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21 February 2000

How you, too, can be a terrorist

A bill now going through the Commons puts animal rights activists, GM crop saboteurs and anti-Saddam

By Nick Cohen

“Terrorist” has become the bluster of propagandists. Unlike “burglar,” or “murderer,” no lexicographer, judge or lecturer from the terrorism studies institutes that have sprung up over the freeish world can define it respectably. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary‘s “anyone who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation” is a limp stab that could be used against every state or movement that has gone to war or called out the riot squad. The same objection could be levelled against “the use of violence for political ends”, which features in various British anti-terrorism acts.

The term is so tainted with special pleading that dictionary compilers descend into the tautology that terrorism is terror (“the use of terror for the furthering of political ends”, Brewer’s Politics); while others desperately hope that etymology will provide clarity and tell us it was minted in the anti-Jacobin reaction to the French Revolution.

They neglect, however, to detail its full counter-revolutionary pedigree. The frequent instances of “terrorists” being denounced by the Third Reich, for example, and by the white dictatorships of southern Africa, are excluded from their pages, thus sparing readers uncomfortable thoughts about contemporary governments that make much of their vigour in the war against terrorism.

In his 1986 essay, Wanton Acts of Usage, Christopher Hitchens examined the then new phenomenon of terrorism studies in American government and academia. Not one of the cold war and anti-Palestinian experts he interviewed could explain what he meant by terrorism. Several admitted that their alleged discipline was founded on a meaningless concept. “This is a bit of a disgrace to language as well as politics,” concluded Hitchens. English was studded with dozens of accurate words from guerrilla to fascist, psychopath to assassin, which described different types of violence precisely and allowed rational argument about their application. “Terrorist”, by contrast, was “a convenience word, a junk word, designed to obliterate distinctions. It must be this that recommends it so much to governments with something to hide, to the practitioners of instant journalism, and to shady consultants.”

Britain’s market leader in the terrorism consulting trade is Professor Paul Wilkinson. Whenever a hijacked plane is stranded for days at Stansted or an unsourced newspaper report quotes unnamed security experts saying that unidentified IRA members have splintered to pose an unknowable “threat”, Wilkinson, from the Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, appears on the BBC or Sky to fill the slow, rolling news hours.

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The professor has prophetic powers that should bring him a job as an astrologer should he ever be thrown out of academia. “It is not difficult to assess the most likely targets in coming years,” he announced with lofty certainty in 1995. “Over half the attacks on property/facilities are likely to involve business or industrial premises, roughly 10 per cent are likely to involve diplomatic premises, and about 5 per cent will involve other government premises and military facilities.”

His definition of “terrorist” emphatically rejected the cliche about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom-fighter. “Guerrillas . . . can and often do fight according to conventions of war, taking and exchanging prisoners and respecting the rights of non-combatants. Terrorists place no limits on means employed and frequently resort to widespread assassination and the waging of general terror upon the indigenous civilian population.”

Although carpers can object – and this one will object – that Wilkinson was describing the bombings of Hiroshima and Dresden, every engagement of the German and Red armies on the Eastern Front and nearly all wars since 1945, it was nevertheless a relief to sight his island of precision in the sea of equivocation. Terrorists were war criminals.

In 1995, Wilkinson joined Lord Lloyd of Berwick, one of the most conservative of judges, to review terrorism legislation. Wilkinson provided specialist advice on the fanatics preparing to wage a “general terror” against the civilians of these islands. The judge decided how the law could be moulded to stop the massacres.

Anyone with a grasp of modern history might have expected them to recommend that the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1974, which was rushed through as a “temporary provision” after the Birmingham pub bombings, should be softened or repealed. Of the 7,000 people detained under its provisions, the vast majority were released without charge. The miscarriages of justice that this act authorised in Birmingham and Guildford destroyed the reputation of the judiciary.

The cold war was over and the Irish conflict had settled into a bickering stalemate. But Wilkinson and Lloyd ignored these blessings of a lucky age. The Labour government agreed with them. The bill that parliament is now endorsing – it reaches its report stage soon – says that terrorism is:

“the use or threat for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, action which involves serious violence against person or property, endangers the life of any person or creates a serious risk to the health and safety of the public or a section of the public.”

