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Sun, 2005-Aug-07

Terrorism in the United Kingdom

I was recently in Crawley on business, away from my usual Australian haunt. I was only there breifly (I didn't have a weekend to go sightseeing), but I did get an interesting time slice of the local news and talk shows. My stay landed after the successful and failed bombings in the London Underground and bus systems and overlapped the ceassation of violence declaration by the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

I'll try to steer clear of discussing the exact politics, but I will say that the juxstaposition of sentiment was strange to watch. On one hand the IRA was to my mind being portrayed by the British press as a reasonable party that we can now do business with to sort out any remaining problems. At the same time the hard line was being pushed on any form of Islamic fundamentalism. On a television show I didn't catch the name audicence participation lead the flow of discussion. The question was posed specifically about whether the Brits should think about Al Qaeda the same way as they had now leared to think about the terrorism from Northern Ireland. The answer to me was telling. The panel expert said (and I can only paraphrase, my memory isn't perfect) that the two sources of terrorism were not the same and shouldn't be given the same kind of mindspace. They said that the Irish terrorists had a clear political objective behind their acts of violence, but that the Islamist terrorists had none. The Irish wanted Britain out of their back yard, but the Islamists only objective was to bring down the west and destroy our "values".

I get nervous when someone on television talks about values. The special hairs I reserve for propaganda detection start to spike up. These people in the middle east are supposedly so different to us that they share none of our values, even though many people with middle-eastern backgrounds and religions are able to live peacefully and happily in our countries. On the other hand the Irish terrorists held the same values was "we" do while continuing their thirty year campaign of resistance that lead to the loss of so many innocent lives. They uphold our values, while the Islamic threat is one of soul-less barbarism. I'm not sure I can quite see where the lines have to be drawn to make that picture make sense, myself.

So what are western values? If you take what was being said on that program literally you would have to assume that they are decadance and self-obsession. After all, according to those experts that is what they say that Osama Bin Laden wants to kill us all over. I don't believe I rate those values high on my list. My values are mostly built around minimising harm to others while living a reasonably happy life myself. I'd even throw in some faith-based values in there. I'm not sure that Osama's list of values would be very different from my own, although the order and intensity of some values may differ significantly.

So what benefit, terrorism?

While hearing the backlash against Islamist terror and the exitement about engagement with former Irish terrorists I was also privy to retrospectives of the last 30 years of the Irish conflict. I was fascinated to hear former British Prime Minister Sir John Major talk about what he was thinking during secret negotiations with the IRA during his term in office. A bomb killed two children while the negotiations were going on (I believe he was referring to the Warrington explosions in 1993), and in the interview he said that the only reason he stayed in the negotations was the thought of more children being killed.

Did I hear correctly that the threat of terrorism caused a government of the day to stay at the negotating table? It's a different message to the one they presently want to convey. The news services had more. They said that the Provisional IRA's recruiting base grew out of a protest movement for Catholic equal rights. They wanted equal participation in the work force, in the police force, and generally in society. In contrast to that expert on the discussion panel's view, it seems that that movement sprang not fundamentally out of a political goal to get the British out of Northern Ireland but out of inequity. Inequity shaped around a common rallying call.

When we look back towards the middle east, it seems clear that inequity does exist. Is this the source of terrorism, rather than the desire to bring down the west? Is bringing down the west more of a rallying call than the actual source of terrorism? As well as trying to apply a stick to the situation to root out the most violent and the most influential of the movement, wouldn't we be served by solving the inequity?

The final wind down of the Provisional IRA's history of violence on the BBC coverage included an observation. The IRA's involvement in the struggle didn't make the problem of Northern Irish politics easier to solve, but it did make it a more immediate problem. After first fighting the IRA the British came to accept the IRA and to deal with the IRA. It gives me cause to wonder whether something akin to the stages of greif that there are stages of dealing with a human threat. Perhaps after the fighting will come the negotiation, and perhaps after a combination of negotation and work to improve the underlying causes a resolution will eventually emerge.