Saturday, November 14, 2015

Saturday Morning Musings - lessons from the Paris terrorist attacks

I had to turn off the news coverage of the Paris attacks. There was so much repetition, so much breathlessness, so many talking heads. In the end, the twitter feed from the various news organisations and others gave me a more up to date feel.than the actual coverage from any one news source.

I claim no special knowledge nor indeed wisdom. But I do want to make a few observations while events are still unfolding.

Inevitably, the initial coverage focused on the fear factor. Would they strike again? We saw something similar with 9/11. Then came the inevitable question, what went wrong. How do we prevent this happening again? And then came to positive rallying words.

In considering this, I want to focus first on the personal fear factor. This is the scene of the April 1993 Wormwood Street IRA bombing in the UK. This is a list of the major bombings that took place during the what has been called the Northern Ireland troubles.

I am not comparing these events directly with with the Paris events. Neither side in the Northern Ireland troubles normally aimed to kill the maximum possible number of civilians. Rather, I would make two points. The first is that, finally, the Northern Ireland troubles came to an end. The second is that life went on regardless.

I was in London on two occasions during the troubles. Both times one was conscious of the troubles and indeed of the risk of bombing. The statistical risks of being hurt were, as is true today, very low but they were real.

The Brighton Hotel bombing came very close to killing Prime Minister Thatcher and her husband. However, life went on. The fear factor did not seem as great as it is today.

I  am not sure why this should be the case. The twenty four hour media cycle is more intense now. Western society has become  more risk averse and indeed somewhat less tolerant of difference.  These things help explain the apparent change, but are not (to my mind) a sufficient explanation. Recognising that there is a chicken and egg problem, which came first, a key problem would seem to be the shift in rhetoric and perception that flowed from 9/11 and the War on Terror.

This leads me to my core concern, the way in which official responses to current terrorism events are progressively eroding tolerances and attitudes that we have taken for granted.

The 1974 Birmingham pub bombings killed 21 people and injured 182 others. Like the current Paris attacks, the bombings targeted innocent civilians. The rush for justice that followed led to the wrongful conviction in 1975 of what became known as the Birmingham Six. It would be 1991 before the convictions were quashed.

We have already seen how the War on Terror has led to polarisation and injustice that of itself has fed back through a vicious circle into the creation of that which was most feared, a genuine war of terror. There has been a kind of moral funk in the West, an unwillingness to accept the costs that can follow from genuine adherence to liberal principles, that has begun to undermine the very principles on which liberal democratic societies are based.

I guess that's my real worry from Paris. What lesson or lessons are we all, governments included, going to draw? And what will it cost us?


Anonymous said...

This leads me to my core concern, the way in which official responses to current terrorism events are progressively eroding tolerances and attitudes that we have taken for granted. - and therein lies the problem: we are now somehow more concerned about the 'response' than the act itself.

The West is dead if it continues to refuse to defend itself; if it is more concerned about 'tolerances and attitudes' than seeing off an enemy which sees those very words as weakness, as weapons.

Still, the Opera House will be blue, white and red tonight - so there's that. Plus, I guess there will be candles.


Anonymous said...

You are absolutly right kvd.
The shock of civilisations is also the shock of mentalities. The ways of think are extremly different and the weakness of Occident stays in the conviction that occidental way of thinking is shared with all "humanity".
I stay near Paris but very often I have a glance at James blog. James, thanks for your constant effort and to cover so important number of subjects.
It's very interesting and I hope that you'll continue to do it.
I was surprised seeing the title this morning.
Sorry for my English.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi anon and thanks. I will try :) I agree with your point about the blindness of the Occident including the assumption not just that other people share views but also that Occidental views are necessarily and always right and, further, should be imposed.

kvd, no, that's not the problem. although I may be misinterpreting you. I do that from time to time! So just amplifying a little.

Paris was an evil tragedy. However, the world is full of stuff that we cannot control. We can only control our own responses.

This afternoon, my FB feeds had a lot of Australian anti-immigration, anti Muslim stuff. Messages like, "Close Our Borders Now......Dont Wait For A Tragedy Like This To Happen"; "Turnbulls a Muslim lover...he's always wanted to be prime minister.... And it will be at the county's expense......: "Ban Islam world wide." This is extreme stuff, but it's the type of rhetoric you find around and its absolutely pointless.

