well the current international system can handle friction between hawks in Washington and doves in Seoul.

7. Why has left/right politics in Korea not been replaced by a globalist/nativist battle?

Across much of the developed (and some of the developing) world, we’ve seen debates over the appropriate size of the state and extent of redistribution take a back seat to questions of how open countries should be to outsiders. Macron and Le Penn getting into the final round of the French presidential elections, whilst neither the socialist nor the conservative candidates did, provides a very clean example of this trend. It is, however, also visible in Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum.

This has not, as far as I can see, happened in South Korea. The presidential race centred on jobs, corruption, the role of huge family run conglomerates in the economy, and tensions with the North.

I am not really sure why this is but I might suggest the following as hypothesises:

a) There is relatively little immigration here (for the time being)

b) Korea is (for the time being) a substantial exporter of manufactured goods. That means globalisation is (for the time being) not associated with a loss of blue collar jobs, in fact quite the opposite.

c) That the main security concern is not terrorism but a nuclear armed and notionally communist rouge state, lends South Korean politics a decidedly cold war air. That might explain why it is still in a twentieth-century configuration.

d) The nativist/globalist split maps onto a graduate/non-graduate divide. In Korea, university education is as widespread as high school is in many western countries. That may mean the social underpinning for this ideological clash aren’t there.

8. Young people won!

Let us end on a positive not. Of late young people have seemed to be losing out economically and politically. And Korea is an especially hard place to be young. Kids here generally wind up on a brutal treadmill of exams and exam prep. That puts them under huge pressure, whilst leaving them little time for hobbies.

So, it is heartening to see their chosen candidate win despite South Korea being one of the oldest societies on earth.

Young people, not just students and graduates but also secondary schoolers, were central to the protests that brought about Park’s impeachment. When I teach high schoolers, it is striking quite how many of them will mention politics.

For more information on this I would recommend Korea Expose’s reporting on ‘the Sewol Generation’, a cohort whose formative political experience was a tragic ferry accident in which hundreds of teenagers drowned while adults on the ship’s crew, the coast guard and, ultimately, the conservative government did nothing to rescue them. It appears to have conditioned them to be less deferential to middle aged and elderly politicians. Moon’s victory marks their emergence as a political force and I am fascinated to see what they will achieve in the future.

 

 

*Most people would consider that an insult, so let me clarify that I don’t.

9 reasons why we’d be better off ignoring terrorist attacks

We pay a serious price for our alarmist reaction to terrorism. Here is what we would would gain if we could better manage our fears.

This is the fourth post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first, second and third parts.

In November 2015, Daesh executed a Chinese advertising consultant they were holding hostage in Syria. At first, this was widely reported both in China and abroad, and as a result the execution became a major topic of conversation on Chinese social media. Then the Communist Party’s censorship apparatus bored down on the issue. Reports on the topic by domestic outfits were pulled, those by international organisations were blocked and social media posts that included the deceased hostage’s name, and even phrases like ‘Chinese captive’, began disappearing.

That kind of behaviour is not an aberration. An anti-terrorism law passed shortly afterwards means that “[d]isseminating information about terrorist activities is now banned” in China, and apart from “pre-approved news media outlets, nobody is allowed to report on a terror attack nor the authorities’ response, online and offline”.

The latter point hints at a cynical (and this being China, very likely at least partially accurate) read of the Communist Party’s actions. That an attack has taken place could be perceived as a failure on the part of a government that didn’t manage to stop it. However, in an article for Foreign Policy, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian provides a more generous rationale. She speculates that “hawkish sentiment among China’s grassroots” was in tension with the government’s desire “to avoid involvement in the sort of military quagmires that have plagued the United States”. In this context, preventing the public finding out about attacks could allow for a more measured response.

I do not for a moment condone this kind of censorship. Proper scrutiny of how government deals with all issues, including terrorism, is necessary. In addition, creating a healthy public attitude towards terrorism probably requires a degree of trust between government and people that simply won’t be there if citizens discover, as they inevitably would, that news is being kept from them.

