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Convenient Crises? Terrorism and Counterterrorism in the Political Arena

By Casper Stap

‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. Although the person behind this quote – president Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – most likely did not refer to it when he said it, the quote is awkwardly applicable to terrorist attacks. Just like any other crisis, a terrorist attack often gives room for reform. But does all reform necessarily fit the crisis? A look at the uncomfortable political nature of how governments react to terrorist attacks.

With the current societal debate and the upcoming advisory referendum on the Intelligence and Security Services Act – more commonly known as the “tapping law” – it is interesting to look back about sixteen years, shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Whereas most terrorist attacks before that time did not spark major judicial reform, 9/11 as well as subsequent attacks on European soil, like the 2004 train bombings in Madrid or the murder of Theo van Gogh that same year, led to a wave of new measures. There was a sense in society as well as politics that “something” had to be done, with a critical discussion of those measures mostly missing.

In those early years of this millennium it often became clear that, regarding the question what measures are best fit to combat the terrorist threat, the envisioned policies often clearly fitted the ideological outlines of the party. Different politicians seek different strategies that are best in line with their own background. For example, days after the attacks in Madrid, André Rouvoet of the conservative ChristenUnie argued in parliament for a revision of the coffee shop policy, as the existing policy would harm Dutch efforts in the European Commission to build support for international counterterrorism plans. What a coincidence that the closure of coffee shops was explicitly mentioned as a goal in their campaign program for the 2003 parliamentary elections.

Terrorist attacks do not happen in a political vacuum. Just as terrorism is inherently political, so is its response. Not only does politics influence the response to terrorism in that the proposed policies reflect the political-ideological landscape. It can also serve as a tool to enable political reform that politicians already had been waiting for. The concept of “windows of opportunity” is of special interest here. Political plans that are already outlined and that have political support but lack political urgency can often benefit greatly from a focusing event. This event, of which terrorist attacks are a perfect example, opens up a window of opportunity that enables the mix of a pressing problem, existing policy plans, and political support for those plans, to survive the hard world of competing political agendas, and to actually become policy.

The Russian president Putin who exaggerated the Chechen threat, the bipartisan politicization of the capture of Italian party leader Aldo Moro in 1978, and the implementation of massive surveillance programs in the United States after 9/11 rank among the most notorious examples of politicization of terrorism. However, politicization of terrorism is much more often very vague and less clear-cut. Politicians may just want to give a little spin to the situation so that it better fits their preferences.

This is not to say that politicians are ruthlessly “playing politics” with terrorism. As the true motivations for the actions of politicians rarely get revealed, observers can often only guess what the intentions behind a political maneuver in the aftermath of a terrorist attack are. Even more so, assuming this ruthlessness of politicians comes with ethical dilemmas. Who are we to say that the emotions of those representatives are not real? Who are we to say that they are not acting based upon the highest ethical standards?

Therefore, this way of looking at terrorist attacks is designed to fail. The probability of a politician acting in good faith is much more likely than the probability of him knowingly manipulating the situation for political gain. After all, politicians are just humans, like the rest of us. Therefore, the reaction to terrorism should not be seen as a ruthless political game. However, we should definitely see it as something with political elements that deserve our critical attention.

And that brings us back to the “tapping law”: it is good that we are discussing counter-terrorism laws. We as a society decide the extent to which terrorism damages us. After all, terrorists can do no more than damage to property and human life: the emotional and cultural damage that we attribute them is based on our reaction. Accepting this notion, it becomes clear that not all counterterrorism measures are critical: we decide they are critical. The fact that counterterrorism measures have a political background makes it important that citizens participate in discussing them.