The terrorist problem today is an existential threat to our civilisation
The list is getting to be rather a long one, but the latest addition is Barcelona. If you have ever been to that lovely city, you will know that Las Ramblas, where the latest terrorist outrage took place, is a long series of tree lined open spaces that more or less runs the length of the city centre, the place where all come out to take their peaceful walk on a summer evening.
Alas, that such a wonderful place should now be desecrated by violence. The terrorists aim to take the shine off urban living, and in this latest attack on one of the great urban spaces in Europe, so symbolic of our civilisation and shared culture, they have certainly done that.
And our response? Sixteen years after Nine Eleven, we still have not got one.
What exactly should governments do when confronted with terrorism? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Tsarist Russia was faced with a grave terrorist problem. In March 1881, the terrorist group known as People’s Will even succeeded in blowing up the reforming Tsar Alexander II. Piotr Stolypin, Russia’s last great enlightened reformer was assassinated in 1911. The terrorists were always keen to kill reformers, hoping, it is thought, that severe reaction and repression would then trigger revolution.
In fact, the attempts of the terrorists to bring down the government were futile, and the Russian government was never in any danger of collapse, thanks to a large security apparatus which included a feared secret police, as well as considerable support from the populace, exemplified by the infamous Black Hundreds, as well as its demonisation of “the enemy within”, that is to say the Jewish minority. What brought down Tsardom was the disaster of the First World War. But, at the same time, the government was unable to stamp out terrorism entirely, even though it had numerous repressive measures at its disposal which would be quite unacceptable in a liberal society like ours.
The Russian lesson is not a cheering one for us. If they failed to stamp out terrorism, how can we do so? In addition, many of the measures they took – such as stirring up anti-Semitism – were clearly morally wrong, and counterproductive too. If terrorism is the problem, Tsarist-style repression is certainly not the answer. However, the other side of the coin, the reforms proposed by Alexander II and later Stolypin, were the right approach.
Perhaps a more productive parallel can be found in the terrorism that the United Kingdom suffered thanks to the “Irish Question”. In the 19th century this was met with a Russian-style response: repression on the one hand, and liberalisation (in particular land reform, Stolypin’s policy) on the other. That didn’t work. In the 20th century, the government’s multi-stranded response was perhaps more productive, particularly in the field of intelligence. But the success of the British government was seen in bringing the terrorists to the negotiating table.
In dealing with ISIS, we have no one to negotiate with and we are not facing a set of coherent demands. Anyone who has read ISIS’s propaganda magazine Dabiq knows this. There can be no end point to the war with ISIS, for it preaches war without end, until the Caliphate is established everywhere. The IRA never had such universalist ambitions.
So, what can be done? Oddly the Tsarist model perhaps provides a few clues, even if the Tsarist model is not one to follow. First of all, one has to stress that the terrorist problem of today is not simply a problem, but an existential threat to our civilisation. This was the belief of the Russian government before the Revolution, and given what followed the Revolution, they were not wrong.
The Caliphate is a deadly idea, and as such it needs to be fought at all levels, particularly at the level of ideas. Amazingly, very few seem to be doing this, despite the fact that ISIS, in creating hell on earth in Raqqa, have provided us with so much ammunition to use against them. The Caliphate is irrational, absurd, sinister, foul and catastrophic, not just in practice, but in theory too. Why are so few saying this? Why do we tread the Caliphate as just another Dystopia? It is far more than that.
Again, while the Caliphate pumps out propaganda online, where is the counter-propaganda? This too is another great failure on our part. Given the great successes on our civilisation, why are we so shy about talking about them? Why are we addicted to self-criticism, when, in many fields, we should be boasting?
Barcelona is a place in point. A beautiful city, one of the finest in the world, it is a place which should act as a warning from history, being the locus of that great failed experiment, the Spanish Republic, which collapsed amidst internal leftist sectarian strife so well described in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. And Barcelona is also a place of great hope, being the city of Gaudí, the greatest of architects, indeed the great modernist, and the great Catholic too. The plethora of values represented by Gaudí, all so accessible to us, for we need only to look at his work to be moved by it, would be a good place to start in boasting about what we have achieved, and what we must protect from threat.