The Paranoid Style of Counter-Terrorism

Photo by Elliott Brown | CC BY 2.0

One of the more notable characteristics of recent events in the United Kingdom has been a concerted refusal by those affected to give into the temptation to adopt a victim mentality. Mourners for the victims of the Manchester bombing stood around afterward singing ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ by Oasis; London mayor Sadiq Khan described recent terror attacks as “part and parcel of living in a big city.”

That this latter comment in particular precipitated a feud with Donald Trump, who interpreted it to mean that there was no reason for people to be alarmed, tells us much. Not only does it tell us much about the responses available to us in the wake of actual and perceived acts of terror, but also about the assumptions guiding the choices we make one way or the other.

For the last decade and a half, western leaders have been defiant in the face of the same kind of summary violence that the west has habitually visited on the Oriental other throughout history, insisting that terrorism ‘will not change us’ even as the world changes radically. Fear of outsiders and external threats precipitate hate crimes that spike with each violent incident, exploding into the occasional race riot such as at Cronulla. Such incidents are typically relegated to the memory hole by leaders preoccupied being defiant, in favour of talk about ‘our values.’

Militant ignorance of this kind refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of what Tony Abbott referred to as the ‘home team,’ or even the possibility that it is actually capable of doing anything wrong at all. This narcissistic mentality reaches its zenith in the person of Donald Trump, who in refusing to draw any distinction between being criticised and being attacked degenerates into what political scientist Richard Hofstadter referred to as the ‘Paranoid Style.’

The Paranoid Style, Hofstadter wrote, evoked ‘qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,’ and gave rise to ‘systematic delusions of persecution and of one’s own greatness.’ This was, in large measure, what it was designed to do, acting as a kind of confirmation bias that that allowed those invoking it to dodge the entire issue of their own conduct and policies, and what role these might play in the emergence of undesirable consequences.

Insofar as this was the case then, the Paranoid Style was characteristically selfish, sacrificing any possibility of constructive resolution to social tensions to what was in essence a temper tantrum at the suggestion that one’s conduct might be anything less than saintly. Rather than ensuring public safety in the face of summary politically-motivated violence by addressing their root causes, such responses guaranteed that they would continue — the next victims to come martyrs to the recalcitrance of political leaders displaying less capacity to resolve differences peacefully than toddlers disputing ownership of a plastic spade in the kindergarten sandpit.

Indeed, as this metaphor suggests, it is a sandpit logic informing traditional responses to non-state terrorism. Two small children in a sandpit with one spade between them; the one without the spade hits the one with, and snatches the spade as the other recoils. When the teacher comes to investigate at the sound of wailing, the child who now has the spade protests that it was his spade to begin with, and the other child took it from him, and that in reality he is the offended party. The teacher immediately identifies him as the aggressive party, removes him from the sandpit and calls the parents.

When he grows up, he is elected to high office. He’s still used to hitting people and taking things of theirs that he wants, maybe the land they used to occupy prior to white invasion, maybe the money earmarked for their social security net, which he gives to his wealthy friends instead. Maybe he hits the wrong person one day in the process of invading someone else’s country, and they decide to hit back.

This would seem to go some way towards explaining the news this week that ‘British Intelligence warned Tony Blair of Manchester-like terrorism if the West invaded Iraq’ (Jon Schwarz, The Intercept, 24 May 2017). The connection between western intervention and terrorist events in western countries has not generally been hard to understand, except in the case of those whose salaries, after Upton Sinclair, depends on their not understanding them.

As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in the aftermath of the Manchester attacks, “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.” This appears to account for the fact that, in the aftermath of the Madrid bombing of 2004, Spain suffered no more terrorist attacks after withdrawing its troops from the Middle East. The UK, on the other hand, refuses to learn from its mistakes, remaining a vocal and active supporter of western military aggression and ever shriller exponent of the Paranoid Style.

