Thursday, August 25, 2005

That shallow feeling

Light blogging ahead - life calls.

Very briefly: Ken Macleod asks, "if you are going to limit free speech at all, is it more illiberal to do so by making the proclamation of certain specific and narrowly defined doctrines illegal, or by making administrative decisions based on broad and vague provisions?" It's an interesting dilemma, but what strikes me most forcibly is that both alternatives are counsels of weakness. A thriving political movement - and, by extension, a government confident in its ability to rally support - will not issue Clarkean all-purpose anathemata against anyone who might in future turn a bit dodgy; but neither will it spend time and effort coming up with a precise legal definition for the Men of Evil, their Evil Groups and their Evil Ideology.

I'm not even sure that this second approach is a real alternative to the first: in practice this type of definition would, I think, inevitably catch too much or too little, and end up so garlanded with interpretative codicils as to amount to an alternative approach to Clarkean constructive vagueness. The real alternative - the counsel of strength - is not narrowing the field of free speech. A thriving movement or a confident government would engage its opponents (or, more to the point, their sympathisers) in open debate, secure in the knowledge that its resources and its support were superior to theirs - so that anything good they had to offer could be quietly appropriated and re-framed within its own ideological and tactical vocabulary, bringing (most of) their supporters across into the bargain.

Of course, the idea of New Labour doing this with radical young British Muslims would make a cat laugh - but that's a reflection of the weakness of New Labour in 2005, not a statement about the general conditions of political dialogue with disorderly social movements (or with British Muslims in particular). We are where we are - but the conditions of possibility imposed by our current situation aren't absolute.

Monday, August 22, 2005

And the market forces play

Time for a commercial break. This goes out to all my readers in the Northampton area, particularly those who may be in the market for a photographer - perhaps because they're planning to acquire a passport, or because they want to celebrate the purchase of a nice new sundial. There are many local businesses competing for your custom; I might mention Profile Photography, Charles Ward Photography or Harvest Studios. Then there are John Roan Photography and PRS Digital - the list goes on. Weddings, of course, are big business for photographers, in Northampton as in other areas. (I had a wedding once, and a very nice day out it was.) If a wedding is on your agenda - assuming once again that you're in the Northampton area - you might want to consider going to Nene Digital Wedding Photography, or getting the whole thing on video courtesy of April Productions.

I'm not able to endorse the quality of the work carried out by these businesses, as I know nothing about any of them. However, they do have one point in their favour, which sadly isn't shared by one of their competitors. None of these businesses has attempted to gain cheap publicity by spamming the comments section of this blog. For that, I salute them.

(CC'd by email to... you know who you are.)

[Update: the offending photographer was only the first in a stream of comment-spammers, all of whom have presumably signed up to a particularly scummy direct-marketing service. Deleting them individually was getting to be a pain, so all comments are now giftrapped (thanks to Chris for the term). Sorry about the inconvenience.]

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bullet got the wrong bloke

For a few hours on the 22nd of July, Jean Charles de Menezes was a terrorist suspect. What he wasn't was a capital-S Suspect; he wasn't 'known to the police', as we used to say. (Or rather, he wasn't the known person the police thought he was - apparently he was mistaken for Osman Hussain.) What if he had been?

Following last night's appalling revelations, much attention has focused on the police's apparent failure to verify that de Menezes was the Suspect they were after. What if they had done? What if it had been Osman Hussain who was shot?

I heard shouting which included the word ‘police’ and turned to face the male in the denim jacket. He immediately stood up and advanced towards me and the CO19 [firearms] officers … I grabbed the male in the denim jacket by wrapping both my arms around his torso, pinning his arms to his side. I then pushed him back onto the seat where he had been previously sitting … I then heard a gun shot very close to my left ear and was dragged away onto the floor of the carriage.
The male in the denim jacket was (self-evidently) not about to detonate any explosives: officers had no reason to suppose that their lives, or the lives of the tube passengers, were in danger. (As I wrote back here,"was de Menezes, in his denim jacket, seen as a low enough risk to be watched on the bus rather than being intercepted, and rugby-tackled on the tube train rather than being shot from a distance?") He could, when he approached the firearms officers, have been intending to go for a knife or a gun - but pinning his arms to his sides and pushing him back into his seat handily dealt with that possibility.

So it's hard to see any legal - or rational - justification for the shooting; and this would still be the case if they'd got the right bloke. To quote myself at greater length,
was de Menezes, in his denim jacket, seen as a low enough risk to be watched on the bus rather than being intercepted, and rugby-tackled on the tube train rather than being shot from a distance? But if so, why was he killed? Not, surely, because he had been misidentified as one of the July 21st bombers - this would be summary justice pure and simple.
What I wonder about, after last night's news stories, is: what if it had been Osman Hussain wearing that denim jacket and forced back into that seat on the tube train - what would be the mood of the country now? Would a leak from the Police Complaints Commission have been front page news? Would we be hearing calls for multiple resignations? Or would an act of summary justice - an extra-judicial execution in broad daylight, a truly appalling precedent - have been accepted? Would we now be being encouraged to hail the Metropolitan Police for its resolute stance against terror and its willingness to take the fight to the enemy? (They might cut a few corners here and there, but what's the odd dead terrorist to you or to me?)

