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Gary Younge
To understand political violence, we must first recognise its potency

Once again, those who believe a potential terrorist should be easily identifiable were disappointed. Like school shooters, the men fit the profile of dangerous people who are impossible to profile. They are not drawn from the underclass, nor did they lead segregated lives. They delivered pizzas, worked in stores and ran their own roofing business. The neighbours suspected nothing; their families are in shock.

They were amateurs, apparently egged on by the FBI informer among them. At some stages they blew hard about jihad. At others they worried about being caught. But they were determined. "As far as people, we have enough," another claimed. "Seven people and we are all crazy ... We can do a lot of damage with seven people."

They could indeed have done a lot of damage. As with the five men convicted in London for plotting to blow up the Ministry of Sound, the mayhem would have gone way beyond the death and destruction in mind. Had they succeeded, the result would have been a massive clampdown on civil liberties, increased state surveillance of, and random attacks on, Muslims, and an end to the growing momentum for troop withdrawal from Iraq. It would probably have been the only thing that could have bolstered support for George Bush during his last 18 months in power.

Individual acts of terrorism will always put the left on the back foot. Not because the left holds a sneaking sympathy for terrorists, but because it is so busy explaining the context of their acts and protesting against wars and repression that it all too rarely voices its full-throated opposition to the acts themselves. Contrary to rightwing smears, progressives condemn terrorism routinely. In a sense that is the problem - the condemnations can appear so routine that sometimes it looks as if they just want to tick the box so they can change the subject.

Terrorism is not only deadly, it is by its very nature deeply reactionary. Emerging from the self-indulgent agendas of individuals and small, secretive cells, terrorism is performed by those acting either alone or on behalf of others with whom they have no organic political connection. With no interest in building broader political support or winning over the doubtful, it leaves those in whose name it is committed the most vulnerable. The professed goals of terrorists may be legitimate - but the methods they use set them back.

Terrorism does not rally people to a cause but polarises them on the crudest possible level - fear. That fear not only provides the pretext for brutal and disproportionate retaliation, but it actively builds public support for that retaliation. Handing both the police and the military an excuse to acquire more power, it strengthens the cause not of the poorest and most desperate, but of the state.

This is precisely what has happened since 9/11. Those attacks, followed by the July 7 bombings in London, have set back the cause of Palestine, Muslim minorities and civil liberties all over the world. (Spain, where the conservative government was caught red-handed in a huge lie on the eve of an election, is an exception.) And then, of course, there has been Iraq. This does not absolve the British and Americans one iota of their responsibility for the wars they have started, the lies they have told and the lives they have cost. But those who are interested in context and causes cannot pick and choose: 9/11 set the scene for Iraq just as Iraq has set the scene for subsequent terror attacks.

Immediately following the attacks, opportunists around the world tried to rebrand the war on terror for their own purposes. "What happened in America is the same as that which has been carried out in the UK, and in particular in Northern Ireland," argued Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and his newly elected Tory counterpart Iain Duncan Smith in a joint article in November 2001. "Osama bin Laden and his followers are no different from those who planned and carried out Omagh, Warrenpoint, Hyde Park, Enniskillen or other atrocities during 30 years of terrorism in Ulster."

Such specious logic could not withstand scrutiny any more than the careers of those who uttered them would withstand the test of time. Today Smith is on the backbenches; Trimble lost his seat and is in the Lords. Meanwhile, on the day the New Jersey cell was broken, Martin McGuinness, the one-time commander of the IRA, was sworn in as the deputy first minister at Stormont. But if comparing the IRA to al-Qaida is disingenuous, contrasting them is instructive. It highlights a distinction between the terrorism of individuals and the armed struggle of movements.

For, in certain circumstances, political violence can achieve real progress. Northern Ireland is one such example. Britain did not occupy Ulster by consent but by force. It stands to reason that resistance to its occupation included force. It is unlikely that peaceful, democratic engagement by itself could ever have dislodged Britain's once-unilateral claim on the province.

'Power concedes nothing without a demand," argued the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. But what it concedes, how it concedes it and to whom are all contingent on how those demands are made and who makes them. Political violence cannot forge a consensus but it can force negotiation. Through Sinn Féin, the IRA was rooted in the Republican community. When Sinn Féin got to the table it could speak with authority. When it left, it could deliver on its negotiations because it had credibility.

There is no need to fetishise either violence or the IRA in all of this. Much was made of the fact that the African National Congress had a military wing - but it never played a significant role in ending apartheid. Public revulsion at Enniskillen, among other IRA bombings, severely damaged Sinn Féin's credibility in the late 80s and early 90s.

What it does suggest, however, is that a more sophisticated understanding of political violence than currently offered by the "war on terror" is both necessary and available - a critique that recognises the bankruptcy of individual terrorism, the potency of social movements and the legitimacy of armed struggle; an analysis that can grasp that while individuals may be jailed or killed, aspirations for equality and justice are free to live on and will find new leaders and new methods.

The fact that McGuinness's ascent to power has coincided with Iraq's descent into chaos suggests considerable dysfunctionality on the part of Britain and America. Between them they were instrumental in ending one war and starting the other. "The essential characteristic of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common," wrote the 19th-century French philosopher Ernest Renan. "And must have forgotten many things as well." In order to bask in the progress at Stormont last week, both Britain and America had to forget their justifications for the war on terror of the past five years.
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