Now putting a few other brief points in some form of order.

The first is the importance of perspective and proportionate response.

Liberal democracy rests on the importance of law, of due process and the respect for alternative viewpoints. When that is threatened, then the basic system is threatened. I happen to believe that the responses to the terrorist threat are having that effect.

The actual statistical risk to anyone in Australia or France from a terrorist attack is small. But even if it were of the likelihood of being killed in the blitz or run over by a car, the best response from a private perspective is to ignore it with contempt. As I see it, the whole point in the terrorist attacks is to create conflict, to create fear, to force private and official responses that will aid the cause as defined by the terrorist. They want a them-us model. They have been reasonably successful in this.

Of course the police and security forces have to do their best to provide protection. To my mind, they actually do a reasonable job here in reducing the chance of attack. At the same time, they can only prevent certain classes of attack. In pursuing their primary mission, they can argue for greater powers and controls that make them part of the problem, not the solution. We as citizens have to recognise and accept their weaknesses, be aware of the way that mission creep in conjunction with political dynamics can lead to over-reach that poses longer term threats to a free society.

The West has to be prepared to defend itself. In this context, it may be true to say that the West is more concerned with the response than the triggering act or acts. However, Western countries have a rather bad recent response record based in part on misconceptions of their own rightness and of the real powers that they have, including an over-reliance on technology. I am not opposed to military action. I do want it to be well directed.

No terrorist group nor Muslim fundamentalism in general has the power to defeat the West nor liberal democracy in general despite the pain that they may be able to create. However, they may have the influence to create situations in which the West defeats itself.

Anonymous said...

Jim, just a further thought - without any specific conclusions:

Your comparison to 'the troubles' is inexact in that, in that continuing struggle, there was a definable 'battleground'. As regards the rest of the world, we watched on as it happened 'over there' - i.e. the was no sense that any day, anywhere, it might occur in our own spaces. Contrast the various atrocities you correctly note as happening in Britain and Ireland with the Bali bombings, the Twin Towers, African schoolgirl kidnappings, bombings in Mumbai, and now this latest of several in France.

For whatever human-scale reasons there is a comfort to be found in observing something happening remotely, happening 'over there'. This is no longer true.


Jim Belshaw said...

Still trying to think all this through kvd while monitoring the responses in Europe and around the world. A central part of my concern lies the proportionality of personal and official responses. The Twin Towers gave us the War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan followed by the invasion of Iraq. The Arab Spring gave us the collapse in Libya, the Egyptian troubles and the mess in Syria. The collapse in Libya plus the Syrian mess gave us the European migrant crisis.

As you note, the comparison with the Irish troubles is not exact because it affected one country, whereas now there is a feeling of multiple threat with a definable multi headed bogeyman, or should they be bogeyperson to comply with PC?

I would make two observations here. First, the various events that you refer too, and there have been multiple others, have different causes although the nature of the dynamics involved has created a degree of intelinking on the ground, in policy responses and certainly in popular perceptions; they still have to be analysed separately. Secondly, realistic judgments need to be made about the degree of threat and the price we are prepared to pay to counter it.

The second was my primary concern yesterday. Ir wasn't just a civil liberties concern although that's important: Australian security officials are apparently already arguing for increased powers or more proactive use of powers while warning that more innocent people will inevitably be caught up. It's more that the totality of emotion driven responses will lead to a further set of adverse results.

My arguments may seem to be cold or of cold comfort to those directly affected or indeed to those who have draped themselves in French colours in sympathy. It really is a difficult problem.

Evan said...

I share your concerns Jim.

If we are interested in preventing these kinds of attacks then we need to somehow getter better intelligence. And I think this can only happen if lots of people somewhat connected with terrorists groups feel more investment in preserving the country they are living in so they won't keep quiet when they hear rumours.

I don't think terrorism comes to birth from free speech. Drones blowing up women and children is far more likely to radicalise people in my view. If the West has any part in generating this it is their resort to violence in my view.

Sue said...