The charge that Ian Blair, like his namesake, is a liar has gained some traction lately. The possibility I'm considering here is that he's a gambler: that he saw the July 21st bombings - and the Stockwell operation - as a chance to massively extend the effective power of the Metropolitan Police, and to do so without endangering its support in the political class and the media. I don't know if the gamble would have paid off; I'm glad we never found out.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Templars and the Saracens

In a piece which appears in The Salmon of Doubt (I don't know whether it was published in the author's lifetime), Douglas Adams writes:
There's always a moment when you fall out of love, whether it's with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it's one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again. For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation: "These scientists, eh? They're so stupid! You know those black-box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they're meant to be indestructible? It's always the thing that doesn't get smashed? So why don't they make the planes out of the same stuff?"

The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, couldn't think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn't really work because flight recorders are made out of titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium, they'd be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place? ... There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behavior, you should try living with it) that didn't rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. It sent a chill down my spine, and still does. I felt betrayed by comedy the same way that gangsta rap now makes me feel betrayed by rock music. I also began to wonder how many of the jokes I was making were just, well, ignorant.
De mortuis, but I tend to think the (self-)criticism was apt. A lot of Hitchhiker is less like a novel - or radio series - than a student revue (a very good student revue, admittedly): take the paper-thin characterisations, the dialogue built around gag lines or - more importantly for the current argument - the evocation of weird and counter-intuitive areas of science and philosophy, undercut by a common-sensical English ordinariness. This is amplified by the Pythonesque dogged persistence which won't let go of an idea until it's been pushed to its logical limit, taken over the limit, fined for exceeding the limit and embroiled in a lengthy but inconclusive case in the Court of Over-Extended Metaphors. Stylistically, this gives us Arthur's exchange with Prosser over the planning notice ("...behind a door marked Beware of the Tiger") or most of Marvin's lines ("The second million years, they were the worst too.") - great lines all, but very unlike anything anyone would actually say. Put it together with the common-sensical idea-juggling and you get, for example, the argument for atheism derived (all too logically) from the Babel Fish. What's most striking about this argument is that it's got nothing in common with the arguments of actual proponents of "intelligent design" - which are no less ridiculous, but turn on the idea that the wondrous complexity of the universe does provide evidence of the handiwork of a Designer. There's a lack of engagement with the Creationist mindset here, which ironically makes that mindset harder to combat. If you assume that everyone starts from the same set of common-sense precepts, genuinely alien world-views will only be explicable on the grounds that the people holding them are irrational or stupid - which isn't the best way to open an argument, even (or especially) an intransigently critical argument.

The mindset that this kind of writing seems to represent (and affirm) is that of someone who's learnt a lot of valuable stuff in a short time, and who now doesn't see the need to learn very much more. There is stuff out there that you could learn, but most of it's not really worth the effort - at best it's inessential, at worst it's a pile of pretentious verbiage. If you demonstrably know a lot more than the average person about genuinely important topics, the chances are that you know enough - enough to see through the people who tell you there's more to be known, anyway. It speaks to the inner second-year science student, in short. (One of the benefits of doing an arts degree is that you never forget that there's lots of important stuff out there that you genuinely don't understand. You never forget this if you have any contact with second-year science students, anyway.)

Terry Pratchett has a lighter hand with the dogged persistence than Douglas Adams, but in most other respects he's a far better writer (he's much better at people, for a start). That said, some of his jokes suggest the same kind of self-enclosed common sense, evoking the alien without engaging with it. (Does Pseuds' Corner take nominations from blogs?) One example is the (admittedly funny) dwarfish war-cry "This is a good day for someone else to die!" Some years ago, the KliLakota original of this slogan ("This is a good day to die!") was discussed on the newsfroup. The tone of the discussion was cheerful and uncomprehending. I wouldn't say that anyone jeered at the KlinLakota, but very few people showed much sign of understanding the slogan, as distinct from Pratchett's common-sensical inversion of it). One's own death is, after all, an eventuality to be postponed as long as possible, not to be embraced. One poster even suggested that the slogan had begun as a deliberately-tempting-Fate insurance policy, akin to "break a leg".

Fortunately one poster - the wonderfully-named 'Catherine Denial' - pointed out that death in battle was an honourable fate for KlingLakotadammit warriors, so that the slogan could actually be taken literally ('death in battle'='good death', 'today'='day of battle', therefore...). And I'm not sure even this goes far enough. The point is, surely, that the function of soldiers (contemporary, dwarfish or KlingoLakota) is to kill and risk being killed - and that unwillingness to do the latter makes them less effective in doing the former. The tone is very different, but in terms of the underlying worldview "This is a good day to die!" isn't so far from the Royal Navy saying "If you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined." Meaning, in the words of a post from soc.history.what-if by the late and much-missed Alison Brooks,
When it is raining and dark, your feet are giving you hell because they have been wet for two weeks, when you are carrying a pack weighing your own weight, when you are on the edge of a minefield, aware that, well within range, are more people than you who want to kill you, and they have the capacity to do so, when your best friend standing ten feet from you gets hit, and you have to wipe his brains from your face so that you can see, and when the instruction is given to go forward, if you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined.
You risk death - and, if so instructed, take actions which you know will increase your risk of death - because that's what you do: that's what being in the armed forces is all about. (Not that you'll find it in the recruitment literature.) In its more aggressive form - getting back to the Native Americans - this outlook also makes for a more formidable opponent: an enemy who wants to save his own skin first and kill you second is a lot easier to deter than one who just wants to kill you.

