There can be no doubt that, when terrorist attacks occur, the level and quality of political discourse on related issues change immediately. This is only natural: the urgency and fear that must characterise the aftermath of an atrocity can not but colour events, ideas and policies in a different light than the more abstract, ex ante concern for a blast that might not come. In some cases, it can even be a good thing, encouraging politicians to seek genuine compromise beyond the realm of petty points-scoring; certainly, cross-party agreement on serveral contentious issues of national security law and policy has been fairly rapidly forthcoming in the wake of what happened in London; the extent to which this should be applauded is, of course, a matter for the analysis of the detail of that agreement itself, and not the alacrity with which it was reached. However, in most cases, it would be hard to conclude that the quality of political debate is improved by the changed "psycho-sociological" conditions that necessarily acompany an actual attack.
This conclusion was confirmed yesterday in no uncertain terms. An independent thinktank on foregin affairs, Chatham House, published a series of brief reports on the topic of Security, Terrorism and the UK (available here). The first of these, entitled "Riding Pillion for Tackling Terrorism is a High-Risk Policy", co-written by one of the leading authorities on liberal state responses to terrorism, Professor Paul Wilkinson, has been met with much righteous indignation by the UK government. In the most critical passage, after noting that the general UK policies of "Prevention, Pursuit, Protection and Preparedness" are "eminently sensible", the authors go on to suggest that:
A key problem with regard to implementing 'Prevention' and 'Pursuit' is that the UK government has been conducting counter-terrorism policy 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US, not in the sense of being an equal decision-maker, but rather as riding as pillion passenger compelled to leave the steering to the ally in the driving seat. There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the Al-Qaeda network's propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, causing a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, and deflected resources and assistance that could have been deployed to assist the Karzai government and to bring bin Laden to justice. Riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign.
These remarks take on more significance when considered in the light of the report as a whole, much of which focuses on the skill and experience of the UK armed forces in dealing with domestic terrorism. And the report can hardly be said to be critical of the fact that the UK has taken a "leading role" recently in the fight against international terrorism; quite the contrary, in fact - the only criticism in this regard is aimed at the relatively laissez-faire attitude to the promotion and funding of terrorism in the Middle East in London during the nineties. The report thus makes, in a tone that certainly doesn't smack of disapproval, the utterly commonsensical observation that:
The UK is at particular risk because it is the closest ally of the United Staes, has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and has taken a leading role in international intelligence, police and judicial cooperation against Al-Qaeda an in efforts to suppress its finances.
The criticism, then, is emphatically not that the UK has taken strong action against international terrorism (as anyone familiar with Wilkinson's work should know immediately); rather, it is the manner in which this action that has been taken, the manner in which decision-making power has been surrendered, that comes under (fairly moderate) attack.
All of which makes the unsophisticated, even shrill, response from the UK government particularly disappointing. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, professed to be "astonished that Chatham House is now saying that we should not have stood shoulder to shoulder with our long-standing allies in the United States" (Cowards!) and that "The time for excuses for terrorism is over" (Appeasers!). Perhaps even less helpfully, the Defence Secretary John Reid then weighed in with the following contribution:
The idea that somehow by running away from the school bully, then the bully will not come after you is a thesis that is known to be completely untrue by every kid in the playground and it is also refuted by every piece of historical evidence that we have.
This is lazy, lazy thinking; too lazy, I am afraid, for such obviously intelligent men. The unfortunate conclusion can only be that these responses, and others like them - designed, as they are, to put a stop to reasoned debate and critique through shrill finger-pointing and crass reductionism - must be judged on that particularly unpleasant propaganda scale that runs from the downright dishonest to the cynically manipulative. Take your pick.