In 2004 the journalist Adam Curtis made an excellent series of films for the BBC called The Power Of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear. In those films he made the point that, back in the 1950s, politicians ran for office with a positive agenda, promising to make our lives better through forward-thinking initiatives – by the 2000s the message had changed to a promise to protect us all from the dark and unquantifiable threat of international terrorism. This week’s terror alert has shown that, while the political colours in both the White House and Downing Street may be different from the Bush/Blair era Curtis talked about, the 21st century message of ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ is never too far from the surface.
In the wake of the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ voices have inevitably been raised in the UK and America, calling for tighter worldwide security measures and a heightened state of alert to protect against the global machinery of terror. Just as inevitably, there will soon be calls for more domestic legislation giving ever-greater powers to the organisation of government. Mercifully, so far, the governments on both sides of the Atlantic have shown a little restraint in their tone but, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote in this weekend’s Observer, how much pressure will it take from vested interests like the head of MI6 before the encouraging Lib Dem and Conservative noises in Opposition are brushed aside when it comes to decisions over, for example, the control orders regime? A sensible, informed debate about the balance between security and liberty would be most useful right now.
I don’t wish to belittle the very real danger that the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ presented. There can be little doubt that there are all manner of ‘terrorist cells’ trying their hardest to garner the worldwide publicity that a major atrocity would have afforded them. Where I struggle is with the suggestion that there is a highly organised global network of terror, masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, operating under the banner of ‘al-Qa’ida’.
I’m no natural enthusiast for the conspiracy theory. I’m certain that NASA landed on the Moon, that the death of Diana was a tragic accident and that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the man who pulled the trigger in Dallas on that November day in 1963. Similarly I don’t believe that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 outrage, other than through its incompetence.
Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that the Bush administration used the fallout from the attack on the World Trade Center to unite the western world against a common enemy, in the same way Ronald Reagan painted the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union. Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the global arms and oil corporations used this fear to push their hard-edged neo-conservative agenda. The damage, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was both massive and utterly counter-productive. The onus is now on politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that the climate of fear which led to those campaigns is not fostered again in pursuit of an enemy which bears no relation to the image painted by those whose motives are considerably less than pure.