As you've probably worked out by now, this post isn't really about Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett; it's not even about the Royal Navy or the Lakota (let alone the blasted Klingons). It began life about a month ago - a decade or so in blogtime - in response to this post on Brian Barder's blog and the ensuing comments, this one in particular. Brian writes:
it’s obviously psychotic, isn’t it?, to be unable to perceive the large-scale random murders of wholly innocent people as anything but evil? And when the murders are deliberately and unnecessarily accompanied by the suicides of the murderers, doesn’t that suggest minds that have become completely unhinged? Isn’t it psychotic to suppose that some desirable result can be achieved by killing others and oneself because of ‘grievances’ that have nothing whatever to do with the murder victims, and which can’t possibly have a better chance of being remedied as a result of the murders committed?
As long as we persist in seeing [the bombers] as politically and rationally motivated people whose response to their grievances is to go out and kill people, and as long as we strive to ‘understand‘ that behaviour, we shall encourage more of the same. It is insane as well as evil to act in the way that they have done, and while we need to try to hack out the roots of the insanity as well as of the evil and criminality, we need to beware of giving the impression that by trying to understand them and what they did, we regard murder as an understandable (and therefore in some sense defensible) response to a political grievance. Psychiatrists may properly seek to understand the roots of insane and evil behaviour: the rest of us need to be clear that the behaviour is insane and evil and that it can never be condoned.
Brian conflates two arguments which, I think, urgently need to be disentangled. On one hand, I don't believe that it does any good to deny that the bombers acted rationally, let alone to describe them as 'psychotic': their world view was certainly alien to me, but I don't think it was also insane. Apart from anything else, is it necessarily a sign of psychosis to kill innocent people, to carry out attacks which will cost your own life, or to attack people whose death can't in itself advance your cause? Not, I would argue, if you're a soldier - or an irregular combatant (were Orde Wingate's Special Night Squads 'psychotic'? is Hamas?). Similarly, the bombers' actions make sense if we assume that they saw themselves as part of a guerrilla force, fighting in one front of a war with Britain (among other nations), and prepared to use any means - however inhumane - to further their cause.

Obviously this world-view - as well as the acts it inspires - is vile and cannot be condoned: to understand it is not (pace Brian) to see it as in any way defensible. But, as I said above, there are two separate arguments here. Yes, the London bombings were evil and can never be condoned; but no, this does not require us to characterise them as insane. Visualise concentric circles. To demand that Britain withdraw from Iraq is a legitimate political point of view which is widely held (and which is not necessarily counter to British national interests). To demand that 'the West' withdraw from 'Islamic lands' is a legitimate point of view which has rather fewer adherents (and which is counter to British national interests). And to set out to kill at random in order to further this point of view is unforgivably evil; moreover, it is an unforgivable evil committed in a bad cause. (As I've argued before, it's hardly possible - and may not even be desirable - to uncouple your assessment of a terrorist act from your assessment of the cause involved.)

This is what I mean by 'understanding' - and I don't see that it involves any 'condoning', any 'in some sense defensible'. What it does involve is visualising those concentric circles - which I think is essential, if we're to have any hope of stopping the flow of recruits from outer circle to inner.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Ashtrays of emotion

This blogpost is in conjunction with the Elect The Lords campaign, who recently made a Pledgebank appeal to blog about Lords reform, which I signed. It marks the anniversary of the firat Parliament Act, according to which
it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis
The 94th anniversary, to be precise. Related posts can be found via Technorati tag , and the New Politics blog.

In the beginning, there were barons. In the time of the Normans - and the Anglo-Saxons, for that matter - the people who mattered were the people who owned land and commanded allegiance; the monarch was essentially Top Baron, the capo di tutti capi. Taxes were collected, percentages were taken and favours were granted; it was a system.

Over time, the distinction between monarch and barons grew stronger; in reaction, the barons began to operate as a power in the land in their own right, independent of - and sometimes in opposition to - the Crown. Simon de Montfort took things further in the thirteenth century, buttressing his own power base with the support of commoners (landed gentry and knights of the shire, that is). Another century and the 'commoners' are themselves seeking collective representation, so that they can also make demands of the Crown - although not the kind of demands made by Wat Tyler, of course. (They weren't that kind of commoner, either; these people were about as 'common' as the average Cheshire magistrate - who is of course their direct descendant.)

There it is: we've got a House of Lords and a House of Commons, and we're not even up to the Tudors. Members of the House of Commons are even elected, although the electorate is small and rather select. Subsequently the balance of power tipped still further against the Crown; you could say it tipped quite decisively on the 30th of January 1649, although that date isn't generally celebrated in histories of parliamentary democracy. By the eighteenth century, anyway, Parliament is starting to run things; this is when we start hearing about the Ministers appointed by the Crown, chief among them the Prime Minister.