Hi Jim

I do commend your post for introducing a historical and human perspective: so important to keep this at the forefront in any rush to judgement.

We have to deny the terrorists what they want; sadly there is no single answer to that question.

To tighten up procedures and to increase security expenditure is understandable, but(in my view) a very limited response. As you said in another post we lose our cherished freedoms and much more...

I do think we need to be clever about intelligence information and use some lateral thinking. I'm thinking of 9/11 when American security had the information about the strange behaviour of a few Arabs taking flying lessons who were only interested in taking off and landing... and, you will appreciate this, this was regional office information which was to be destroyed in a disposal schedule. (My recollection is rusty, but true in essentials I think.)

I believe we really have to bring our intelligence to bear upon these matters and and analyse our intelligence information with a sharper focus. It's not the solution but it won't be wasted time and money.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Sue

I was going to agree wholeheartedly on denying terrorists what they want then thought. There is just too much ambiguity about the use of the word terrorist, Further, there have also been some good outcomes where "terrorists" actually had good causes. But if they want to destroy liberal democracy then we should certainly deny them that, not assist them through our responses.

Intelligence information is an interesting one. I can't remember the details of the 9/11, but my recollection is that you are right. Perhaps sometimes we need more intelligence and less information.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim
I applaud your efforts to try to keep current terrorism in perspective. My Facebook feed is showing stuff I am not seeing in the TV news of xenophobic demonstrations by French people. There is a risk that reactions will further disadvantage refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

2 tanners said...

And as for those refugees mentioned by Winton, how many Syrian civilians were killed on the same day? Nobody reports it, no-one knows and to all appearances no-one cares.

There was, decades ago (possibly during the sky-jacking era?) a short story by a science fiction writer where a man decided to take on the terrorists. He would not report on the successes, only the failures, and mocked them in comic skits, portraying them as dumb, clumsy and foolish. The tactic was to cut off their oxygen. Of course, he was targeted too as a major threat and fiction being what it is, escaped by the skin of his teeth only to go back to his studio and mock his attempted murderer.

While we've gone far too far down the addictive road of Shock! Horror!! journalism for this to be a realistic response these days, I simplistically yearn for someone to try.

Changing topic, all this information gathering: who is successfully using it (apart from law enforcement agents illegally stalking former partners etc)? And how does it detect meetings held in person and communication in notes being passed, as the Paris effort is alleged to have been planned?

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Winton. Hadn't noticed the French stuff. So far Australia including Immigration Minister are standing against the idea of closing borders. A certain irony, I suppose.

With personal communication or notes I guess you need surveillance in place. What was the SF story. Can you remember?

Winton Bates said...

Jim, SF story? I am confused. Perhaps it is about the National Front trying to take advantage of the situation.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ah. Sorry. The second comment was in response to 2t. SF = science fiction!

Sue said...

Re 2 tanners

This is where security agents need to have good informants. And this is why we need to be harnessing our Muslim community - how often do you read that x or y were ordinary non mosque going every day people - not especially religious?

This is why at the very least, Malcolm Turnbull is to be preferred to Tony Abbott, MT has realized that good intelligence gathering relies on support and information from the Muslim community. Surveillance is resource intensive but can yield good results.

If at those small meetings you refer to, there are informants, and this is more common than you think, then this is the intelligence that will hopefully prevent future attacks.

We have to make these connections as part of our intelligence gathering.

My difficulty is wondering how effective our conceptual skills are in dealing with and using the information we have.

2 tanners said...


A web search leads me to think that the short story I referenced was "Very Proper Charlies" by Dean Ing, published in a number of collections. A 'Charlie', of course, is English slang for a nitwit - this was long before Je suis Charlie.



Abbott came up with 'Team Australia' and within a day had already made it clear that he really didn't believe that Muslims were part of it.

But people will also look at the Bali 9 and the way that information given to the police by a parent was handled. They will look at the Lindt event and look at how the information already in police possession was not used. There needs to be some faith in our police, which in turn must be earnt.

After-the-event calls for more surveillance powers without the kind of conceptual skills you refer to seem pointless, invasive and expensive. More efficient to have a program of funding madrassas in Australia and showing empathy with Muslims.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, 2t.