Nick Cohen

The uses of terror

The uses of terror
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I mean no disrespect to the dead when I say that Islamist terror in the developed world can seem a pathetic affair. Instead of fanatics executing elaborate plots to attack the Twin Towers and Pentagon, we have 'lone wolves' radicalised online, who more often than not turn out to be mentally deficient losers, rather than grand villains executing an intricately planned conspiracy. There is a temptation to dismiss the killers as freaks. Like violent storms, they just happen. And like violent storms, there is little you can say about them and even less you can do to stop them.

If it ever made sense, dismissiveness is now a clearly inadequate response. A little fear goes a long way. While we may have seen nothing like the 9/11 attacks in the last 15 years, actual violence and the fear of worse to come is moulding societies. The propagandists of dictatorship are the most blatant exploiters of other people's deaths. They use murder to brainwash their subjects at home and their fellow travellers abroad. Under the Tsars, Bolshevism and now Putin’s mixture of gangster capitalism and orthodox nationalism, hatred of the West has always been a defining feature of Russian ideology. When a Turkish police officer killed a Russian diplomat in Ankara this week - yelling 'Don’t forget Aleppo!' moments after the murder - Russia’s politicians and lickspittle 'journalists' instantly blacked out his real motives so they could fit him into their anti-Western story.

Even by the abysmal standards of Russian propaganda, the response to the assassination was breathtaking. It was either the result of Western protests about the Russian destruction of Aleppo or the direct result of a plot by 'Nato secret services'. Despite helping Donald Trump to victory, and despite having the support of every far right party in Europe and Jeremy Corbyn’s contemptible British Labour party, Russia still has to regard the West as an enemy with supernatural powers. The propaganda is too deep-rooted and too useful to change. The naïve who think that Putin can be placated should watch it. Russia is telling us that not only that it cannot be appeased, it does not want to be appeased either. I doubt even a Trump presidency will stem the paranoid hatred.

The lie that the Turkish regime reached for was to implicate Fethullah Gulen, the Trotsky for Erdogan’s Stalin, and at once blame one of his followers for the murder. The purge of real and invented Gulen supporters is the excuse the Turkish regime is using for extinguishing all centres of opposition to Erdogan after the failed coup. Thus, and before they could possibly know the truth, the authorities denounced the terrorist as a Gulenist.

If you think about it, Russia’s idea that he was a Nato agent, and Turkey’s idea that he was a follower of a banned Sunni cult are incompatible. But Russia and Turkey see no discordance, and the assassination is bringing them closer together. They show that the similarities between dictatorial regimes are always more important than their differences. They look at the shared interest in conspiracy theory and propaganda, the shared loathing of liberal democracy and find a common feeling that transcends divisions in religious and political ideology. This freemasonry of the oppressive, incidentally, explains why nominally left-wing politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn and Seumas Milne are so ready to ally with Trump and Le Pen and defend Putin. To their minds, any dictatorship is preferable to no dictatorship at all. It is better to stand alongside thieves, racists and imperialists than defend hard won freedoms.

What of our home in the West? For a long time, the BBC profoundly irritated me. After every terrorist attack a liberal broadcaster would intone that a backlash threatened British Muslims. Their concern appeared to be in the most grotesque taste. After a bombing, our first thoughts should be with the dead, the bereaved, and the wounded, or with helping the police catch their suspects. Yet here were liberals saying we should instead concentrate on violent white racists rampaging through Bradford and the east end of London, who existed only in their fetid imaginations. Two thoughts underlay the reaction. The first, of course, was that the promised backlash never happened. The second was a kind of proud self-confidence. This is Britain. This is the West. This is where people flee to escape ethnic politics and sectarianism, not to find it again.

I do not think you can be secure in either of their beliefs now. Terror is as useful to the new right in America and Europe as it is to Putin and Erdogan. Donald Trump targeted Muslims, blacks and Hispanics, and has become the most powerful man in the world. You have to consider the possibility that he was elected because of his racism rather than in spite of his racism. The mass movement of refugees across Europe meanwhile has had profound political consequences here. It helped secure the 'Leave' campaign’s victory in the Brexit referendum. Nigel Farage directly used images of refugee hordes heading for our shores in his propaganda. The supposedly respectable conservatives in 'Vote Leave' were slightly more dainty and a little more cowardly and used false stories of tens of millions of Turks coming our way as a substitute. The refugee crisis helped the far right to within an inch of taking the Austrian presidency in 2016, and will undoubtedly help Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Alternative für Deutschland next year. As will the deaths in Berlin, regardless of whether the suspect turns out to be a Salafist or not.

Here is how an argument that was once unspoken is now stated. All refugees and economic migrants from the Muslim world are potential terrorists. We have the choice to refuse to let them in, and for our own safety, we should keep them out. Donald Trump made the case explicitly in his presidential campaign. It looks like Alternative für Deutschland and the French National Front will say the same in next year’s German and French elections. Britain is not so different. We may receive a terrible deal from the EU because Theresa May is responding to public pressure and is making immigration her 'red line'.

The argument leads naturally to anti-Muslim prejudice, and not only because the overwhelming majority of refugees are fleeing extremism in the Middle East rather than bringing extremism with them. If you believe we cannot accept the danger that a handful of migrants may turn to terrorism, where does it leave established Muslim populations? If you believe that it is a choice to stop or deport all migrants because a few will be violent fanatics, does not the idea that you should impose collective punishments on fellow citizens because a few of them will turn to violence too become more attractive? I despise and continue to despise the failure of the liberal left to live up to its professed principles and defend secularism, freedom of conscience and feminism from Islamic conservatives. But, however much one loathes the liberal left consensus, you should never ignore the darkness on the right.

How dark it is becoming can be summarised in a paragraph: the liberal hysterics of the last decade, who indulged their class-ridden fantasies about non-existent backlashes from a brutish white working class led by political charlatans, once sounded like fools. They now sound plausible.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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