Nonetheless, I would argue that there would be benefits if we managed to voluntarily move a bit closer to this kind of situation.

Currently, when an attack happens, it becomes the focus of intense coverage. Politicians will reassure us that they take the threat very seriously. There may be new security measures, changes to the law, or even military action.

I want to suggest an alternative approach. Media coverage of attacks would not be formally limited but outlets would make an editorial decision to afford them only as a much space as a bus crash with the same number of casualties. The topic would not be considered a topic of intense national importance. When asked about security, immigration or foreign policy, politicians would probably not mention terror in their answers. Unless you worked for the police or intelligence services, or were directly affected by an attack, terrorism would be something you only rarely discussed or thought about.

Not only would this be warranted by the actual (as opposed to perceived) scale of the threat but it would have the following benefits:

1. We’d face less terrorism

The less seriously we take terrorism, the less attention we will give it. That attention amounts to publicity for the groups that carry out the attacks. Without it, they’d find it harder to gain additional recruits.

If we were calmer, we could probably avoid unduly punitive responses that imperil our position on the moral high ground.

The air of panic around terrorism is also part of what radicalises the likes of Anders Breivik. Getting rid of it would likely serve to deflate that noxious tendency.

[Further reading: How our fear of terrorism helps terrorists]

2. Our civil liberties would be more secure

At the time of writing, France has been in a state of emergency for over a year. That allows, among other things, for the police to search homes without warrants, a power which they have used thousands of times. This often involved doors and other properties being broken, and parents being handcuffed in the presence of their children. Few of these searches lead to a prosecution, and when they don’t, an explanation for why an innocent person’s home was raided is rarely forthcoming. There is no end in sight to the state of emergency.

The Snowden leaks revealed that most electronic communications across most of the world are now monitored in some form. And it’s not only the NSA that has gained greater powers to snoop. In Britain, post-9/11 anti-terror legislation gave local municipalities surveillance powers previously restricted to the police and intelligence services. Predictably, such organisations had little cause to use them on potential terrorists. Instead, they spied on ordinary people suspected of crimes like littering and lying about their address on a school application form.

More acutely, America and some of its Western allies, precisely the countries that thought of themselves as exemplars of human rights, have felt the terrorist threat compelled them to engage in assassination, kidnapping and torture. The latter went by the euphemism ‘extraordinary rendition’ and in one case involved a prisoner having pureed food pumped into his anus.

In this context, the open-ended nature of the War on Terror is especially problematic. Suspending some freedoms in times of war is not unusual but a war against another state will generally have a defined end point – a peace treaty or surrender – after which freedom can be restored. By contrast, a war on a strategy will never end. Thus, our fear of terrorism has not driven us to suspend freedoms but to abandon them altogether.

It would be better if we realise now that we are not at war. We face a nebulous but low-level threat from some criminals, and they are not an adequate reason to discard important rights.

3. It would remove a pretext for autocrats

Assad destroying moderates

In the point above, I was mostly talking about trade-offs between security and civil-liberties that, whilst excessive, are nonetheless mostly made in good faith. There are, however, people for whom compromising freedom is the point and preventing terrorism is merely an excuse.

The most egregious example of this must be Bashir Al-Assad’s regime. It has consistently represented the opposition as almost uniformly composed of jihadis, and sought to present themselves as the only thing standing between extremists and control of Syria. At the same time, by focusing most of their effort on destroying the moderate rebels and largely leaving Daesh alone, they made that fiction into a reality. And there are people willing to applaud, rather than condemn, Assad for this. Donald Trump has said that “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing Isis. Russia is killing Isis and Iran is killing Isis and, before the sarin gas attacks on Khan Shaykhun, had appeared to indicate support for Assad remaining in power.

