Thursday, May 10, 2007

Protest and Terrorism

Efforts to protest gatherings of the world's economic elite, such as the G-n (choose your favorite integer) or the World Bank, did not begin with the Bush administration, nor did terrorist attacks against those elites. Nevertheless, as a result of 9/11, fear of terrorism has come to pervade the cultures of those elites; and, if we are self-centered enough to believe that this is strictly an American phenomenon, we have only to look to the recent news from Germany. While many have discussed the extent to which the phrase "War on Terror" is a linguistic barbarism, the phrase does bring Carl von Clausewitz to mind, at least to the extent that he may now provide us with an opportunity for paraphrase:

Terrorism is protest by other means.

Consider the lead from an analysis piece at this morning's SPIEGEL ONLINE site:

Security authorities in Germany are nervous ahead of June's G-8 summit of the leading industrialized nations at Heiligendamm on Germany's Baltic coast. They do not want to see a repeat of the violent protests which accompanied previous summits, such as in Genoa in 2001, where one demonstrator was killed, or Saint Petersburg in 2006. But police raids on left-wing organizations in Berlin, Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany on Wednesday -- aimed at preventing violence by anti-globalization activists -- are being seen by many as too heavy-handed.

The question now being debated in the German press is whether these events constitute a preemptive strike against a terrorist attack or a suppression of legitimate protest. In the rarefied atmosphere of a philosophy classroom, this would be a debate over a category error; but the "real world" has to worry about what happens when theory boils over into practice. One good place to begin might be with the center left Süddeutsche Zeitung, cited in the Spiegel report:

Suddenly the long-known attacks in Hamburg and Berlin are being sold as part of an almost demonical master plan to destroy the state and society. The people responsible for the attacks are being characterized overnight as founders and members of a terrorist organization -- and the recent debate about the Red Army Faction shows just how serious such an accusation is. The swiftly cobbled together terrorism accusation feeds another suspicion: Police and law enforcement authorities are using it as an excuse for wide-ranging investigations. The evidence presented so far is much too flimsy to justify a terrorism conviction in a future court case. In addition, the timing suggests that the aim is to make terror suspects out of G-8 opponents. However terrorism these days looks completely different.

Obviously the searches just ahead of the G-8 summit are intended to intimidate the hard core of the opponents and to expose their communication structures. ... It would not be the first time that such an operation by the state turned out to be a disastrous over-reaction. The G-8 protests are certain to grow as a result.

In other words Süddeutsche Zeitung appears to be writing from a perspective of trying to apply "lessons learned" from what has happened in the United States in the name of "homeland security," not just as a new institution, but, more importantly, as a new cultural attitude. The conclusion is that the reaction will ultimately aggravate the very actions that the respective governments of Germany and the United States have been trying to prevent. Der Tagesspiegel, another center left newspaper, offers a similar opinion:

The raids on left-wing groups in Hamburg, Berlin and elsewhere are intended to be a warning shot to intimidate activists who are prepared to use violence to disturb the meeting of the leading industrial nations. But whether the Federal Prosecutor's Office's operation will serve this purpose is questionable. It is very possible that the warning shot will backfire, because now there is a significant danger that the peaceful demonstrators, such as the churches and the unions, will pull out completely, out of fear of escalation. They will leave the stage to those who do not want to stop at non-violent protests and civil disobedience.

In this case the focus is on the loss of the very freedoms governments are supposed to protect: protest as "victim" of terrorism.

More telling than these analyses, however, may be the map that Spiegel has provided, which shows the blockade that will survive the entire region of Heiligendamm, where the G-8 summit will actually take place:

The concept of a "Green Zone" has now progressed from Iraq to the Western world. Here, too, sadly there are lessons to be learned that seem, instead, to be ignored. Most important is that, to a terrorist, no "Green Zone" is impenetrable; it is just a challenge to the planning process. Again, what will be blocked is the opportunity to hear and respond to legitimate protest.

So how do we distinguish legitimate protest from terrorism? One can read scholarly analyses, some of which, like Louise Richardson's book, give as much consideration to practice as to theory. Nevertheless, even in a situation as dire as this one, we should not ignore insights from ridicule. Back in the Sixties the Beyond the Fringe crew could get away with making light of the question. After Paxton Whitehead replaced Jonathan Miller, they worked up a savagely funny interview with Prince Philip (with Whitehead as "The Duke," since he was then Duke of Edinburgh). The interviewer got Philip to talk about a recent visit to Kenya and his meeting with Jomo Kenyatta. Philip observed, "We used to think he was a Mau Mau terrorist; but now we know he was a freedom fighter." When the interviewer asked, "What's the difference?," Philip replied, "It's hard to say, actually … especially when you're being disemboweled by one." Frivolous as this may sound today, it still conveys the message that the distinction is "hard to say, actually." That is probably the most important lesson to be learned from 9/11; but, unfortunately, it seems to be the lesson that governments such as those in the G-8 are least inclined to study.

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