In the nineteenth century, after the unpleasantness in France, we started to hear about democracy. By 1900 the electorate of the House of Commons is a pretty high proportion of the adult male population; getting there only took a couple of mass movements, a few years of near-insurrectionary agitation and a dead Prime Minister. (The assassination of Spencer Perceval had nothing to do with any of this, but it must have concentrated some minds.) Another mass movement and a world war, and even women are voting. Never let it be said that reform is impossible. (Never let it be said that it's easy, either.)

The vote for all adults (aged 21 or over) was finally conceded in 1928. All this time, the House of Lords had been sitting there unreformed, preserving its ancient traditions and generally getting in the way - more and more so as the House of Commons becomes more representative. The decisive confrontation had come in 1911, when the Lords and the King, under duress, conceded the supremacy of the Commons - and endorsed the project of replacing the House of Lords with something more representative.

And then nothing happened, for 94 years.

To put it schematically, from Simon de Montfort to Edward VII there were always two sides: a ruler on one side, an opposition with its own power base on the other. It's King vs Lords; then King vs Commons; then the 30th of January 1649 (although, as I've said, we don't really speak about that). Then 1688, after which it's not King vs Parliament so much as Parliament vs King; and finally 1911, when it's decisively Commons vs Lords (and King). But what should have been the final victory of the Commons was never pressed through. What happened instead, oddly, was that a new opposition developed: Prime Minister vs Commons. In the penultimate stage of this development, under Thatcher, the unreformed House of Lords was even brought into play on the Prime Minister's side. Still more bizarrely, in the Blairite final stage the Commons were so thoroughly managed that the Lords began to seem a bastion of liberty, due process and free speech, if not democracy. Perhaps this is the final act in the re-centralisation of government power in Britain: Prime Minister vs Lords. It's not hard to see how that one will play out - particularly given that the Prime Minister has inherited the Crown's power to pack the House of Lords with his own capi. And the barons, the damned stupid barons...

Ninety-four years after the Parliament Act, arguing for a democratically-elected second chamber isn't particularly hard: it seems like a reform whose time has come, to put it mildly (ninety-four years!). Given the background I've sketched out above, it's also a reform which would have some very far-reaching consequences. Replacing the current bodged-up medieval absurdity with an elected second chamber would instantly create a massive counterweight to the power of the Prime Minister - perhaps more massive than we can readily imagine in these diminished times. (Think of the 'control orders' debate, only with the aura of democratic legitimacy which Ken Livingstone gained when Thatcher started threatening the GLC and a free-spokenness somewhere between Lord Hoffman and George Galloway. Something like that.) It would also open several cans of democratic worms in the House of Commons itself - if members of the second chamber are elected on a fixed date and with a proportional system (and I can't see why they wouldn't be), what about the Commons? For both these reasons, it's vanishingly unlikely to happen, unless a lot of people shout for it loudly and persistently - and even then, it'll be pretty damn unlikely.

But that doesn't mean it's not worth shouting.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

In another country, with another name

In a comment thread on his blog, Brian Barder writes:
You [meaning me - PJE] take a more generous view than I do ... of the opinions, implied or explicit, of those many commentators who have been saying (and continue to say) that because Blair must have known that UK participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be used by Muslim extremists to generate additional anger and resentment against Britain, and that this would increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack in Britain, therefore Blair has a share of responsibility for the London bombings. Attributing responsibility in this way has two unavoidable implications: (1) that Blair deserves a share of the blame for the bombings and (2) that the increased likelihood of a terrorist attack in Britain ought to have been a factor influencing Blair against his decision to join the Americans in invading Iraq, even if on other grounds he believed it right and necessary to do so.