Trump has also embraced Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the military dictator of Egypt and by Trump’s reckoning, a man doing “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”, on the grounds that he is opposed to Islamists and terrorism. This, in spite of the fact that Sisi killed hundreds of protesters in order to take power, and when he did so, reversed virtually all the increases in political liberty that resulted from the protests in Tahrir Square (which overthrew Hosni Mubarak). Nor does the situation seem to be improving. Amnesty International recently published a report on Egypt with the subtitle “disappeared and tortured in the name of counter-terrorism”.

The US also continues to back the Saudi government and its brutal war in Yemen. Riyadh argues that only by propping up its client regime in the country can a victory for Al Qaeda and/or Iranian-backed militias be prevented. At home, the theocracy uses anti-terror legislation to outlaw atheism.

The equivalent legislation in Turkey was used to prosecute a British academic for the crime of carrying an invitation to a Kurdish New Year celebration. Which seems strange but anyone writing in Kurdish or about Kurdish issues is now liable to prosecution as a sympathiser with the PKK, a group that wants an independent Kurdish homeland. This goes a long way towards explaining why Turkey has 1% of the world’s population but a third of its imprisoned journalists.

Nor is this behaviour confined to the Middle East. Beijing has used a small number of jihadis amongst the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority living in the remote west of the country, as a pretext to suppress the Uighur culture and religion. Civil servants can be fired and students expelled for fasting during Ramadan, long beards and face coverings are banned, and mosques are routinely closed or demolished.

If we recognised how rare terrorism is, we’d see more clearly that it is no excuse for such widespread abuse.

4. There would be fewer wars

Terrorist attacks are often the trigger for wars that kill vast numbers of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 precipitated American invasions. The assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was the trigger for the First World War and the millions of deaths that resulted. There is even a real possibility of terrorism triggering a nuclear war, as the most likely scenario for a war between India and Pakistan would involve a militant attack within India being blamed on Pakistan. In all these instances, the resulting wars have (or would) produce massively greater casualties than the terrorists themselves could ever hope to. A more measured, non-military response would save numerous lives.

5. We could do away with security theatre

Security measures that don’t make us all that much safer but do consume our time and money (known as security theatre) are a bane of modern life. It encompasses measures like having to take your shoes off before boarding a plane or being patted down on the way into sports events. Terrorism is rare, so unless measures like these achieve a significant reduction in its probability, or are very low cost, then it’s probably not worth implementing.

I suppose you can argue that security theatre makes people feel safer. However, I suspect that in the long run, constant needless reminders of the threat only makes us more anxious. So, if it’s alright with you, I’d very much like to stop having my bags searched before going into the Natural History museum!

6. We’d avoid unnecessary behaviour changes

The threat of terrorism pushes many of us to engage in a kind of internal security theatre, where we change our behaviour in the hopes of making us less vulnerable to terrorism. In reality, this is just a silly inconvenience to ourselves.

For me, the paradigm example is that after the terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a 5% drop in tourists visiting the city. The drop was much more pronounced amongst some nationalities, in particular Chinese and Japanese tourists, with the number of the latter falling by 40%. This not only denies tourists an experience they were presumably looking forward to – and Paris is objectively a great city – but also puts jobs connected to tourism in danger. Indeed, it seems that the attacks cost the city billions of euros. What happened to Paris was not an isolated incident . It seems to happen after most widely publicised attacks. Often, it happens to places less able to cope with it than the French capital. ISIS’s attacks on resorts in Tunisia resulted in a massive drop in visits to the country. That was especially unfortunate, as its economy is heavily dependent on tourism. An economic downturn at that point would have been especially problematic considering Tunisia was trying to consolidate its new democracy after the Arab Spring.**

While I understand being frightened of terrorism and wanting to avoid it, I can’t really condone this kind of response. For starters, the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack whilst on holiday is like the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack almost everywhere – small. The news brings us coverage of the single or double digit casualties amongst tourists visiting a certain place, but not the five, six or even seven figure for people who visit the same place and are not caught by an attack. What’s more, there’s something thoughtlessly callous about it. The effect is to financially penalise somewhere for being the victim of a terrorist attack. That seems to me to be compounding a wrong.

