Terrible though it was, the Manchester terror strike will pass into oblivion. That is the key lesson which the West has refused to learn, ever since the attacks in America on September 11, 2001, dragged nations into the uncharted wilds of world history.
Life in America is back to normal: It has been so for a long while. So will life return to normal in Britain, which recovered swiftly enough from its worst terror attack, in London, on July 7, 2005.
On the other side of the civilisational divide, the terrorists, too, are behaving normally. Organised groups, controlled logistically and financially from abroad, are mounting attacks on every conceivable aspect of civic life in the West and elsewhere. So are lone wolves who receive their infernal inspiration from the Internet. To them, this is normality.
From the use of a truck to mow down civilians in Nice on July 14 last year — Bastille Day, no less — to this latest outrage in one of Britain’s most cosmopolitan cities, what is chilling is the growing normality of terrorism.
There is an attack, people get killed, flowers are laid at the spot, politicians make stirring speeches, the living return to their diurnal lives — and terrorists prepare for the next attack and more flowers that mark a return to normality for both their victims and themselves.
These normal times must end if terror has to be fought.
If terrorism has to be stopped, two truths must prevail.
The first truth is that victimised societies must change their peacetime laws to contend with what really is a war outside their borders and a civil war within them. The second truth is that terrorists must understand that their frenzy, at once murderous and suicidal, will not result in the territorial capture of the West and other secular polities. That is because status quo societies possess the military power, including the nuclear might, to obliterate the nefarious geographical origins of war being waged on them by international outlaws.
Having covered, as a journalist before, terror attacks in Indonesia in the opening years of this century, it is my belief that only a combination of these two truths can prevail against terror becoming a normal fact of life. Indonesia has used stringent security operations against suspected terrorists to send out the message that they shall not win because they cannot win.
Consider the first truth.
No matter how many terrorist incidents occur, Western societies are politically averse to using preventive detention laws, including those that preclude access to the courts, which can enable the security authorities to deter criminals before they mount an attack. To do so would be to go against the argument that no one can be punished for a crime that he has not committed — even if the authorities are reasonably assured that he possesses both the intention and the capability to commit that crime. (Indonesia’s pre-emptive moves against terrorists seek to make up for the absence of security laws that were abolished following the downfall of the authoritarian Suharto regime.)
Historically, preventive detention laws go against the visceral Western liberal aversion to any measures that recall the draconian political means which Nazism or Stalinism used to legitimate its strangulating grip on a disenfranchised people.
This fear is eminently understandable, but what is obvious today is that constitutional states are not Nazi or Stalinist. It is terrorism that represents the religious version of the secular fascism unleashed by Germany and the totalitarian excesses perpetrated by the former Soviet Union.
In the circumstances, it is up to Western populations to decide whether they wish to move beyond their liberal parameters to be safe in an illiberal world.
If not, they should be prepared for the timeless war of attrition that terror has declared on them.
Attack after attack, citizens will have to face up to the reality that their states cannot protect them. But that is because they have not mandated their states to protect them through laws that help prevent terror and not just respond to it. That response is too little and too late in any case, because there hardly is any way to punish a man who has blown up dozens of people along with himself.
THE TERRORISTS’ WORLD
Terrorists, too, should beware.
They can hit liberal countries with impunity, but a time will come when those societies will declare war on them. The American response to 9/11 transformed the political map of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda had attacked America, but it did not succeed in bringing Americans into its religious fold. Instead, Afghanistan became a part of a re-Americanised Asian landscape. On hindsight, even to Al-Qaeda, the spectacular attacks on New York’s Twin Towers did not work.
The more that secular societies are hit, the greater will be their reason to band together to exterminate the scourge.
It is this military dimension that should give terrorists reason to pause even though their determination is not in doubt. No one, not even criminals seeking to win absolution for their earthly sins by carrying out mass murder that they hope will win them forgiveness in the hereafter, can believe rationally that the rest of the world will sit by idly.
Unfortunately, the response will include morally uncomfortable weapons such as unmanned drones which have been known to wreak havoc on civilian populations. Yet, in time, those populations will turn against the terrorist upstarts whose actions have brought retribution down on innocents.
In the meanwhile, innocents on both sides of this war will suffer.
Terrorists will not win, but civilians will suffer.
It would be much better if the West were to be equipped to fight this war. Changing laws would help to ensure the ultimate purpose of laws: to keep the peace.