You come perilously close to adopting this view, it seems to me, when you write:
the Iraq invasion created new opportunities for terrorists, created anti-British feeling which was likely to make it easier to recruit new terrorists, and created disaffection among British Muslims which was likely to produce active or passive support for terrorists - and that all these consequences were probable, could have been predicted and should have been weighed in the balance when Blair & co were contemplating joining Bush’s invasion. To have overlooked predictable consequences like this in a good cause would be bad enough (pace Geras); when the cause in question is the Iraq war as we’ve known it, Blair’s responsibility is heavy.
Once you accept that the threat of terrorist attack in response to a specific act of policy is a factor legitimately to be taken into account in making decisions on that policy, you are handing over control of our foreign (and eventually our domestic) policy to terrorists. This is exactly comparable to yielding to the demands of a blackmailer. The only consequence of such surrender is that the demands of the terrorists (and of the blackmailer) will become yet more frequent and more exorbitant. In other words, the increased risk of terrorist attack in the UK should have been totally excluded from Blair’s calculations of the pros and cons of taking part in the Iraq war.
In response to Brian's first point, I don't think that Blair's government can sensibly be blamed for the bombings, unless there's an unusually long and obscure trail yet to be uncovered, leading from the Foreign Office back to the madrassas. What does fall to the government's responsibility is protecting its citizens from arbitrary killings. The question is whether the government may bear a share of the blame for failure to protect us from the bombings - a failure which may include failure to avert the bombings altogether, by contributing to the development of conditions which made the bombings more likely. The second argument - that Blair would have been correct to leave the threat of terrorism out of his pre-Iraq calculations - is more substantial, but I have to say that I find it highly counter-intuitive. As Tony Hatfield said in comments here,
The State has an obligation to consider every effect flowing from its policy-especially its foreign policy and certainly a policy involving a declaration of war. That must include the effect of any “blowback” from terrorism. ... If that is so, then there must be circumstances- the threat is so immediate, and disproportionate to the benefit you seek- that it tips the balance firmly against the policy.
Brian's analogy with blackmail is suggestive, but I don't see that it can entirely sustain his argument - after all, any concession to anyone may be interpreted as a sign of weakness and exploited accordingly. When one government makes demands of another, there is always the possibility that one of the two will end up paying Danegeld or conceding the Sudetenland; however, in practice these extreme cases can be disregarded, and demands can be considered on their merits (bearing in mind the foreseeable consequences of granting or refusing them). Certainly it would be absurd to say, as a matter of principle, that no government should change its policies based on demands made by another government. Should we exclude demands made by non-governmental actors? But that's not right either - we would expect (and in some cases hope) that governments would be responsive to demands made by multi-national businesses, by the world's major faiths, by trade union confederations, by charities and campaigning organisations.

There's obviously something about terrorist organisations which makes it reasonable (from Brian's perspective) for governments to refuse any demands outright and on principle: something which turns pressure into blackmail and recognition into capitulation. Intuition tells me that the difference is staring me in the face, in the word 'terrorist', but in this case I think intuition is wrong. The problem with terrorist groups, in other words, isn't the fact that they back up their demands with arbitrary and random violence. Imagine an organisation which attempted to gain publicity for its demands by planting dummy bombs. At first the bombs would be taken for the real thing and there would be a certain amount of panic and alarm, even if nobody was actually injured by them. After a while, though, the 'bombs' are treated with contemptuous lack of interest, by police and public alike. At this point, has the group ceased to be terrorist - and should the government become willing to negotiate with it? Conversely, imagine a campaign for constitutional reform whose rallies, ignored by the government, grow larger and more unruly, to the point where violent clashes with the police are a predictable occurrence. The campaign's activities have led directly to the wounding of police officers, in other words; does this mean that it has turned into a terrorist campaign, whose demands should be ignored on principle? In both cases, the reverse appears more likely.

It seems that the judgment of whether a terrorist organisation is terrorist - meaning that its demands should be rejected unconsidered - is independent of what it does. The key is, perhaps, provided by Brian's analogy with hostage-taking. A terrorist group, we could say, is criminal by nature: in order to achieve its aims, it needs to undermine the state and attack the rule of law. Criminal actions carried out by a constitutional political group are an anomaly which only have a limited effect on our willingness to recognise or deal with them. By contrast, criminal actions carried out by a terrorist group reaffirm the criminal nature of the group and vindicate our refusal to recognise them.

The trouble with this line of argument is that it brings the aims of the group into play as well as its tactics: if terrorist groups are defined by their fundamental opposition to the state and the rule of law, we need to be sure that the groups we describe as terrorist are fundamentally opposed to the state and the rule of law, rather than using criminal tactics to promote demands which could in principle be granted by the state (and legitimated by the law). Hence, perhaps, Blair's bizarre argument that what sets Al Qaida apart from the British Army is that "They don't regret the loss of innocent, civilian life. They rejoice in it, that is their purpose." (Let's hope for Blair's sake that Al Qaida never takes lessons in PR from the IRA, who were past masters in regret for the consequences of their actions (we deeply regret the loss of innocent life, caused by a conflict which will inevitably continue...).) I'm not going to go into the question of whether the aims of Al Qaida are non-negotiable in this sense, beyond recommending some cogent arguments for and against the proposition. I think it bears stressing that the 'blackmail' analogy rests on an assumption that terrorist groups are different in kind from other political actors, and - most importantly - that this difference derives primarily from their goals rather than their actions (however criminal - however vile, come to that - those actions may be).

But let's say that, in the case of Al Qaida, we are dealing with a criminal conspiracy with no political aims which could possibly conceded. Even in that case, I don't think it follows that principled policy-making should take no account of them. Consider a less controversial criminal conspiracy, the Mafia. The Mafia certainly has no demands which any responsible government would grant; formulating policy in order to benefit the Mafia would be reprehensible. However, according to the 'blackmail' logic, allowing the government's opposition to the Mafia to influence policy - perhaps by favouring policies which limited the Mafia's opportunities to penetrate British society - would itself represent a tacit recognition of the Mafia as a force to be reckoned with, and should therefore be rejected. The responsible course of action would be to take whatever actions the government believed would benefit Britain, leaving the Mafia - and the possibility that government action or inaction might favour the Mafia - out of consideration.

