The swamp fights back
In this three-part article, Ramesh Thakur argues that the scale of the terrorist threat to Western societies must be kept in perspective, that Western actions in the Middle East may have fomented more terrorism than they have defeated, and that an attitude of denial regarding the potential for problems of large-scale Muslim immigration feeds mutual paranoia and hostility and is not conducive to social cohesion.
Horrific terrorist attacks have been launched in New York, Bali, Madrid, Beslan, London, Mumbai, Paris, Jakarta, San Bernardino, Brussels, and now Manchester. There have also been several major incidents in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Large-scale car bombings, multiple coordinated attacks, lone wolf attacks, and kidnapping and beheading of foreigners are among the modus operandi.
Four initial comments are worth stating up front. First, nothing can ever justify, condone or excuse the murder of innocent civilians – in this case largely young people enjoying a live musical performance. It is an atrocity, an abomination and a heinous crime, always and every single time.
Second, terrorism is now a globalised threat. Globalisation has empowered terrorists by democratising information and telecommunications technologies, linking like-hating groups and making it much easier to set up support structures among far-flung diasporas. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are good examples of how globalisation has helped transnational networks of ‘uncivil society’ to disseminate propaganda, raise and move funds and weapons, recruit and train terrorists with the world as their stage, and use the reach of social media (an inapt name, in the circumstances).
Third, the attacks in New York, London, Paris, Brussels and Manchester bring spontaneous shows of solidarity, with landmarks in Western countries being bathed in the national colours of the victim countries. But bombings in Baghdad, Lahore and Mumbai do not. Treating the threat as divisible diminishes the prospects of tackling it successfully.
Fourth, the rhetoric of a ‘war on terror’ is fundamentally misleading. No state is the target of military defeat, there are no uniformed soldiers to fight, no territory to invade and conquer, no clear defining point that will mark victory. Strategies for draining the swamp of terrorism like addressing group grievance based on identifiable disadvantage and discrimination, institutionalising non-discriminatory policy and practices, surveillance, intelligence gathering and analysis and police enforcement are all governing functions, not military missions.
Part 1 – Terrorism in perspective
Terrorism attracts wildly disproportionate public attention and therefore policy focus. On ABC’s Q&A on Monday night, US physicist Lawrence Krauss made the same argument when he told the program that Americans and others were more likely to be killed by a fridge falling on them than by a terrorist. Program host Tony Jones added: ‘If you’re a young black American, you’re more likely to be killed by a policeman’. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was unable to contain his outrage, describing Jones’ comment as a ‘disgrace’ and that victims’ and their families’ ‘voices should be heard, not the voices of some academics or people that seek to get their face on Q&A’.
It’s difficult to know how to respond to such shows of belligerent ignorance. Is Dutton saying that the facts are wrong – in which case he can easily be shown to be factually challenged. As of December 2015, the death toll from jihadist terrorism on American soil since 9/11 was 45, and from white supremacist and other right-wing extremists 48, compared to more than 200,000 people killed in ‘conventional murders’ over the same period. In most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other quotidian accidents do indeed kill more Americans than terrorist attacks. Apparently even President Barack Obama frequently reminded his staff that ‘terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than falls in bathtubs’.
Regarding Tony Jones’ comment: because, incredibly, the police do not maintain records of civilians killed by police forces across the US, no reliable statistics exist on the exact numbers. But reputable newspapers compile their own databases. According to The Guardian’s website The Counted, the number killed by law enforcement officers in 2016 was 1,092. The Washington Post database counted 963.
Or is Dutton suggesting that even if accurate, they should not be mentioned? If so, he might be right on the timing – sensitivity puts a premium on respectful silence on some facts in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events. Except the Manchester bombing was after Q&A aired on Monday night UK time?
There are two key questions. First, what motivated the Manchester bomber specifically, and what intelligence evidence was missed or the dots not connected to prevent it? Second, why does the pattern keep repeating across the world, why are wannabe terrorists attracted to the cause, and what can be done to demotivate them and defeat terrorism? Terrorism can never be totally ‘defeated’, any more than crime and poverty can be completely eradicated. But its magnitude can be brought down to ‘tolerable’ levels, as with crime and poverty.
A combination of factors determines whether terrorist organisations will thrive, be defeated or simply fade away. They include their emotional/political appeal, organisational efficiency, access to resources and the extent of their support base. The wise strategy has to be a multilayered one that addresses grievances and counteracts the causes of individual and group humiliation and indignity. The object is not to destroy the motivation of every individual terrorist but to neutralise support for terrorists in the communities in which they live and generate the will and capacity to act against them by relevant authorities.
Professor Ramesh Thakur, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.
 John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 13.