Its continuing reliance on such as a means of exonerating itself from criticism helps to account for the attacks levelled at Corbyn by government figures. Sir Michael Fallon, the defense secretary, accused him of “very muddled and dangerous thinking,” while foreign secretary Boris Johnson also relied on incredulity to substitute for a counter-argument, denouncing criticism of mainstream counterterrorist narratives as “absolutely monstrous,” and alleging that it was “absolutely extraordinary and inexplicable in this week of all weeks that there should be any attempt to justify or to legitimate the actions of terrorists in this way” (Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart, ‘Jeremy Corbyn: the war on terror is simply not working,’ The Guardian 26 May 2017).

It is a notable facet of this changed state of affairs that ideas suddenly become fearful; it has long been noted of stereotypes of the demonised other that they tend to embody contradictory traits, both morally weak in their lack of regard for the much-vaunted values our side claims to uphold, but also threatening to our way of life in the appeal they are able to garner nevertheless. Such was the witchcraft of the Jews, so too is it today of the Muslims — and, by extension, of anyone who goes against the self-appointed defenders of western values, who deserve our respect whether they observe the values they purport to uphold in their actions or not.

Just as ideas are frightening then, so too is debate — especially when it comes to challenging received wisdom about the more challenging issues of the day. If it is absolutely monstrous to suggest we practice what we preach, and in so doing stop stirring the hornest nest while feeding the hornets (or their Wahhabist Saudi sponsors, at least), then it is equally so to point out that most of the victims of non-state terror have been Muslim, and that most of the terrorist attacks carried out in the West have been perpetrated by white supremacists.

Just after the Manchester attacks, two anti-racists were murdered in Portland, Oregon, by one in the process of defending two young Muslim girls from his attacks on them. Last week a terrorist attack in Kabul killed 90. Such events do not fit the dominant counterterrorist narrative, and therefore pass largely without the slightest bit of concern or care on the part of the political class. Perhaps a normalization of violent death such that it is not considered newsworthy might be considered a change for the worse.

Here at home, a violent incident in Brighton is denounced by the Prime Minister as terrorism, providing him with an opportunity to reposition himself as a defender of the nation while stirring the hornet’s nest in his support for western military aggression in such a way as to guarantee that they will continue.

In this case as in many others, the preponderance of terror panic gives every criminal an opportunity to give vicious, brutal thuggery the air of a higher purpose by declaring their allegiance to Islamic State, who for their part are more than willing to claim them purely out of disinterested motives and not for the PR value — or so we are lead to believe by the PM, who is otherwise a paragon of mainstream counterterrorism and the Paranoid style. As Michael Brull has pointed out, this has become more pronounced as his opinion polling numbers have started to slide (Michael Brull, ‘Into The Abyss: Right On Cue, Desperate Malcolm Turnbull Turns On Minorities,’ New Matilda, 31 October 2016).

Australians face “a growing threat from Islamist terrorism,” Turnbull, still plagued by troublesome approval ratings, alleges today. Being part of the political class that habitually kicks the hornet’s nest, he would know, making sure at the same time to ensure that Australians are afraid of non-state retail terrorism, even if they don’t really understand where it come from. There are no calls for calm in this instance, no appeals for self-restraint in not being provoked into lowering ourselves to the level of everything we claim to oppose and in so doing handing victory to our enemies. The specter of evil Is far too valuable, the Paranoid Style far too effective a drawcard in the absence of policy

The continuing currency of paranoia as a political narrative suggests that, to be sure, we are changed, though the indigenous people of this country might have something to say about how far the white majority had to travel from the values it invokes in protesting its innocence and victimhood. As a friend of mine on Facebook suggested, the Brighton terrorist ‘sounds like a bogan from Cranbourne who was knocked back on his Southern Cross Soldiers application on a technicality regarding the color or his skin, so he justified his violent tendencies with the next best thing,’ an ‘an ice addict with a drinking problem and a history of domestic violence.’ ‘By that logic,’ he adds, ‘Wagga is full of Muslims.’

It is, however, always easier to point the finger than to reflect, and on that count at least, nothing ever changes.


Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).