This argument is clearly fallacious. Whether or not the government's decision is influenced by the existence of the Mafia, the Mafia continues to exist and to have significant effects on the government, both at the time the decision is taken and at the time it is implemented. There is no possible decision which does not have a relationship to the Mafia, in other words; the choice is whether that relationship is favourable or unfavourable. A decision which limits the opportunities available to organised crime (perhaps by putting a lower limit on the number of casinos to be licensed) is unfavourable; a decision which does not limit those opportunities is favourable, whether it does so actively or by default. As with the Mafia, so with Al Qaida: if the government did, in fact, deliberately ignore the possibility that the Iraq invasion would expand the opportunities open to terrorists, it can fairly be charged - on those grounds alone - with making this outcome more likely.

Brian also argues that there is a fundamental and important discrepancy between the (wholly unacceptable) tactics of the bombers and the (potentially legitimate) political causes with which they have been associated.
The other implication of much bien-pensant comment has been that we need to ‘understand‘ what drove the suicide bombers (successful or failed) to commit such dreadful acts and to accept that we (or the Blair government, or western society, or whatever) are all partially to blame for the policies and actions that drove the bombers to do what they did. This seems to me an utterly unacceptable proposition, too, for the reasons eloquently expressed by Brownie in the passage that I quoted. The idea that the pursuit of policies with which others violently disagree is partly responsible for acts of criminal madness committed, apparently, as an expression of that political disapproval, is nonsense, and we shouldn’t hesitate to say so. You write that
people aren’t born terrorists. People have to become terrorists - even that subset of people who are also fundamentalist Muslims and believers in a restored Caliphate. Obviously the terrorists are to blame for their actions, but for those people to have become terrorists something must have gone wrong - something more than being exposed to an ‘evil ideology’.
but it’s a far cry from that to the assertion that the whatever ‘must have gone wrong’ is something for which our own society, or government, or culture, or original sin, must be to blame.
My point here was that successful terrorist actions require a continuing supply of recruits - all the more so in the case of suicide bombings, obviously - and that each of these individuals must go through a whole series of events and influences before they become a terrorist. Pace Brian, I'd say that it would be absurd to assume - on the grounds that terrorists have carried out 'acts of criminal madness' - that nothing about "our own society, or government, or culture" played a part in the formation of those terrorists. That is not to say that we can necessarily identify what those contributions are or how significant they were - in absolute terms or in comparison to other influences. But to say that no one other than the terrorists themselves bears any responsibility for their actions, and that we cannot - and should not - address the grievances which motivate terrorist sympathisers, seems to me to set up an absolute separation between 'us' and 'them' which is highly unhelpful. Something did go wrong for the eight bombers we know about; as far as we know it went wrong right here in Britain, some time in the last few years. In the circumstances, it seems to me, the burden of proof lies with anyone maintaining that the Iraq invasion was not a factor.

Postscript: at Veritatis Splendor, enigmatic NederlanderVlaming D says it all more succinctly than I've been able to:
The pro-war people will argue that the jihadists will always find some excuse to launch another terrorist attack on us, regardless of what "root causes" we take away. They're confusing two things. It's true that you can't make deals with or give in to the jihadists. You can't take the "root causes" of their hatred or extremism away. They will always hate us, for it is our very existence, our "way of life," that is the root cause of their hatred. Their ideology is so diagonally opposed to our own, that peaceful co-existence with these people is not possible. And indeed, we shouldn't try to appease them or adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards them. The only strategy against these people is confrontation: not only do we need to prevent them from attacking us, we need to attack them. Again, this is a matter of police and intelligence forces.

We can however tackle the "root causes" of Muslim support for these people. As I've argued above, a radical minority is nothing without the support of the mainstream. This jihadist "radical minority" will cease to exist (or cease to be consequential in any case) without fresh recruits to carry out its suicide missions and without the silent, or vocal, approval of ordinary Muslim communities. The war in Iraq is a good example, because this is where the opinions of ordinary Muslims and jihadists "overlap": they both think it stinks to high heaven. By stressing how much they have in common, the jihadist can persuade the average Muslim.

Conversely, jihadists are not that successful in gathering real, practical support for their ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, or for their utopian "Caliphate." We naturally oppose these ideas too, but why be so bothered with them when we know they have no real basis of support within the Islamic community itself? Does anyone seriously believe Europe will one day be overrun by massive hordes of Muslim warriors bent on establishing the Caliphate?

The average Muslim in Europe doesn't want to kill homosexuals, or prevent women from driving a car, or stop us from eating pork, or burn every copy of Harry Potter. If we are to prevent his radical counterpart from convincing him he should do all these things, our job is to convince him of the contrary ("battle for the hearts and minds," anyone?), stress what is clearly unacceptable and what is open to civilized debate (this as opposed to shutting down the debate in its entirety with the fallacious mantra "opposing the war = supporting terrorism"), and finally, do more to promote alternatives. In doing so, you take away the ordinary Muslim's every reason to believe the jihadist.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Such a waste of energy

Nick Cohen is getting careless. On the Guardian Web site, a recent Cohen column with the uncompromising headline "Face up to the truth" is now prefixed with the following health warning:
The comment piece below was wrong to say that the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was 'delighted' at the attack on the World Trade Centre, describing it as 'a great work of art'. In fact, Stockhausen made a statement to the effect that he believed the devil was still an active force in the world and condemned the attack as 'Lucifer's greatest work of art'. Apologies.
And what are we to make of this?
In 1989, the number of sexual offences recorded by the police shot up. ... The Home Office's statisticians took a hard look at their data, and noticed a peculiar increase of 500 in the number of arrests for indecency. Odder still, 350 of the arrests had been made in Slough or, more specifically, in the public conveniences in Slough town centre.

