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The Predictable Casualties of Counterterrorism

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Photo by Kevin Krejci | CC BY 2.0

Julian Cadman, the 7-year old Australian killed in last weeks’ terror attack in Barcelona, was a predictable casuality. Western political leaders can rise above the cycles of violence that produce such attacks anytime they like, but choose not to, essentially guaranteeing an endless stream of victims.

Such victims are then used to justify further military and counterterrorist responses of the kind that produce more terrorists and more terror attacks. The regret expressed by policymakers in the west who bemoan each wave of victims while doing nothing to address the causes is profoundly dishonest.

The fundamental purpose of terrorism is to spread fear, to paralyse the regular functioning of society and to divide it amongst itself by breeding paranoia. If political leaders do not prevent this paralysis and paranoia from overtaking dispassionate judgement, terrorism achieves its goal.

In the sixteen or so years since the 9/11 attacks, western political leaders have done nothing but tell the world to be afraid of terrorists. The mainstream western media has done nothing but carry on about the dire perils of terrorism, like the world’s largest PR service for terrorists everywhere.

Not only does the amount of scare mongering that surrounds terrorism allow it to achieve its goals, it acts as one big advertisement to potential recruits everywhere that terrorism works. Look at how effective terrorism is, says this media hype, the west is beside itself with fear and loathing.

In the west, counterterrorism narratives tend heavily to assume that terrorists are fundamentally evil, and that as such cannot be understood as actors following a rationale that can be studied, analysed and altered. This prevents us from being proactive in understanding what motivates terrorists.

We do not need to agree with terrorism to try to understand what drives them. The willingness to try to understand another other point of view, regardless of the savagery or brutality of the person holding it, is a strength. It allows us to understand who we are dealing with.

In the case of Nazi ideology, we don’t need to subscribe to white supremacism to know that Hitler developed his racial theories as a way of taking his problems out on other people. Rather than accept responsibility for himself as an adult and as a social actor, Hitler blamed his own personal, economic and social misery on people who had control over neither his emotions or over government policy.

So too in the case of other kinds of extremists. We don’t need to subscribe to extremism to try to understand what drives people to it. Oftentimes it is mentioned that Islamic extremists are upset about the treatment of Muslims and Arabic peoples. Is this an unfair or irrational concern?

Hardly. It may not be unfair or irrational, but such concerns are problematic for the west because they oblige us to consider our own role in the situation. There are no prizes for guessing why western political leaders might not be in a hurry to look themselves in the mirror. We who live with the wisdom of neoliberal policy on the domestic front can certainly attest to this fact.

Muslims and Arabic peoples do often find themselves under far less than ideal living conditions thanks directly or indirectly to the policies of Western political elites. The Israel-Palestine conflict especially is the elephant in the room whenever someone pontificates about superior western values. Abu Ghraib. The destruction of Iraq. We do well to remember there was no ISIS previous to 2003.

The fact of the matter is that the conflict over terrorism is not much different to the conflict over the single plastic spade in the kindergarten sandpit between two children who can’t share. The child who wants the spade hits the one who has it, and takes it, and makes up a sob story for the adult who rushes to the wails of the aggrieved party about how the other stole it and forced him to violence.

The difference in principle between that situation and mainstream counterterrorism narratives is negligible. Someone stole our spade and now we must extract righteous vengeance. Besides enabling more of this same, a war between Islam and the west was exactly what Bin Laden wanted.

For their part, political leaders in the west still want to give it to him even in death, because oil, and a because a continuing source of stupendous profits for the armament industry, and because the petrodollar regime upon which the artificial value of the US dollar now depends.

That these mean suffering for many in the Arab and Muslim worlds, especially as the petrodollar system depends on the continued cooperation of terrorist states of Israel and Saudi Arabia, with their extremist ideologies of Zionism and Wahabiism underwriting settler colonialism, aggressive militarism and habitual disregard for human rights, is a most regrettable given.

It is therefore the reckless commitment of Western elites to oil, and the armaments industry, and the petrodollar that is now the major cause of terrorist attacks in the west. It is the patent disingenuousness of Western elites in the face of these known facts that guarantees the continuance of bloody atrocities such as those visited lately on Barcelona, the latest in a long list.

If terrorism persists, the war on terrorism was lost. If society has closed ranks and is terrified of outsiders, then the terrorists have won. In the face of these facts, tough talk rings hollow, as does the scare mongering about predictable consequences when Western elites persistently prove themselves incapable of rising above the logic of their purported adversaries. From the margins they all look alike.

If we can see something terrible coming, we can at least try to stop it from happening. If we can at least try to stop something terrible from happening and don’t, we’re complicit. We can see future atrocities coming, because we can see the vicious cycles of blame and retribution that give rise to them. As long as we fail to rise above those vicious cycles, and in fact feed them in the name of short term political expediency, death at the hands of forseeable violence will remain our legacy for many more Julian Cadmans to come.

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Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne. He is studying moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating. Twitter: @itesau  

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