Ken Livingstone went on Question Time and offended some people last week, which shouldn’t come as a surprise by now. Not only because he has made build a career on offending people, but because when it comes to discussing terrorism, a lot of people seem to think that blazing moral outrage is the only way of ensuring everyone knows Just How Bad They Think Terrorism Is, as if the biggest danger facing us is that we might accidentally become a nation of apologists.
Take the tremendous knee-jerk reaction to Livingstone saying that the 7/7 terrorists ‘gave their lives’ for their beliefs. ‘WHAT???’ responded a twittersphere of caps lock, punctuation-heavy outrage, ‘they didn’t give THEIR lives, they TOOK OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES!!!’
I pointed out to a couple of people that, the truth of the second bit notwithstanding, it is an indisputable fact that the bombers sacrificed their lives too. Nobody’s trying to glorify it, least of all Livingstone, who as Mayor of London responded to the 7/7 bombings with a speech that was roundly applauded as summing up the mood of the city and the nation, and which incidentally used the exact same phrase without attracting any criticism. And why should it? Giving your life is a requirement for a suicide bomber (the clue’s in the name) and if we’re going to understand terrorism we do actually have to get our heads around that terrorists think they have something worth sacrificing themselves for.
One of the Offended People angrily argued that:
You ‘give your life’ if you put yourself in a position where others might kill you or where you kill yourself, NOT when you set out deliberately to kill others.
So we’re not in fact arguing about whether they ‘gave their lives’ in a literal sense at all, but about the phrase itself – as if you have to earn it through some romantic notion of noble self-sacrifice. That’s understandable – the phrase has religious connotations and associations with remembrance; Danbury Mint make a bronze sculpture of ‘the Brave British Tommy’ who ‘gave his life’ for King and Country, though ironically he probably gave his life considerably less willingly than your average extremist and in fact was pretty much forced by King and Country to give his life so it might be more accurate to say they took it from him, but that sort of sentiment makes people feel awkward at remembrance services. Still, there’s one damning distinction you can make about the 7/7 suicide bombers – their lives were never taken from them.
Except… in a less literal sense they were. Their lives were taken at the point they were indoctrinated into the twisted worldview that convinced them that these atrocities were justified. To think otherwise is to assume that they were born evil and, by extension, to believe that there is no solution to the problem of terrorism – the ‘shit happens’ explanation. Well, this shit doesn’t just happen, and understanding what drives people to extremism lies at the heart of stopping it from happening. That does actually mean looking at extremists with some awareness of context, which the Sun will label ‘sympathy for jihadis’, but which anyone actually looking to find a long term solution would call learning lessons from history.
That’s a distinction that eluded Matt Forde on Question Time. Ken Livingstone’s view that the 7/7 bombings were a direct consequence of Tony Blair’s actions in Iraq is neither illogical or original, but it got Forde worked up into a state of righteous indignation as he accused Livingstone of trying to ‘absolve’ terrorists, fundamentally failing to recognise that seeking explanations is utterly different to pleading absolution, and apportioning blame to a leader who ignored advice an exacerbated an unstable situation doesn’t in any way lesson the blame that lies with the perpetrators.
Plenty of others want to obliterate the shadow of Western foreign policy from our collective act of finger pointing. The aftermath of the Paris attacks saw shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden saying we shouldn’t see terrorist acts as always being a reaction to what the West do, bizarrely adding that it ‘risks infantilising the terrorists’ when ‘they are adults entirely responsible for what they do’ – as if the fact that the terrorists have a choice not to be terrorists means we can’t possibly consider their motives. Should we be careful not to see Cameron’s proposed bombing campaign as a reaction to the Paris attacks, because it risks infantilising him?
Emma Reynolds MP competed to be even more smugly Completely Appalled By Terrorists And Anyone Who Doesn’t Also Direct Their Full Appalledness At Them when she asked if Cameron agreed that ‘full responsibility for the attacks in Paris lies solely with the terrorists and any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West or France’s military intervention in Syria is not only wrong, disgraceful, but also should be condemned?’ earning her that half-pissed sleep talking noise that indicates approval from the Tory benches, even though her tautology-laden question didn’t really have much of a point, except to gently stab the leader of her own party in the back and toady up to David Cameron – who duly replied that the half-pissed sleep talking was an indication of just how right she was, a condescending note of gratitude in his voice.
You bet he was grateful. Nobody stands to gain so much from the outraged objection to ‘any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West‘. If his proposed airstrikes in Syria go ahead, it’s an attitude that places him entirely above reproach, whatever the consequences – because even while experts are say bombing will make the situation worse, that airstrikes are playing into the hands of ISIS, and that Cameron’s case for the strikes contains ‘straightforward deceit’, we won’t be allowed to mention any of that if there are repercussions. After a terrorist attack, any such criticism could be shut down as a disgraceful attempt to blame the West, to absolve the terrorists, and to justify their atrocities. So the Prime Minister can do what he likes and blow the consequences, because his critics are all jihadi sympathisers and if a responsible adult becomes an extremist it’s nothing to do with him.
And so the cycle goes on. Cameron blithely talks about ‘learning from the mistakes of Iraq’ without acknowledging any connection between fourteen years of military action in the Middle East and the fact that we’re less secure than ever. When the worst happens, he has a wall of moral outrage to hide behind, the truth that terrorism can never be justified merging with the outright lie that the West can never be blamed.
Unless, perhaps, we’re prepared to offend a few people.