Whatever the subject under discussion, we should always listen to experts. Yet we must make sure that their expertise is current.
Enter V.I. Lenin, who knew a thing or two about terrorism.
This although, as every Soviet schoolchild was taught, Lenin was opposed to individual terror. But the teachers never stressed the word ‘individual’, as they should have done.
For the great humanist only questioned the efficacy of the piecemeal murder of government officials. What he had no doubt about is the wholesale massacre of millions – that sort of thing worked like a dream, as far as Lenin was concerned.
True enough, when terrorism claims millions of victims, it does terrorise. But when a Sudanese Muslim drives a car through some cyclists, no one other than the cyclists themselves is really terrorised.
(A contortionist slap on my own back: didn’t I figure out the driver’s religion perfectly yesterday? Just kidding: everybody knew he had to be a Muslim.)
Even the odd explosion doesn’t change our lives much. A year ago a bomb went off at my local tube station, and I haven’t noticed any subsequent reduction in the size of crowds on the platforms.
So the pronouncement attributed to the past master of mass murder has a distinctly archaic ring to it. The purpose of terrorism isn’t to terrorise, certainly not just that.
But this doesn’t mean modern terrorism serves no purpose at all. It does, but the purpose is subtler than scaring a lot of people out of their wits.
The real purpose of terrorism is to disrupt, to subvert the normal course of life. And that purpose is achieved not by scaring the man in the street into changing his daily patterns, but by goading the government into precipitate action.
Take yesterday’s event, for example, which is trivial by the usual standards of Islamic terrorism: no one was killed, only two people were injured.
Yet both our national government and the London mayor Sadiq Khan have already announced they’re considering closing Parliament Square and all the streets around it to traffic.
Now, as a Londoner and a driver, I can anticipate the disaster that’ll befall London traffic if the proposed pedestrianisation goes into effect.
The Embankment is by far the most important thoroughfare linking southwest London, where millions of people live, with the rest of the city. Having it run into a dead end will wreak havoc on traffic, which is already diabolical.
If that happens, the act perpetrated by the Sudanese chap will have succeeded: life in the city will be disrupted, albeit in a rather trivial way.
Other forms of disruption are far from trivial. For the threat of terrorism makes Western governments act in decidedly un-, not to say anti-, Western ways.
In politics, Western ways are defined by the balance of power between the state and the individual: the more it tips in favour of the individual, the more Western the country is – and vice versa.
Every modern state seeks to empower itself at the expense of the individual, but in the West the state can’t just put its foot down at will. Traditional checks on state power can be eroded, but they can’t be discarded offhand.
And even erosion won’t proceed by itself – every time the state diminishes the power of the individual it has to come up with a credible excuse.
That’s why states and the people tend to feel about war differently: most people don’t like it, but most states do.
For war provides a ready-made excuse for the state to suspend or reduce some civil liberties: at a time of emergency the collective has to take precedence over the personal. Few people notice that, after the hostilities end, the state gets to keep some, if not all, of its supposedly temporary powers.
Although it’s conducted on a smaller scale, terrorism is like any war. It provides an easy excuse for the state to claim greater control over people’s lives. That’s by far the greatest outrage caused by terrorist acts, even those as seemingly insignificant as yesterday’s drive over bicycles.
Fighting terrorism is the pretext the state uses for empowering itself to monitor our movements, correspondence, phone calls, e-mails. It’s supposedly because of terrorism that Britain has more CCTV cameras than the rest of the world combined.
When some of us demur, we’re put to shame. Photographs of terrorism victims, their assorted body parts and weeping mothers are produced to condemn our crass insensitivity.
So what if CCTV catches an average Briton 70 times a day? Just think of those poor children blown to bits.
Rational arguments needn’t apply. Other methods of preventing terrorism, such as reducing the number of Muslim immigrants rather than increasing the number of spying devices, aren’t even mooted for fear of being accused of racism.
Racism, you understand, is no longer a crime against common decency or even a particular race. It’s now a crime against the state. Everyone is a racist (homophobe, misogynist, xenophobe, you name it) if the state says so – and the state says so if it senses even a minuscule threat to its power.
Fighting terrorism is a convenient pretext for the misconduct of foreign policy as well. Rather than facing up to foreign tyrants, our governments cravenly kowtow to them because this is supposed to be the only way of enlisting their help in the fight against terrorism.
The very terrorism, incidentally, that those tyrants sponsor. That’s like co-opting arsonists to fight fires, but our governments don’t mind.
In that spirit, successive US administrations have chosen to ignore that 15 out of the 19 Twin Towers terrorists were Saudis – God forbid the Saudis take offence and withdraw their anti-terrorist help.
One has to admit that terrorism achieves its real purpose, that of subverting Western ways by encouraging Western governments to act tyrannically at home and gutlessly abroad.
Just terrorising is sooooo yesterday. We live in a different world now, Comrade Lenin.