"Terrorism is first and foremost a problem of public security. But its defeat can only emerge from a battle of ideas against its ideological underpinnings"
The aftermath of a 1981 Red Army Faction bombing: Marxist terrorists of the 1970s were also home-grown and foreign-trained (photo: US Government)
The writing has been on the wall for so long that it has already begun to fade. The bloody trail of Islamist terrorism is the single most insidious threat to our free societies’ globalised existence. We remove our shoes, leave our water-bottles behind and go through tedious security screening at airports because of 9/11, the Bali bombings, the shoe bomber, the Madrid railway station bombings, 7/7, Mumbai and the rest. Why are people so surprised, then, at the Paris massacre that rocked France and the world on November 13?
The answer is that Western societies have long chosen to respond to this threat by ignoring its causes. President George W. Bush called it a global war on terrorism and his successor, Barack Obama, prefers to label it a struggle against violent extremism. These anodyne, politically correct terms obscure the nature of the threat our societies face. Terrorism is a means to an end; it is not a political platform. Terrorism is first and foremost a problem of public security, but its defeat can only emerge from a battle of ideas against its ideological underpinnings.
Our past experience with terrorism offers important lessons and insights for the way forward. It has threatened the fabric of free societies in Western Europe before. In the 1970s, waves of terror attacks were perpetrated by self-styled revolutionaries who were home-grown but often foreign-trained. These groups wrought havoc and left a trail of death while rubbing shoulders with terrorists from around the globe at training camps run by the Middle East’s foremost state sponsors of terrorism, often with Soviet backing.
The numerical strength of hardcore revolutionaries who were ready to go underground and murder their way to their Marxist utopia was never significant but was given a force multiplier by its numerous apologists, who distanced themselves from the violence but not from the ideology behind it. This mass of sympathisers exists today as it did in the 1970s. They are reluctant to put a healthy distance between themselves and the murderers because, deep down, they are ideological fellow-travellers.
Two factors contributed to the defeat of revolutionary Marxists in Western Europe. Their murderous rampage eventually immunised societies against the lure of their apologists, who were belatedly but eventually marginalised. The empowerment of state authorities to fight terrorism through emergency laws did the rest.
The strength of Islamist terrorists today similarly arises from the vast territory of moral ambiguity in which they are able to operate within our societies. While those willing to join their ranks may be counted in the thousands at most in the West, there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands more who excuse, justify, contextualise, trivialise and apologise for the terrorists and their actions. These enablers have no blood on their hands, technically. But their inability to categorically condemn violence taints them with moral complicity. Their insidious arguments must be energetically exposed and rejected.
Nor will our law enforcement and intelligence services be able to win this battle unless they are given the means to do so. Civil liberties will have to be curtailed, as they were four decades ago, under similar terms. Such suspensions of liberties have precedents, and require time limits and checks and balances. But they are indispensable. As the late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau quipped to critics of his response to French separatists, “There are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed. But it’s more important to keep law and order.” (Does his son and successor, Justin Trudeau, agree?)
Such measures can address the threat in our own midst. But like the 1970s revolutionaries, Islamic terrorists have the backing of states and rely on safe havens where they train and regroup.
If there was one shortcoming in the response to Marxist terrorism, it was the inability to confront and combat its foreign backers. During the Cold War Europe never capitulated to the Soviet Union (though it occasionally wavered). But it took a much more morally ambiguous approach to those in the Middle East who financed and sponsored international terrorism for three decades.
The risk today, as French President François Hollande mobilises for his own war against Islamic State, is the same. Europe may turn the screw on home-grown terrorism. It might lose patience with terrorism’s soft apologists. But unless it embraces a similarly uncompromising stance against those in the Middle East who have made the rise of Islamic State and its allure possible, it will not be able to banish the threat of Islamist terror from our own midst.