Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown

Policymakers are being driven by irrational nightmares, observes Conor Gearty.

January 24, 2008

What should scholars in the social sciences do about the War on Terror? The field is now so vast, after nearly seven years of campaigning by commander-in-chief George Bush and his allies, that its effect can be felt across the disciplines - in law, certainly, but also in international relations, political science and sociology. Refusing to engage with its impact is surely not an option for those lucky enough to be funded by the taxpayer to engage in critical thinking. But steering a path between two extreme responses - the sceptical (the War on Terror has made us a police state) and the hyper-loyal (al-Qaeda threatens our "way of life" and we must do what it takes to defeat it) - has not proved an easy task. Reaching out to a general audience at the same time, to provide a more challenging frame of reference than that on offer in Parliament and in the media, has also proved beyond most scholars.

Frank Furedi - professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of a number of excellent books on, among other subjects, fear and the role of intellectuals - is an exception on each score. This book is fresh, well written, awash with lightly worn learning and so confident in its perspective that the argument, heretical from almost every orthodox standpoint, gathers pace with such vigour as each chapter rolls by that by the book's end it seems well-nigh irrefutable.

To Furedi, "international terrorism" is not new but merely a phrase that in the 1970s began to be used to describe certain kinds of political violence. At about the same time, and fuelled by the apocalyptic warnings of the environmental movement, a narrative of fear based on the unknown gradually began to usurp the role of empirical evidence and reason in policy-formation. Our culture began to see itself as enduringly vulnerable, its members "at risk" from, rather than the masters of, events.

This trend towards perpetual anxiety has taken off, powered by our irrational dread of terrorism. The worst hypothesis, not what actually happens, is what grabs our attention. Science no longer brings breakthroughs to make our lives better; it unleashes forces with the potential to destroy us.

The success of the language of the so-called War on Terror lies in the nature of the risk-obsessed society into which it has been introduced: "The intense sense of powerlessness that accompanies the consciousness of ignorance about the future works to empower terrorism." Furedi shows how our preoccupation with the unknown unknowns leads us into bad policy decisions ("worst-case scenarios have a habit of migrating from the realm of fantasy to the domain of policy deliberation") while exposing us to yet more terrorist attacks: the worst of both worlds.

Furedi's answer comes in a brilliant final chapter, "Refusing to be terrorized". It is in effect an open letter to our culture to show more resilience. The specialist work on disasters that has been done shows that societies do not fall apart when they are attacked, even when this is with far more destructive capacity than al-Qaeda could ever muster. Cultures are far less vulnerable than their leaders suppose or their members have begun to assume them to be. Communities invariably muster high levels of solidarity when confronted with tragedy.

Terrorism needs its victims to be intimidated: if they refuse, this weapon of the weak shrivels up and dies for lack of the "oxygen of publicity", as Mrs Thatcher called it. Speaking on behalf of scholars everywhere, Furedi asserts that we "can encourage such a (resilient) response by constantly questioning the belief that we live in an 'age of terror'".

Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown

By Frank Furedi
Continuum
240pp
£17.99
ISBN 9780826499578
Published 30 October 2007

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