This blog is fast becoming just a respository for rejected letters - and here's another one... I wrote to Howard Jacobson last week because I found his article in the Independent somewhat irritating. No response has been forthcoming. I've taken the liberty of making a couple of improvements to the version that I sent to Mr Jacobson...
I should note that, in my response, I use the word "terrorism" in the same way that the popular press uses it: To refer to small "extremist" groups who carry out violent attacks on civilian populations. In fact this use of the word is misleading: Firstly, it implies that governments are not capable of terrorism (war, apparently, is not terrorism) and, secondly, it reinforces the notion that to be in opposition to the prevailing political and economic elite is to be "extreme" (in which case, moderation be damned). For more details, read Chomsky!
Dear Mr Jacobson,
I enjoy reading your articles in the Saturday Independent - they are always entertaining and stimulating, even when running contrary to my own opinion. However your last article irritated me a little. I felt that you were making use of a standard, quite underhand, trick to make your point; namely, you misrepresented the position of those with whom you disagree (in this case those opposed to the War on Terror) in order to shown them to be absurd.
I count myself as one of those whom you misrepresented so I thought I would take the opportunity to state my position.
I do not deny the existence of terrorism. Clearly there are nutters walking the streets of Sussex who wish to inflict pain on random strangers. I maintain that there are not many nutters in Sussex - perhaps not nearly as many as the government would have us believe - but let us put that to one side for the moment. Instead let us ask what are we to do?
There are, it seems to me, two main approaches. The first is to deny a potential terrorist the MEANS to inflict terror - this is the stuff of the War on Terror. This approach involves focussed policing, greater surveillance, possibly a tighter border control, maybe racial profiling, maybe lengthened detention of suspects etc etc. Inevitably liberties must be sacrificed in order to implement this approach.
The second approach is to remove the MOTIVE from the potential terrorist. This of course depends a lot on what that motive is (not on what the terrorist perceives it to be, but on what really motivates him/her). Generally acts of terror are perpetuated for very clear reasons that have an element of (albeit very twisted) logic to them. If terror erupts because of a government policy then clearly a change to that policy may be one way to avoid further terror - this course of action being balanced against the virtue of the policy in the first place, as well as the obvious and reasonable unwillingness to "give in to terror".
Both of these approaches are inevitably limited. When the cause of a terrorist is to denounce drunk women in nightclubs we're not going to get far on the motive front. If we are to effectively remove the means for any prospective terrorist then we will potentially remove the means for any prospective dissent; we will also divert great quantities of political and social energies into the task of hunting the terrorists down - and that is a price too high.
A price too high because, although terrorism exists, the scale of it is not as terrifying as the government would have us believe. Don't get me wrong, acts of terrorism can be catastrophic - I have come mighty close to a panic attack on the tube just thinking about the events of 7th July 2005. And every death in London that day was a tragedy which brought distress, even despair, to many.
However, despite this, even were I to believe every government statement on the issue, terrorism simply isn't the major issue that it's made out to be. For what was the major cause of human suffering on 7th July 2005? It was the same cause as on 11th September 2001; indeed it was the same cause on every other day in the last one thousand years - poverty and hunger. By some estimates 50 000 people die every day from poverty-related causes, and that's not to mention the millions for whom poverty is a daily source of acute misery. It is inconceivable that terrorism will ever cause one tenth, even one thousandth of the deaths that poverty causes.
When we speak of the "threat" of terrorism we mean, I presume, that terrorism threatens our lives, our happiness, maybe even our social order. And yet it is clear that our lives and our happiness are under far greater threat from poverty. It is clear also that our social order must be rotten if it is perpetuating the tragedy of mass poverty. Terrorism is not a solution to that rotten social order; nonetheless it is worth reflecting whether we really want to put so much energy into maintaining that order when, perhaps, the real task is to dismantle it.
I would be interested to read any reply that you may have.