The italics are mine and are there to highlight:

(1) That a “terrorist” may be someone who “threatens” violence or is a serious “risk” to the public, but is not, when you actually get down to it, violent.

(2) That the new bill will go far beyond the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which confined its draconian provisions to Irish and international “terrorist” groups, and cover animal rights activists, road protesters, anyone else motivated by “ideology” and, in particular, anti-racists.

Liberals do not like to reflect that one reason why Britain has never had a mass fascist movement is that, in the thirties, seventies and nineties, immigrants and the left have stamped on the far right whenever it started its beatings and arson attacks. The protests against everyone from Mosley to the BNP were designed, in part, to attract publicity and push the police into taking racism seriously. But it would be a cosy rewriting of history to pretend that those who blocked the streets of the East End weren’t more than ready to use their fists if the need arose. The opponents of fascism will soon be “terrorists” and, like the Birmingham Six, will be held for days in the hope of extracting confessions true or otherwise.

(3) That the mention of “property” allows similarly stringent treatment of demonstrators who tear up genetically modified crops (even though not a jury in the land will convict them) or the disablers of Hawk aircraft at British Aerospace factories (who have also been acquitted) or farmers allied to the Countryside Alliance who drive livestock into a government building.

Even those who seek the servile life will be caught in the anti-terrorist web. If in the course of your work you meet someone you “suspect” is contributing money to a “terrorist” organisation, you could go to prison if you don’t inform the police. “Terrorists” not only include robust domestic dissidents, but all groups dedicated to the overthrow of “any government de facto or de jure“. You will be unable to argue that the government in question is a tyranny and is not even recognised as a legitimate administration by the Foreign Office.

As every critic has said, this clause might have led to the arrest of exiled African National Congress members and their supporters in the anti-apartheid movement. Given that Lloyd is charged with defending liberty and that Wilkinson defined terrorism as indiscriminate slaughter of the innocents, the measure, is, to use Hitchens’s words, a bit of a disgrace.

Until 1996, Tony Blair deplored the old and far less extensive Prevention of Terrorism Act and its powers of detention without trial as “contrary to the principles of British justice”. Silly Labour supporters – I was one – once admired him for that.

Last month, when Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democrats honourably developed the reasoning of the Blair of five years ago, the Tories mocked him for being “daft”. Charles Clarke, new Labour’s complacent Home Office minister, agreed. It is not as if the common law did not include numerous and expanding provisions against criminal damage, conspiracy, grievous bodily harm and worse. Liberty (formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties) said that the sweeping definition of terrorism will produce a twin-track legal system. Criminals will have stronger common-law rights if greed rather than political conviction propels them to break into an arms factory – but, I suppose, it is principle, not avarice, that frightens our leaders.

In its defence, the government points to real threats from the Continuity IRA and the wilder shores of Islam. But these explanations cannot tell us why environmentalists are now deemed a threat to national security. A wider probing of the reasons behind the terrorism boom is therefore in order.

The prohibition of groups dedicated to fighting dictatorships is suggestive. As the Afghan hijack affair showed, Britain and the rest of Fortress Europe are moving towards branding all refugees “bogus” however real their persecution may be. In these circumstances, it is important to grant the protection of the law to all countries, rather than admit that some are criminal regimes that produce genuine asylum-seekers.

Beyond that must lie the shock that the end of the cold and Irish wars has brought to many. My First Law of Bureaucratic Self-Preservation holds that “reasons will always be found to justify the survival of emergency measures long after the extraordinary circumstances which produced them have vanished”. (My second is that when the first law kicks in – watch yourself.)

The “intelligence community” needed to find new threats to keep itself in work and the Prevention of Terrorism and Official Secrets acts in operation. Governments, too, find an atmosphere of perpetual menace useful. It legitimises state secrecy and inspires the population to show an unaccustomed deference to the leaders who protect them.

The only decent definition of terrorism is quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes from the Reverend Sydney Smith, who said in the 19th century that a terrorist was “one who entertains, professes or tries to awaken or spread a feeling of terror or alarm; an alarmist, a scaremonger”.

A better description of our political class and security establishments has yet to be written.

The writer is a columnist on the “Observer”