Social bonds can withstand most bombs

December 19, 2003

The THES serves up six pages of reflections on some of the changes that have been making many people in our society feel increasingly anxious and frightened

Terrorism aimed at a divided society will never be countered by technical efforts alone - real resilience can come only from common purpose, says Bill Durodié

The first line of defence against terrorism is civilians. Their support prior to and their subsequent reactions to any incident are crucial. In this sense, our response to terrorist incidents as a society teaches us far more about ourselves than it does about terrorists. While terrorists may hope that emergencies and disasters lead to a breakdown in social cohesion, such incidents are also one of the best indicators of the strength of bonds across a community. At such times, societies that are together pull together. Those that are apart more readily fall apart.

We know that social bonds have been severely eroded over the past decade or so. At the formal level, people in advanced western societies are increasingly unlikely to participate in the political process. Even when people do vote, it is often on a negative basis. Nor are we as likely to be active, or even passive, members of political parties or trade unions in the same way that our forebears were.

At the informal level, the changes are even more striking. Many have commented on the growing pressures faced by communities, neighbourhoods and families. In Bowling Alone , the US academic Robert Putnam also pointed to the demise of informal clubs and associations. Meeting with friends occurs less frequently than previously, too. This loss of social capital has occurred and been experienced within a generation. It has dramatic consequences.

For example, not so long ago it was still possible to send children to school on their own, assuming that other adults would act in loco parentis .

None of us ever signed a contract saying that we would look after other people's children. It was simply an unstated and self-evident social good.

Now, we can no longer assume it to hold true, and it is frightening how fast once core social bonds have been displaced.

Being less connected leaves people less corrected. It allows their subjective impression of reality to go unmediated or unmoderated through membership of a wider group or association. Thus, personal obsessions can grow into all-consuming worldviews that are rarely open to reasoned interrogation or debate. In part, it is this that explains our recent proclivity to emphasise or exaggerate all the so-called risks that are held to confront us. From BSE to mobile phones to the MMR vaccine, all new developments are viewed through the prism of a heightened consciousness of risk.

Yet, as the recent episode relating to the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome virus) shows, it is our own responses that, on occasion, can prove the most debilitating. Our fears are not restricted to the realms of science and technology either. Age-old activities and processes have been reinterpreted to fit our new sense of isolation and fear. School bullying, sunbathing and even sex have joined an ever-growing panoply of concerns.

We may be more aware, but we are also easier to scare. Being isolated leaves us more self-centred, as well as risk averse. In turn, these reduce the likelihood of our acting for some greater common good and make us less resilient, individually and as a society.

A focus of research and activity since September 11 2001 has been on security and intelligence. In addition, there has been a significant examination of the role, remit and readiness of so-called first-responders, or the emergency services. Sociological, cultural and psychological analyses have been restricted to examining societies in the Middle East, or the "mind of the terrorist". In this context, it is hardly surprising that it appears that the more we do, the more vulnerable many people seem to feel. This is because none of the solutions being proffered addresses our own social disengagement and isolation. They are also almost entirely technical and negative in character.

Technical fixes, if not easier, are more comfortable for the authorities than addressing problems of cultural coherence. A glance at the literature or the talks delivered to any related conference reveals a bewildering array of suggestions, including more surveillance, better intelligence, new detection equipment, protective clothing, emergency vaccines, concrete blocks, computer models to predict behaviour and outcomes and new structures of governance to enhance communication and ensure accountability.

In fact, deep down we all know that real resilience is about attitude. It is a cultural outlook based on a sense of confidence and purpose that says, "I won't let them get me down." We can have all the technology in the world at our disposal and the most transparent lines of accountability, but if our mindset is not right we're in trouble. Being electronically connected cannot compensate for being socially disconnected. The latter leaves us less clear and less wilful as a society. It is this asymmetry that terrorists exploit.

What's worse, there is a clear danger that technical fixes can become part of the problem. This is because, at heart, they serve to undermine the very liberties our societies once held up as unique and worth fighting for or defending. They also serve to make us more suspicious and mistrustful of one another, thereby pushing us further apart. Real resilience requires people to be brought together with a sense of common purpose. Despite believing firmly that we remain at greater threat from nature than from bioterrorism, for instance, many in the health sector are now having to tailor their requests for future funding from the government to fit the new agenda.

It is also easier to be against something than to be for something. It appears simpler to cohere society around some dystopian fear than around a progressive vision. For example, it was easier to agree on getting rid of Saddam Hussein than to know what to replace him with. Similarly, governments have found it easier to introduce new laws against animal-rights protestors or anti-abortionists than to win an argument as to why society should support animal experimentation or abortion.

In a similar vein, some have remarked that we need to understand why it is that a small number of Asian youths appear to be attracted to fringe Islamist organisations. In fact, it is the reverse we need to address. Why is it that a small number of Asian youth, and some non-Asians besides, are not attracted to our own society? Surely it is we who hold the balance of power and attraction here? It is a huge indictment of our own societies that we are unable to provide young people with rules, structures, a sense of purpose and meaning, as well as ways of realising their ambitions, so that they end up looking for this elsewhere - in whatever twisted and abbreviated form that may take. It is not the magnetism of al-Qaida we need to worry about, but the vacuum at the heart of our own society. No doubt, it is just such a sentiment that led a friend of UK journalist Allison Pearson to remark recently that watching the reality TV programme Big Brother 4 made him feel like joining al-Qaida.

At every level in our society, from politics through to culture and science, our leaders appear increasingly unwilling to lead and lacking in any sense of mission or purpose other than, at best, to protect us from risks. Ironically, these risks only become worse the more we divert social resources to focus solely on them, as we fail, thereby, to debate where we are heading and to expand our horizons.

In February 2003, the US State Department launched its national strategy for countering terrorism. The document indicates from the outset that the best form of defence is offence, before describing what it called a 4-D strategy for combating terror. The 4-D's stand for "defeat", "deny", "diminish" and "defend". What is remarkable about these is the limited outlook they project. It would appear that US policy in the war on terror is restricted to reacting to the assumed actions of others. This is hardly the projection of a bold vision for the future that might win hearts and minds at home, let alone among potential terrorists.

Real resilience requires rather clearer aims and purposes than we are witnessing. If we were to define resilience very roughly as somehow restoring the status quo prior to a severe shock on society, or at least restoring the general direction in which we were heading, then the first task that needs to be fulfilled is achieving some sort of agreement across society as to where we are and where exactly we are heading.

Changing our culture is certainly a daunting task. It requires people in positions of authority to agree on a common direction and convert others to it. Bizarrely, few of the authorities concerned consider it to be their responsibility to lead in this matter. Neither do they believe such cultural change to be a realistic possibility. Yet, in the eventuality of a major civil emergency, they hope that the public will pay attention to the warnings they provide and alter their behaviour accordingly. By then, it will be too late.

Bill Durodié is senior research fellow and project coordinator of the domestic management of terrorist attacks programme at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College London.

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