7. We could focus on more pressing security challenges

Military strengths graph.jpg

My suspicion is that when our current time is taught as history, our priorities will baffle many students. Teachers will have to patiently explain that, as strange as it seems, whilst North Korea became a nuclear power, Russia modernised its military, and China displaced the US as the most influential power in the Pacific, Americans and Europeans were focused on a few thousand religious zealots with rifles and trucks!

As rival states grew stronger, we worried that weak states might incubate terrorism.  We went into many of the least stable and developed parts of the world, and expended our strength fighting messy, anti-guerrilla wars against groups that had no prospect of defeating us.

We have allowed the threat of terrorism to warp our thinking about security in other ways. Donald Trump has branded NATO ‘obsolete’ because it offers ‘no terrorism protection’ as if terrorism was the only thing its members might need defending against.* While a lot of what Trump says is idiosyncratic, the line of reasoning that says ‘it doesn’t defend against terrorism therefore we don’t need it’ is a pretty common one. For example, we often saw the strange argument against missile defence, here articulated by John Kerry, that it would “do nothing to address…a much more likely and immediate threat to the American homeland from terrorists and from nonstate actors, who can quietly slip explosives into a building, unleash chemical weapons into a crowded subway, or send a crude nuclear weapon into a busy harbor.” With North Korea moving closer to developing an ICBM, and missile defence playing a key role in the American response, this view already seems spectacularly short sighted.

We have already made ourselves less safe and the broader world less stable with our fixation on terrorism and the resulting overemphasis on issues in the Islamic world. It is time to take our eyes off the fringe and refocus on more consequential matters.

8. Less of a backlash against innocents

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and only a few thousand jihadis. Not only do the bulk of Muslims not associate with groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda but polling evidence shows that they view them unfavourably.  They are widely condemned and reviled, which is unsurprising given that most of their victims are Muslims.

Despite this, ever since 9/11, Muslims have faced discrimination and demonisation. The same research that shows that most Muslims reject terrorism also shows that most Westerners perceive them as ‘fanatical’ and ‘violent’. They have been subjected to hate crimes and even terrorist attacks. They have borne the brunt of punitive counter-terrorist measures and have had to suffer the indignity of an attempt to ban them from the United States.

This issue is not confined to Muslims. During the Northern Irish Troubles, numerous Irish men on the British mainland were wrongly convicted of involvement with IRA attacks on the basis of their ethnicity, thin circumstantial evidence, and confessions the police beat out of them.

Prejudice is closely connected to fear, and if we can calm down about terrorism, then we can probably avoid acts of cruelty against people whose only crime is coming from the same community as some terrorists.

9. We’d all be less upset

Heart watches the news

This is the least tangible point but in many ways the most important. Each of the proceeding eight points come about because of how learning about terrorist attacks makes us feel: deeply demoralised. It makes us feel scared, upset, angry, vulnerable, powerless and defensive. We think it tells us something bleak about our world. But as we’ve established in earlier posts, acts of terrorism are freak occurrences. They take place against a backdrop of decreasing global violence. They are weapons of the weak, not the strong. We cannot stop them happening altogether but our societies are well able to overcome them.

 

 

 

*It is worth noting that the only time the mutual defence clause of NATO’s charter has ever been invoked was in response to 9/11, and that the alliance has played an active role in Afghanistan.

**Though in fairness as the attacks in Tunisia were targeted at tourists, I find the risk calculation that says to avoid the country more reasonable than for Paris.

9/11 is NOT history’s most deadly terrorist attack

It’s not terrorist attacks that produce mass casualties. It’s our overreactions to them.

sarajevo_merenylet_rajz

This is the third post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first and second part.

