The Dangers of Condemnation
David Keen

Introduction On October 12, 2001, one month and a day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Development Studies Institute, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, hosted a panel debate on the subject of terrorism and the developing world. Chaired by James Putzel, director of the Crisis States Programme at the LSE, it brought together a group of academics with unique perspectives on the roots of terrorism in the developing world to consider the events of September 11 from a development-studies perspective.

In this feature, David Keen, lecturer in development studies at the LSE, argues for a critical evaluation of the language of terrorism and war. He warns that the legitimisation of certain kinds of violence, oppression and exploitation within the confines of a broader struggle is dangerously plausible in the post-September 11 world. He says that some of those who are prepared to mouth the right words against a source of "evil" that has been collectively identified might well be given license to pursue their own forms of terror.

I am not an expert on terrorism or Afghanistan, although James Putzel has defined terrorism sufficiently broadly, to make me an expert on it. A lot of my views could be predicted in an article which Polly Toynbee, a newspaper columnist for the Guardian published recently. I am an admirer of hers, but I think she should know better than to make the distinction, which she did, between hard liberals who favour a muscular, vigorous approach to the current military crisis, and what she calls 'limp liberals', who go on about peace and have no particular solutions to offer. I fall into the category of 'limp liberal' according to her definition.

I want to say a bit about this idea of a 'war on terror', which is beamed at us 24 hours a day, on Sky News and BBC News 24. A lot of people are quite happy with this idea of a war on terror, and I'm certainly not the first to say this, but some of them are, indeed, the terrorists. Terrorists, on the whole, seek the status of war, and the idea of a war on terrorism is giving them, in a way, what they want. The IRA has always tried to frame its actions within the framework of war. My own view is that it is better to call these things crime and to try to prosecute accordingly, which obviously raises the question of how you get hold of people, which is where I think Polly Toynbee would begin her criticism.

I am very uneasy, for example, with Prime Minister Tony Blair's stance. He seemed to be aiming for a certain kind of new world order, while ignoring the United Nations, an organisation which is supposed to embody this. It is clear that Blair is talking about a world where the United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, take a lead on major international issues and, to some extent, operate as world policemen. There is a failure of imagination here, to put it mildly, because, in a sense, it is this arrogation of power, this arrogation to yourself, of the right to define what injustices count and what should be punished and what should be left unaddressed, which has made the United States, in particular, often very unpopular and even hated.

Let's talk about the food drop. If we imagine that Osama bin Laden was behind the destruction of the World Trade Center, if we imagine that that act was accompanied by the dropping from 20,000 feet of small food rations on, for example, the homeless people in Chicago, would we then turn around and say, 'OK, he has no problem with the American people, it's the regime he's after' ? It is a serious point. And I think the answer is clearly no, but the surprising thing is that we could actually believe that other people would think differently.

It is worth, in some ways, going back to some of the insights Frantz Fanon had on violence. He did realise that you could use violence to bring out a certain kind of underlying racism on the part of the people that you're using violence against, and use it to win support, as that racism becomes more evident. And this is part of how terrorism works. In some ways, I think it is working. John Prescott, deputy prime minister of the UK, said that 'part of building the coalition against terrorism is assisted by the fact that a lot of governments have their own terrorist problems, so they are interested in the suppression of terrorism', and this, of course, is true. What I think we have to be aware of, or what I want to emphasise, is that war and the language of war, in a way, is partly about generating legitimacy for certain kinds of violence and oppression and exploitation. These become legitimate within the confines of a broader struggle.

Now, this struggle has been variously defined at different points in history. Not so very long ago, the location of evil, we were asked to believe, was in the Soviet Union, so the overriding framework for war or cold war was a war against the Soviet Union. And there was a process here of building coalitions against evil, of recruiting governments in Africa and many parts of the world, that would join your side in the battle against evil. One of the things that we need to ask is how do you build a coalition like that? One of the ways is that you can distribute money or largesse or military resources to your coalition partners. Another important way is that you are willing to turn a blind eye to the internal abuses that are carried out by your coalition partners.

And this, in the case I know best, was a big part of the cover-up of famine in Sudan in the 1980s, when Sudan was regarded as an ally in the cold war against the Soviet Union. After the cold war we had the war on drugs, that was another great crusade (I know 'crusade' is a dangerous word, I'm OK in this sense because it's against drugs). That was a campaign where a lot of governments, realising that this was now on the international agenda, positioned themselves in an international war on drugs, and were able to appropriate it and utilise it as a kind of counter-insurgency tool and an instrument of political repression.

I think the coalition that has been built seems to be a very fragile one, in this war against terrorism, as defined by the United States and the United Kingdom in particular,.It is already creating political opportunities for certain actors such as, for example, the Russian government in relation to the Chechens, the military government in Pakistan, the Sudanese government in relation to Southern Sudan and so on, securing a degree of impunity for internal repression in the context of that new collective definition of where evil resides.

Robert Kaplan wrote an article recently in the Washington Post. He said, 'Even our vision of democracy must now undergo subtle realistic alteration. Rather than demand that countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Tunisia democratise, we will have, increasingly, to tolerate benign dictatorships and various styles of hybrid regimes, provided that they help in our new struggle'. That was certainly his most moderate point, but it's still quite a worrying one. He says that we need a little bit of evil. 'George Bush must do some evil in order that greater evil can be prevented'.

To take a broad definition of terrorism, like the one that James Putzel has suggested, is a radical act, because it is challenging, for example, Blair and Bush in their definition of terrorism, which is highly particular. In fact, I say 'their definition of terrorism' because they go to great lengths not to define terrorism for a number of reasons which will be clear to you. But I think it also risks bracketing any rebellion as terrorism, since most rebellions actually use terror in some form. And there is a danger that suppression of rebellion, and suppression of dissent in general, is going to be a lot easier and have a cover of legitimacy within the context of this international war against terrorism.

If we look at the case of Sierra Leone as a comparison, we see a different kind of terrorism. There is definitely the use of terror against civilians: the RUF, the rebels there, have systematically used terror in pursuit of power and wealth. But what strikes me most forcibly is that it has actually proven useful for a whole range of groups in Sierra Leone to be able to point to the RUF as the source of evil in the country, meanwhile pursuing a variety of political and economic ends, including the suppression of democracy, under the cover of war. The RUF terror has served a function, in a way, as that which we can all condemn and behind which we can all do what we want. In a sense, the rebellion has created a kind of climate of impunity for those who are prepared to mouth the right words against the source of evil that has been collectively identified, and that's a danger which I want to highlight.

This feature was taken from a panel debate held at the London School of Economics and Political Science on October 12, 2001. Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.