North London Bus Freedom Riders
The ultimate danger of the phrase Age of Terror lies not in the imagined fears embedded in the word ‘terror’, but in the reality of the word ‘age’, says Rohan Jayasekera A while ago I got on a bus in London, the very last stage of a broken journey from Baghdad back to my home […]
28 Oct 08

The ultimate danger of the phrase Age of Terror lies not in the imagined fears embedded in the word ‘terror’, but in the reality of the word ‘age’, says Rohan Jayasekera

A while ago I got on a bus in London, the very last stage of a broken journey from Baghdad back to my home by the Arsenal. I didn’t immediately recognise the looks of fear I was generating in the driver and passengers, the mother, the postman, the teenager. But as I moved through the bus, my friends, I cleared it out.

First two, then six, then 10 passengers stood up and forced their way off. Another half dozen scattered as I made my way upstairs, another dozen as I sat down.

And then it dawned on me; I was a British Asian, unshaven, tired and a bit stressed. Two blue wires connected to my MP3 player hung from the large black bag over my shoulder. It was only a day after the London bombings for them; for me it was only a few days since I was in Iraq.

I’m not going to talk here about the disparity of suffering between the people of North Baghdad and the people of North London. Tragedy is not quantifiable. Nor am I talking about racism or Islamophobia.

The way I looked that day, if I’d seen me sitting opposite myself, I’d have gotten off the bloody bus too. I am going to talk about fear.

A recent Index on Censorship conference on Freedom of Expression in an Age of Terror — spent a lot of time discussing the concept of an Age of Terror itself. Even the British Minister for Security, who was among the speakers and whose job it is, I suppose, to manage terror in the UK, was a bit cautious about the phrase.

People justifiably fear terrorism. Bags are not unreasonably checked, security services are not unreasonably called on to act and people do not unreasonably get off buses. But that does not necessarily mean we are living in an ‘Age of Terror’. That terrorists have struck, there is no doubt, and no doubt they will again. But is that threat so existential, so overpowering that our present laws cannot cope with it?

I would argue that our current laws can cope, but it is often a short-lived argument. The witty and erudite professor Conor Gearty of the London School of Economics put it well at our conference. The very concept of an Age of Terror — depends on a hypothesis about the future, not about the facts of the present.

And it is this that makes it so dangerous, he says. If it is your job to argue in favour of the certainty of free speech today, against the possibility of terror tomorrow, you will lose the debate.

Because, we are told, we live in an Age of Terror. This is an age in which certain folk talk up the fear of a certain kind of criminal violence to the point where they convince themselves and everyone else that the only answer to this terrible threat is ever more strict counter-terrorism laws.

So what does this particular age mean for free expression? If the right to free discourse is contextualised by a heightened fear of the unknown, it means a great deal.

Of course there has always been control on political speech in democratic societies. What is a bit newer is the harnessing of the politics of fear for the purposes of controlling political arguments – even when those arguments are put without linkage to violence.

This is perhaps inevitable, because if you base an entire counter terrorism strategy on what you think might be done to you – then you end up targeting the people who might be thinking about doing it.

The operative word here is thinking. At Index on Censorship this is a straightforward issue. There is a simple, measurable difference between words and deeds. A simple measure in law that distinguishes between expressions of hate and the incitement of an actual act of violence, provable by time-tested means in court.

Twenty years ago Frances D’Souza, then chair of the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie, argued against prosecuting the director of a Iranian-backed group in the UK who had called for Rushdie’s death and had it recorded by TV news.

She said his words, though ‘shocking and distasteful’, did not constitute incitement, since neither he nor his followers were in any position to carry out the threat. Citing the famous US Supreme Court ruling on incitement, she said there was no “clear and present danger” of his words becoming deeds.

But by 2006 things had changed in England. There was even less ‘clear and present danger’ that British demonstrators against the Danish cartoons would make good their threat to ‘Bomb Denmark’ and ‘Kill British Soldiers in Iraq’. Yet four of them were jailed for up to six years for saying so anyway.

Incidentally, for those who argue that England needs new laws for a new Age of Terror, most of these loudmouths were charged with solicitation to murder under England’s Offences Against the Person Act –– of 1861.

