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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

15 July 2005

EU anti-terror measures

Responding to the events in London, the EU’s interior ministers agreed on a series measures to make Europe safer from terrorist attacks. The most conspicuous of their decisions decreed that EU companies should monitor phone conversations and internet traffic, though they also agreed to cooperate in stemming the recruitment of terrorists, to tackle terrorism finance, and to promote common standards for countries with IDs (1).

Although Europe does not share America’s hostility and skepticism towards government power, these laws are bound to have an effect on the European peoples and their perception of how their liberties are being curtailed in the fight against terror. But this conversation about how best to protect Europe from terrorism is doomed to be muddled, reflecting an overall confusion about terrorism’s motives and strategy.

To begin with, anti-terror measures, whether in America or Europe, contradict the spirit that Western leaders have proclaimed following every terrorist attack—namely, that “we won’t change our lives because of the terrorists.” This message treats terrorism as a criminal nuisance that can be contained. At the same time, the anti-terror measures indicate that, over time, Western societies will have to make fundamental adaptations to their way of life, settling in a perpetual state of neither war nor peace. Both views—of change and continuity—cannot coexist for too long without making apparent their inherent contradiction.

For many in the West, this seems like an admission of defeat; “changing our lives means that the terrorists win” is a typical mantra. It is doubtful whether this is the correct way to look at terrorism; it is counterintuitive that changing the way that Westerners live their lives is more important for the terrorists than altering the way they live their own lives. It is more likely that the terrorists use fear to induce political change abroad, not in the West; as David Fromkin wrote over thirty years ago,

“Whereas military and revolutionary actions aim at a physical result, terrorist actions aim at a psychological result. But even that psychological result is not the final goal. Terrorism is violence used in order to create fear; but it is aimed at creating fear in order that the fear, in turn, will lead somebody else—not the terrorist—to embark on some quite different program of action that will accomplish whatever it is that the terrorist really desires” (2).

In that sense, fundamentally changing Western societies is an intermediate goal; the ultimate hope, as best we can gauge it, is to disentangle Western foreign policy from Muslim lands. The generation of fear, then, is supposed either to cause Western governments to overreact (and hence to lose a war by overstretch), or turn inward and hence lose before they head to war.

Regardless of whether peoples in Western societies believe that terrorists are fighting them for who they are or what they do, there has to be an admission that Islamic terrorism is connected to Western policies in the Middle East (even in the most light version of this argument, one has to accept that the long standing support for regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt has created an airtight political space where extremism is bred).

Which brings us back to the anti-terror measures. A more complete appraisal of the war on terror would begin from asking whether Western societies extract enough benefits from the foreign policies they pursue that so enrage many Muslims. Although it is too crude to compare human lives with the price of oil, Western societies will, sooner or later, ask whether the price of foreign policy is worth the cost of terror. Even better, Western societies will ask whether they can extract the same (or similar) benefits in a way that minimizes the backlash that leads to terror.

It is within that cost-benefit nexus that the West can find the balance between security and civil liberty—to simply deny that there are fundamental tradeoffs in the way we live and in the way we conduct our foreign policies is only to delay the presentation of the bill.

References: (1) “EU agrees new security measures,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4677241.stm; (2) David Fromkin, “The Strategy of Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs, July 1975

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