Grim reading

Wikipedia has a list of the terrorist attacks with the highest death tolls. This is not a fact that should come as a surprise. It has thousands upon thousands of lists including “people who have lived at airports” and “works with the subtitle: Virtue Rewarded.”

The rather more sombre accounting of victims of terror is an instructive read. Not least because so many of the deadliest attacks loom so small in our collective memory. Many are massacres in villages in developing countries, which is not even what most people think of when they think of terrorism. Others had a larger place but then faded: the slaughter at a school in the Russian town of Beslan horrified the world when it happened, but I cannot recall the last time I heard it mentioned. Others seem to justify greater mention but don’t receive it: For example, a 1978 arson attack on an Iranian cinema by an anti-Shah revolutionary that killed 400 people. Others represent causes that now seem arcane, such as the Columbian far-right or Sikh nationalism. In general, it serves to support the broad position of this series of posts: that whilst terrorism is both grisly and morally repugnant, it is also mostly ineffective at changing the course of history.

There is, however, one atrocity that stands out amongst the others: 9/11. Not only is it an order of magnitude deadlier than others, it lives on with a vividness none of the others can match. Most of us can recall it not only as a fact or a name, but can playback images of the event in our head.

The pebble

Despite this, 9/11 only constitutes history’s deadliest terrorist attack if we confine our attention to direct casualties. Once we consider not only those who die as a result of the attack but also the reaction to it, then 9/11’s dubious honour passes to a shooting in which two people died.

One of them was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, next in line to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The other was his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.

On the 28th June 1914, they were visiting one of the empire’s southern most cities: Sarajevo in the then province of Bosnia. Its population was overwhelmingly neither Austrian nor Hungarian. They were mostly Serbo-Croatian speaking Serbs and Bosniaks. They lived just over the border from the independent kingdom of Serbia, and many among them dreamed of creating a new nation that would unite all the Southern Slavic peoples – Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats and others – into a single nation.

One group that were especially radical in pursuit of this objective were ‘the Black Hand’. They had already killed the royal family of Serbia so that they could be replaced by one more sympathetic to their goal. Now they would target Austro-Hungarian royalty.

A team of six Black Hand agents threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car. They missed. They had not accounted for the convertible hood on the vehicle and the bomb simply bounced off it. One member of the team attempted to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide and then throwing himself into the river. Both efforts failed and he was captured. One member, a young man named Gavrilo Princip, skulked off to see if he could make a second attempt. The other members scattered.

The Archduke arrived at the City Hall where he was due to give a speech and, after berating Sarajevo’s mayor for allowing the attack to happen, did so. There was discussion of bringing in troops to protect the Archduke until he left the city, but this idea was vetoed because the soldiers were taking part in an exercise and would not have dress uniforms appropriate for being seen by the Archduke. The decision was then made to rush the royal couple out of the city as quickly as possible. Their other visits in Sarajevo were cancelled and the plan was for them to be driven straight to the train station.

In some alternative version of history, that’s exactly what happened. They arrived back in Vienna with scars, a harrowing story and perhaps further evidence that something was awry in the Empire’s southern provinces. But they would have been alive and their deaths would not have served as the starting gun for the sequence of violent conflagrations that would define the twentieth century.

Having intervened once to save the royal couple’s life, fate would intervene again and reverse the outcome. In the confusion, no one communicated to the royal couple’s driver that the route had changed. So, he drove them back into central Sarajevo. It took a while for anyone to notice the mistake and tell the driver. By awful happenstance, they did this just as the car was passing Gavrilo Princip, the member of Blank Hand who had slipped away to look for a second chance to kill the Archduke. The driver slowing down to turn the car round presented the perfect opportunity. He shot and killed the Archduke and the Duchess.

The avalanche

As news of the assassination spread throughout Europe, it does not appear that most people realised that something world changing had happened. For example, British politicians initially appear to have been more concerned about the situation in Ireland than Bosnia.