This, as Kenan Malik argues, shows how far attitudes to free speech have changed. The law is now used to criminalise not just speech that directly leads to harm, but also speech that might indirectly cause harm –– even speech that is merely regarded as morally unacceptable.

Once upon a time such thoughts might have been challenged in open political debate. But such is the fear these ideas engender – and their perceived immorality — it has become easy for the state to use the law to censor them — and punish the thinkers.

If, then, the rule of law is being bent to facilitate the rule of fear –– or vice versa, possibly –– then what next?

There is evidence to suggest that fear’s grip is loosening. This month a British jury failed to reach verdicts in the case of seven men accused of planning to blow up aircraft in mid-flight. It is because of this case, by the way, that everyone who flew in to Schipol Airport to attend this conference had to bag their toothpaste and bin their big bottles of water before boarding their planes.

Three of the men were found guilty of conspiracy to murder, but the jury could not agree on the prosecution’s central allegation that the plot involved the actual destruction of aircraft. They were also unable to reach verdicts on four other men, even though they had admitted making suicide videos.

To the casual observer the verdict might appear to be an example of a jury simply distinguishing between words and deeds. Vile, stupid and offensive words, of course, and handily delivered as evidence on a DVD as well, but not enough to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, the real power or opportunity to actually do the deed.

When these men were first arrested two years ago –– and remember that there were 24 of them at the start, even though only three were actually convicted –– the fear mongers were out in force.

The then British Home Secretary John Reid said at the time that some people (that’s you and me, I think) ‘just don’t get it…’ Sometimes, he said, ‘we may have to modify some of our own freedoms in the short term in order to prevent their misuse and abuse by those who oppose our fundamental values and would destroy all of our freedoms in the modern world.’

In this case the jury disagreed. And hooray for them. They believed in an Age of Law, not an Age of Terror, and justly found three men guilty of conspiracy to murder. And released the rest.

To the fear mongers, this was a disaster. All the men had to be convicted of plotting to blow up aircraft, because that is what they publicly said was being planned at the time. (And, as an aside, making the life of nearly every airline passenger in the world miserable for two years thereafter.) There was a call for the men to be tried again — and presumably again and again — until a jury finally came up with a verdict that fitted the fear mongers’ original story.

Many of us wondered if the verdict simply reflected the views of the public as a whole. Maybe the jurors had just had enough of the Age of Terror. Indeed, as Times commentator Alice Miles put it, perhaps they just had had enough of the manipulation of information by politicians pursuing the ‘tough on terror’ image.

Why is this verdict important? Because the ultimate danger of the phrase Age of Terror lies not in the imagined fears embedded in the word ‘Terror’, but in the reality of the word ‘Age’.

Back to Professor Gearty — an Irishman — on this point. There is a driven quality to this, he says, a drive for a re-organisation of our culture, away from the commitment to liberal values and towards the commitment to security.

It is true that London has a long familiarity with the kind of terrorism that threatens it today. I am not just talking about the IRA. I urge you all, by way of proof, to re-read Joseph Conrad’s book The Secret Agent — published in 1907 but set in London in 1886 — just to see how deeply terrorism runs through my home town’s DNA.

We survived all that, our civil liberties battered by these occasional waves of terror, but until now never quite overwhelmed.

I heard a lot of self serving nonsense in Iraq about the supposed special insight into terror that the years fighting the IRA has supposedly given the British. But even the war against the IRA was always known as a war like any other; there would be a result — a victory, a defeat or an accord with the enemy — and thus an end.

An Age of Terror is merely a state of mind. There is no enemy to defeat, even to surrender to. The Age of Terror is intended to be, quite literally, timeless, an Age without End. An open-ended commitment to security is being made at the expense of our liberties, justified by a fear of terrorism.

As long as you are re-reading books, go back and re-read George Orwell’s 1984 as well and consider Airstrip One’s unknown enemy. One that cannot be named, much less found; who is frequently defeated, but never overcome, sustained by unspecified numbers of secret collaborators. Look around. Some may be sitting on the bus next to you.

Time to end the fear. End the Age of Terror. To paraphrase an old quote for a new age, it is entirely possible that we have more to fear from fear itself.

Rohan Jayasekera is an Associate Editor at Index on Censorship. He was speaking at a conference on Neo-Censorship to mark the Amsterdam World Book Capital / International Publishers Association 2008 IPA Freedom to Publish Prize in September 2008.