In 1988, there had been just six. Within a year, Slough had become the San Francisco of the south, the Sodom of suburbia. The Home Office dug deeper. Its researchers found that one of the local police commanders had firm views on the homosexual question and had ordered handsome PCs to go to the lavatories and arrest any man who tried to seduce them. The purge of Slough's lavatories sent recorded indecency offences in Britain back towards the highs of the 1950s, when homosexuality was illegal. Until, that is, the policy changed and Thames Valley Police pulled its men out of the cottages.

Slough's gays carried on cruising, but their assignations were no longer recorded. The crime figures depended on what the police were looking for and what the police counted.
The broader point, in this case, is reasonable - the last sentence is an essential caveat for anyone dealing with crime statistics - but the way Cohen gets there is distinctly questionable.

Here are the figures (from the Home Office Web site):


Well, yes, there was a spike in 1989, and the figure recorded had only been surpassed in 1954 and 1955. Beyond that, though, Cohen's account of these figures is alarmingly slipshod. First, a minor but significant point: the figures didn't go up by 500 between 1988 and 1989, but by over 700. This in itself suggests that Cohen's story is a little too neat: if Slough's extra 344 arrests had been added to the 1988 total, the result would have been a spike of 1,650, well above the levels of the mid-eighties but below the levels recorded in 1974, 1975 and 1978. (All together now: The British police are the best in the world...). Second, the law. Cohen's reference to "the 1950s, when homosexuality was illegal" sounds plausible, but in fact it's irrelevant twice over. On one hand, the Wolfenden reforms weren't introduced until 1967; (male) homosexuality was just as illegal in 1965 (when arrests were in the low 800s) as it was in 1955 (2,322) - or, for that matter, in 1949 (852). On the other hand, these arrests were for 'gross indecency', an offence which stayed on the statute book until 2003. The police devoted considerable resources to 'gross indecency' during the 'Great Purge' of the mid-1950s, then gave it a lower priority in the run-up to Wolfenden. However, there was another period of high arrest rates in the mid-1970s, followed by another trough in the early 1980s. Against this background, the 1989 spike looks less like an aberration caused by an individual police force, and more like an abortive third peak. (Before 1989, it's worth noting, arrest numbers had risen for three years in succession.) In other words, it looks as if the situation developing in 1986-9 parallelled 1950-3 and 1970-3 - the difference being that the Home Office reined in police forces (not only in Slough) earlier and more sharply than it had done on previous occasions. Taking the 1989 spike out of context, then blaming it on one off-message senior police officer, is hardly a shining example of intellectual honesty.

Intellectual honesty, however, is Nick Cohen's stock in trade; we have it from the man himself. Cohen made a brief appearance on a Crooked Timber comment thread recently. Both the tone and the content of his intervention are interesting, so I'll quote it in full:
Look, I’ve learned after the last few years not to appeal to basic principle or to imagine that those who say they’re leftists are within one thousand miles of the left. But after being sent to this thread by Harry I’m genuinely curious: didn’t you people take my reference to the best and the brightest to refer to the democrats, liberals, women—and, yes, for there are still a few—socialists who are being slaughtered in the Middle East?
Can one perso here name one genuine secular democratic party in Iraq—or Iran, or Syria or Palestine—they support and which acknowledges their support?
If your answer is no, and you fully understand why it is no, you may at least, after all this time, be experiencing the novel thrill of intellectual honesty.
The argument is stark and simple, not to say simplistic. I am True Left, you are False Left. I am intellectually honest, you are congenital liars.

Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this line of argument is its insulation against any possible rebuttal. It doesn't greatly matter what Cohen's opponents say in reply, because he already knows they're liars. This, of course, is an appallingly dangerous train of thought, reminiscent of the mentality of commissars and heresy-hunters through the ages: if those who oppose you are also liars, you won't accept new information unless it supports your existing position. We're back with Caliph Omar, who (apocryphally) ordered the burning of the Library of Alexandria on the grounds that it contained works which conflicted with the teachings of the Qur'an; on being told that some of the works in the library were in conformance with the Qur'an, the Caliph replied that they could be burned as well, as they were clearly surplus to requirements.