However, the possibility of a catastrophic confrontation had long been foretold. Ten years earlier, Arthur Conan Doyle had imagined a fictional Prime Minister trying to engage Sherlock Holmes’ services on a case of geopolitical intrigue with the warning that:

It is not too much to say that peace or war may hang upon the issue…The whole of Europe is an armed camp. There is a double league which makes a fair balance of military power…[war might] well mean the expenditure of a thousand millions and the lives of a hundred thousand men.

That was to prove overly optimistic. In the conflict that followed the assassination, British casualties were closer to a million and worldwide the figure may have been as high as twenty million.

How did the world get from two fatalities to twenty million? Well, the Austro-Hungarians blamed Serbia for the assassination and sent the Serbs an ultimatum demanding that Serbia allow Austro-Hungarian police to operate on Serb territory. They refused and the Austro-Hungarians declared war.

This was unacceptable to the Serb’s principal ally: the Russians. The Austro-Hungarians also had an important ally: Germany. Berlin was not prepared to see Vienna defeated by Moscow, so they declared war on Russia. This also expanded the war westwards. Russia was allied to France and the Germans did not want to fight two powers on two flanks at once, so they decided they had to knock France out with a pre-emptive strike. The Franco-German border was heavily fortified, so the German forces went through Belgium. London objected to this breach of Belgium sovereignty and declared war on Germany. That prompted the German navy to begin sinking ships headed to the UK, in the hopes of throttling the island nation’s economy. As much of that shipping originated in the US, that, in time, brought the Americans into the war. Naturally, both sides sought to expand their circle of allies. Germany offered the Ottoman Empire – which ruled most of the Middle East – warships. Britain offered Germany’s holdings in the Far East to Japan. All sides deployed men and materials from their respective colonies. For example, the outbreak of war prompted Gandhi to suspend his pacifism and actively encouraged Indians to enlist to fight in Europe. It is, therefore, far from hyperbole that this conflict is now known as the First World War.

The war’s casualties would not only be people. Nations would also perish. The Ottoman Empire broke apart to create a map of the Middle East that looks a lot like the one that exists now. The Russian Empire was overthrown by Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades, who transformed it into the USSR. The end of the war also meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was on the losing side and defeat discredited its ruling family. Revolutionaries seized power in the capitals of the Empire’s many provinces and declared them to be independent republics. Austria-Hungary became Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Yugoslavia. The latter being precisely the Southern Slavic state the Black Hand had wanted to create. In the process of trying to avenge the slaying of the Archduke, Austria-Hungary not only destroyed itself, but also achieved the Black Hand’s objective.

Those who do not learn from history

Deadly overreactions to terrorist attacks are sadly not a thing of the past. More Americans have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed on 9/11. Those two conflicts also claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians. They also contributed to the instability that allowed the Syrian Civil War to turn so deadly.

As we have seen in a previous post, terrorist attacks claim relatively few lives. You are twice as likely to be killed by a snake as by a terrorist. Wars, on the other hand, really do claim enormous casualties. On a single night in 1945, American bombing of Japan killed the equivalent of thirty 9/11s. Battles in Berlin, Leningrad and Stalingrad produced over a million casualties. And while the armed conflicts of the twenty-first century are nothing like as deadly as those of the twentieth, there were still fourteen conflicts that claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past year.

It stands to reason that small cells can kill fewer people than armies of thousands. That means it will almost always be a bad idea to treat terrorist attacks as if they are an assault by a rival military. Going after the groups behind them with tanks, battalions and fighter jets is more likely to put lives in danger than protect them. The capacity of terrorism to produce direct casualties is modest but, as the sorry case of the Archduke and World War I demonstrates, the potential indirect casualties are almost limitless.

 

Further reading

If you are interested in the assasination in learning more about the Sarajevo assasination then I would recommend The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher.