18 March 2006

Tough on the causes of terrorism?

By Rupert Read

I was recently assaulted, for no reason. I was cycling on Marriott's Way, when a teenage lad punched me in the face, hard, as I cycled by. My girlfriend and I phoned the police: they came to find us in a patrol car, which was unfortunate, given that the kid who assaulted me was on foot, on a cycle-path!

But however well the police were resourced, and however effectively they responded to crimes, it wouldn't actually solve the problem. What is really needed is to prevent this kind of mindless violence. What is needed - and this isn't easy, nor is it quick - is to end the societal malaise that makes some young people want nothing more than to punch a stranger in the face.

New Labour once had a slogan, a slogan we've heard little of recently: 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'. People resort to crime because they are poor in an individualistic society which appears above all to value wealth, because they are not encouraged to value neighbours and strangers.

Being 'tough on crime' is pointless unless one is prepared to be tough on crime's causes. It's pointless tackling the symptoms while ignoring the underlying disease. We need a real sense of community again. We need what Tony Blair is reluctant to countenance: redistribution of wealth. What community can someone living in socially-deprived parts of Mile Cross feel with relatively well-off total strangers from 'the Golden Triangle'? Two worlds collide, on Marriott's Way.

What real sense of community can any of us have with the super-rich: Rupert Murdoch, Madonna, the Duke of Devonshire?

If Britain fought a war on poverty, and gave people shared goals to believe in, crime would fall drastically. That would be: tackling the causes of crime.

And that's why campaigns like End child poverty - a campaign, supported by the EDP, to transform the lives of the 3.6 million British children living under the official poverty line - are so important. This campaign provides a lead where perhaps the government is not doing.

Now, what about terrorist crime? If we were going to be 'Tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism', what would we do differently?

Well, we might start by acknowledging where our own country takes part in terrorism. The Oxford Dictionary defines terrorism as a "policy of seeking to obtain political demands by violence and intimidation". Remember 'Shock and Awe'? Remember the systematic terrorisation - the torture - of prisoners in Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo, and more recently the shameful photos of British squaddies found guilty of humiliating and torturing Iraqi civilians? Say no more.
Next, we might look deeply to see what turns someone into a non-state terrorist (e.g. a suicide-bomber). What drives people to such despair that they turn themselves into human bombs?

Maybe the grinding poverty suffered by most people in the non-Western world. Maybe feeling that there is something hypocritical in the West's insistence that we (including Israel) can have nuclear WMDs, but if you people ever try to get your hands on WMDs, we will annihilate you. Maybe the West's propping up of human-rights-abusing regimes across the globe, provided that their leaders are willing to do our bidding and sell us their oil. Maybe a searing sense of injustice at the seemingly-endless U.S. military presence in the Middle East, at the killing of a million Iraqis by US/UK sanctions in the 90s, and of over 100,000 Iraqis since March 2003; above all, at the vicious occupation of Palestine by the (US-sponsored) Israeli army.

Maybe it is understandable then why ordinary people no different at birth from you or I become 'terrorists'. If you'd been brought up in a refugee camp, seen your parents humiliated daily, been deprived of economic opportunity, and given no effective non-violent outlet for your sense of injustice, maybe you too would have despaired.

The truth is sometimes uncomfortable: it is our (Britain's and America's) unjust foreign polices - crucially, our propping up of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine - which are a pre-eminent cause of non-state terrorism.

If global society fought a war on poverty, injustice and oppression, terrorist crime would fall drastically. That would be: being tough on the causes of terrorism. This week's Indonesian earthquake brought back memories of our world's wonderful response to the Boxing Day tsunami. Would it not be just as wonderful to pre-empt future terrorism; for instance by providing aid to the developing world on an unheard of scale? Let's Make Poverty History. Worldwide.