The new stupidity in geopolitics

Nothing and nobody can stop bombs going off. No citizen, no police force, no army, no government and no global military alliance can prevent a determined suicide bomber

from blowing himself up. It will happen and innocent people will die as a result, horribly, as they do on the roads, from drugs and alcohol, or from natural disasters — again without responsible authority being able to stop it.

What is recent is the admission of this truism into the mainstream of government under the rubric of “terrorism”. This week two outgoing presidents, George Bush and Pervez Musharraf, defined their terms of office in relation to terror. Bush did so in his final state of the union message on Jan. 28 and Musharraf that same day in London during a charm offensive prior to next month’s elections.

To Bush, the “war on terror” is the ruling mantra of his politics of fear. Since 9/11 gave a prop to his weakening presidency, his language has scaled new heights. It has validated every internal repression and every external war. “He who is not with us is against us,” he cries.

As the sociologist Ulrich Beck has written, “properly exploited, a novel risk is always an elixir to an ailing leader”. Nobody disputes that there are killer cells at large in the world, most of them proclaiming various Islamist creeds. It is the job of intelligence agencies and the police to catch as many as they can. After a hesitant start, they appear to be quite good at it. Some bombs will get through but they will not be deterred by draconian laws, any more than by machine gun-toting policemen in Downing Street and London-Heathrow airport. Robust societies can handle this admittedly intermittent threat. Only weak ones will capitulate to it.

The menace of these killers lies not in their firepower but in their capacity to distort the judgment and commitment to freedom of politicians too cowardly to bear on their shoulders the burden of risk. In two weeks’ time, the fragile democracy of Pakistan will defy the bombers and hold an election prior, it is hoped, to some version of democratic rule. Such communities will defy a probable burst of terror bombs only if their leaders stop setting “terrorists” on a pedestal and using language that exaggerates their capacity, as Bush puts it, “to oppose the advance of freedom”.

It is leaders, not bombers, who have the power to balk the advance of freedom. Already those leaders have used the war on terror to introduce the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay and a $1.5 trillion war in Iraq. In Pakistan they have used it as an excuse for emergency rule, the imprisonment of senior judges, and the provocation of unprecedented insurgency in the north-west frontier territories. In Britain leaders have used the war as an excuse for 42-day detention without trial, and not one but two contested military occupations of foreign soil.

This so-called war on terror has filled the pockets of those profiting from it. It has killed thousands, immiserated millions and infringed the liberty of hundreds of millions. The only rough justice it has delivered is to ruin the careers of those who propagated it. Tony Blair was driven to early resignation. Bush has been humiliated and Musharraf’s wretched rule brought close to an overdue end. It may be an ill wind that blows no good, but it is hardly enough. — The Guardian