All considerable thinkers start with a problem. In the case of Philip Bobbitt, the problem is adumbrated in the title of his formidable new book: along with all the other aspects of civilised existence that terrorism threatens, it undermines the basis of liberal democracy, which is the consent of the governed to submit to the laws made on their behalf by their governors. These polities, which Bobbitt calls “states of consent”, have already undergone a profound metamorphosis from nation states to “market states”, according to the theory first put forward in his earlier work The Shield of Achilles. Now the globalised market state has come under attack by equally global “states of terror”, of which al-Qa’eda is the paradigm. The coercive measures that the market state has been forced to take in order to survive now endanger the consent on which the rule of law depends. So democracy is damned if it defends itself and damned if it doesn’t. This is Bobbitt’s paradox – and our problem.
The most striking thing about Terror and Consent is the uncompromising bluntness of its message. The cover already proclaims the need to junk most of what we think we know on the subject: “Almost every widely held idea we currently entertain about 21st century terrorism and its relationship to the wars against terror is wrong and must be thoroughly rethought.” He does not mean that the danger is now receding, let alone over, or that it is limited to damage to life and limb – he means that it is much greater than others have so far acknowledged. He quotes Lord Hoffmann, who in a celebrated judgement rejected the Blair Government’s right to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial: “Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community.” That terrorism does indeed pose such a threat is Bobbitt’s contention. He adds: “The main thing wrong with this conclusion… is that it omits one word at the end of the paragraph. That word is ‘yet’.” To those – such as the British Government under Gordon Brown – who think the whole notion of a “war on terror” is at best an unhelpful misnomer and at worst a gross exaggeration, Bobbitt has this to say: “We should make no mistake: this is war.”