Ironically, Cohen appears to be well aware of the shortcomings of his current position, although he associates it with his opponents:
The least attractive characteristic of the middle-class left - one shared with the Thatcherites - is its refusal to accept that its opponents are sincere. The legacy of Marx and Freud allows it to dismiss criticisms as masks which hide corruption, class interests, racism, sexism - any motive can be implied except fundamental differences of principle.
I think Cohen's describing a real problem here, but I don't know what Marx is doing in there (let alone Freud). I blame the rationalism which goes along with a certain kind of commitment to bodies of ideas. (As the anarchists used to say, 'theory' is when you have ideas, 'ideology' is when ideas have you.) The logic goes like this. You know that you're a reasonable and well-intentioned person, in possession of the facts; and that you're on the Left; and that you believe in policies X, Y and Z. I tell you that I don't believe in X, Y and Z - perhaps even that I oppose those policies - but that I am also a reasonable, well-intentioned and well-informed Leftist. But your beliefs are underpinned by a rational assessment of the facts and a freely-chosen commitment to Leftist principles. My beliefs are therefore wrong. I am clearly mistaken in thinking of myself as a Leftist; if I persist in maintaining that I am, I should be resisted and denounced. Cue Caliph Omar: if I am trustworthy, I will agree with what you already believe; if I disagree with you, I am untrustworthy and can be ignored.

I agree with Cohen that this mentality is distressingly common on the Left: I've criticised Chomsky along these lines before now. What Cohen seems not to have registered is that the Leftists he prefers are not immune: witness Geras' recent tirade against people who have recently written articles which he interprets as erring on the side of apologia for terrorism (or, as Geras puts it, against apologists). Nor, sadly, is Cohen himself.

Postscript: here's Cohen, back in February :
Over the past year, I've been astonished and delighted by the quality of British political blogs. What's happened reminds me of the punk explosion when I was a teenager. People are ignoring the established system and beating it at its own game. Obvioulsy, there's a great deal of dross, but what is heartening is how much original and intelligent journalism is coming from people entirely outside the media class, whose only chance of talking to the world would once have been confined to a few paragraphs on a letters' page or a few minutes on a radio phone-in.

As I'm on the left I started out with Harry's Place, Normblog and Socialism in an Age of Waiting. But as my confidence has grown I find myself zooming all over the net and listening to people I would have crossed the street to avoid in the past. I've also realised with a feeling close to despair that if I write a lot of nonsense, it will be exposed and dissected.
We try, Nick. We try.

Monday, August 01, 2005

A new kind of charge

"I find I've nothing to say about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes that hasn't already been said"

OK, I lied.

The story has evolved, to put it politely. We were told that de Menezes was wearing a jacket with wires coming out of it, then a 'bulky jacket'; we were told that he had been challenged and run into a tube station, then that he was challenged in the tube station and ran onto a platform, vaulting the barrier. Five days after the shooting, the Metropolitan Police revealed - by the means of a private meeting with de Menezes' relatives - that de Menezes had been wearing a denim jacket and hadn't jumped the barrier (the man who did was one of the policemen pursuing him).

The story may yet develop further, perhaps becoming even less flattering to the Metropolitan Police. As it stands, though, it's still got a couple of significant holes in it. Firstly, we need to know how the police challenged de Menezes. Did his pursuers try to tell him that they were armed police, or that his life was at risk if he didn't comply with their orders? Was he given any opportunity to surrender? Did he even know that police officers had challenged him?

It certainly seems that there was no second challenge - that de Menezes was not challenged again after the initial challenge, despite the decision to use lethal force. Depending on the wording of the initial challenge, this may mean that he had no warning that his life was in danger. According to a police source quoted in the Guardian, "If the firearms team are reasonably certain the person is a suicide bomber then there is no need to issue any warning. Experience from other parts of the world shows that if a suicide bomber knows they are being followed by police, they will detonate.". A source quoted in the Times concurs. But this suggests that, once firearms officers had concluded (wrongly) that de Menezes was on the point of causing an explosion, his life was forfeit: there was nothing he could do that would have allowed him to come out of the tube station alive. If so, this is an extremely disturbing development in British law enforcement - and would be even if de Menezes had been loaded with explosive.

We also need to know why, if the police genuinely believed de Menezes to pose an imminent danger to those around him, they allowed him to catch a bus, intervening only when he switched to the tube. It's not as if buses hadn't been targeted. Again, if his killer believed de Menezes to be a suicide bomber, why was he pinned bodily to the ground before he was shot in the head? Surely this might risk setting off the explosion that killing him was supposed to avert. Or was de Menezes, in his denim jacket, seen as a low enough risk to be watched on the bus rather than being intercepted, and rugby-tackled on the tube train rather than being shot from a distance? But if so, why was he killed? Not, surely, because he had been misidentified as one of the July 21st bombers - this would be summary justice pure and simple.

Time - and the Police Complaints Commission - will tell; at the moment these are just a couple of plausible scenarios. But, amid a flood of reminders that the police do a difficult job and that terrorists are evil murderers, I think it's worth keeping in view just how starkly unacceptable some of these scenarios are. Last word to the Graun:
Insiders say there may have been flaws in the operation that led to Mr de Menezes's shooting, which is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. There are questions about why the intelligence was so faulty and about the identification of Mr de Menezes as a target. ... One officer said an examination of the intelligence used, the decision making and identification of the supposed suspect "may reduce the culpability [of the officer who fired] quite significantly".

Another senior Met insider said: "When the truth comes out it is going to be horrific."