The Prime Minister's speech
 
  • Daily diary

One death-drive turns another. One journalist calls for the "internment of thousands". Another calls for a "final solution".

When the Westminster attacker, Khalid Masood, struck, there was the usual authoritarian frenzy, such as calls for the end of instant messaging privacy, and The Sun demanding armed cops on every street corner -- a lurid Petainist fantasy. But there was also a sub-current of exciting, macho rhetoric. 

Andrew Neil, in a speech he was allowed to deliver to camera by the BBC, derided this "poundland terrorist". Do you, he wondered, have any idea who you're dealing with? We are the British. We conquered half the planet. We have committed untold acts of violence. You are nothing next to us. Bring it on. Send your best, send your worst. Come ahead, square go. This phallic bombast was so thrilling that Tommy Robinson, sharing the speech, said it gave him goosebumps. A visceral reminder that all rhetoric is erotica.

The stirring evocation of armour-plated British omnipotence was, however, only as persuasive as the attack was unsuccessful. Masood's methods were crude and chaotic. His headlong death-lunge at the nominal centre of British power was always doomed to fail. The indications are that he had converted to Islam to get out of a violent life -- he dreamed of blood, as he put it. But he was seemingly never a doctrinaire jihadi. 

Salman Abedi, the 22 year old suicide attacker in Manchester, was a different type of attacker. This we know just from what he did. He used an explosive device, not knives. He picked a soft target, and a large target. Some 21,000 people, not protected by armed police, or even a baggage check, were potentially within the radius of his explosion. And maybe there was also an element of religious sadism, in targeting young people who had been having a good time. It seems obvious what he sought to provoke; exactly the kind of reaction that similar attacks have provoked in France, in the hope that an increasingly embattled minority of young Muslim men will flock to the theocratic far right. They want British politicians, spies and cops to become the recruiting sergeants for Daesh, and also collaterally the recruiting sergeants for Europe's next wave of fascism. Another turn in a depressingly familiar death-spiral.

And so, the Prime Minister gave a speech. The reclusive, gaffe-prone, gurn-smirking Theresa May, finally found her mark. It was, by all accounts, stateswomanlike, dignified, resolute, capturing the mood of the nation -- which is to say, it was exactly the same as any speech any Prime Minister would have given at such a moment. It said nothing, but said it with conviction. The point of such speeches is that, in their authoritative disbursement of information that was already available, in their solemn declarations of the obvious, in their insistence on certain adjectives which do the heavy lifting of explanation -- cowardice, evil, and so on -- they seem to make a superficial sense. Such attacks do not make sense. They are where sense breaks down. But the obligatory Prime Ministerial speech insists on making sense. In saying that we are strong, they were weak; we are brave, they are cowards; we will win, they will lose, it re-asserts a whole order of sense-making that has come into question.

What was far more important, registering the actual tenor of her policy response, was what came after. Theresa May is an ally of hardliners in the state, particularly in MI5. It was a former spook whom she recruited to draft her snoopers' charter some years ago. Her repertoire of responses to terror all fall on the side of intensified authoritarianism. Last time, she used the occasion to once more browbeat messaging services like Whatsapp -- on the preciously thin grounds that Masood may have sent a vital message linked to his attack before dying -- into abolishing user privacy. 

This time, in the middle of an election, she has raised the "threat level" to "critical" and sent armed forces out into the streets. Without attempting to second-guess government claims that there is another terror attack imminent, or inquire into the integrity of those "threat levels" (if it hasn't dropped below "severe" in such a long time, perhaps the war isn't working), this is obviously not going to stop an attack.

It is, like airport security, a superstitious ritual. The point of this sort of terrorist tactic is that it is flexible, unpredictable, designed to upset calculations, and work around obstacles. As long as Daesh and like organisations have the ability to recruit, to summon loyalty, there will always be soft targets. Why? Because the idea of an ironclad, completely securitised nation, with no vulnerabilities, is a sinister totalitarian fantasy. Even if it were possible, it would depend on a repression ten times more ferocious than that which it was called down to stop.

So this is posturing, which happens to serve the interests of Theresa May and of police hardliners who want to show off a bit of British muscle and steel. And the more barbaric and violent the discourse becomes, the more it can be canalised into this statist machismo. The more-or-less civilised, collectivist, solidaristic reaction of Mancunians, the blood donations and free taxi rides, the homeless man rushing in to help the victims, the refusal to 'be divided', the chasing away of EDL provocateurs, is a cultural counterweight to that dangerous and ineffectual strutting. 

But at some point, we need that multicultural conviviality to be conjoined with something which is presently absent, and that is a serious and critical reappraisal of every assumption of every 'counterterrorist' policy that has produced this terrifying impasse. That would mean the Prevent strategy, the various foreign policy interventions, the alliance with Saudi Arabia, everything. It would all have to be on the table, without intimidation. Because that intimidation is coming. The Birmingham MP, Khalid Mahmood, is already using the attack to demand that people stop criticising the hugely discriminatory and counterproductive Prevent strategy. Bear in mind that even such figures as Liam Byrne and Syeeda Warsi have criticised Prevent for the chilling effect it has on Muslim communities and on the enjoyment of civil liberties. The vitriol against Corbyn for his supposed Provo sympathies is part of this offensive, pour encourager les autres

Nonetheless, the discussion has to happen. Because the cost of not having these conversations will probably be measured in a body count.


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