Friday, April 16, 2010

The Patriot Blame

Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Nations and peoples who forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms. Robert A. Heinlein

We have an awkward relationship with violence here in Ireland. Very awkward. The Irish state came into existence through acts of violence - as did almost every other democracy in the world. But like all democracies arising from the violent actions of unelected and/or unrepresentative perpetrators we quickly adopt Max Weber's nostrum that the modern state's authority rests on the monopoly of violence - and should remain so. And not just democracies: the graph (from information is beautiful) shows the shockingly high share of GDP comprising military spending in delightful places like Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan).

But that monopoly gets challenged from time-to-time. Right now in the Western world the main challenger is al-Qaeda, as Christopher Caldwell explains, referencing the cartoon controversy in Denmark:
In matters of free speech about religion in Denmark, the government monopoly on violence has been broken. There is another player in the market, declaring that cartoons perceived as anti-Islamic are punishable by death. A pattern of political violence against ordinary citizens is something western Europe has not experienced in more than half a century. Some people describe radical Islam as a kind of totalitarianism, or “Islamofascism”. That is an oversimplification. Even if he had contact with al-Qaeda, Mr Westergaard’s would-be assassin was probably working as an individual.

But this power to intimidate, though informal, is potentially decisive. It is the same power exercised by those who threaten journalists in Russia, those who kill policemen in Mexico, or the Ku Klux Klan in the US south of a century ago. Such acts make law. It is remarkable how few people they have to harm to do so. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, was not just mouthing a cliché when he described the attack on Mr Westergaard as “an attack on our open society”. Once a competing source of predictable violence emerges in an open society, government must do something to stop it.

Here in Ireland we have our own 'competing source of predictable violence'. This week's attack by the Real IRA on MI5's headquarters in Northern Ireland was a powerful reminder of that fact (that's if you can call holding a taxi driver's family hostage, threatening to kill them and forcing him to drive the bomb to the target an 'attack'). Of course, republican violence in Ireland has had a very long history - and was instrumental in the foundation of the Free State. The Real IRA and their supporters would therefore claim to be the latest in a long line of those who have used violence for political ends.

Their claim is flawed at several levels. In his book States of Mind, Oliver MacDonagh described the different stages that shaped the development of the ideology of violence in Ireland:
From the agrarian societies of the eighteenth century came the general habituation to the use of force and conspiracy, and the concepts of alternative law and rule. From Tone derived the clear expression of the dogmas that the British connection was the unfailing source of Ireland's ills, and that 'Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter' was a false distinction, employed by the imperial power to divide Irishmen, for their better subjugation. Tone also contributed the notion of the Republic (especially epitomised by its Army, the repository of civic virtue and authority), and in general fathered the movement's totalitarian strain. From the Young Irelanders came the first the definitive association of cultural separation, mass education and popular literature with the cause of violence. To them too we must attribute the first clear linkage of political virility and the use of arms. From Fenianism came the assertion that Ireland was in a constant state of war with Britain, as well as the assumption of governmental rights by the Irish military arm which was committed to the struggle. It was Fenianism moreover which developed the strategy of manipulating Irish opinion by evocative demonstrations and the tactic of infiltrating and deploying exterior organisations. From Pearse came the 'religion' of violent nationalism, the cults of blood, youth and sacrifice, and the concepts of generation witness, historic roles and supremacy of the gesture.
Each of these stages was in turn shaped by forces as diverse as political philosophy, imperial power struggles, and even rising affluence and literacy - in Ireland and abroad. Especially the 'supreme gesture' of the 1916 Rising. But these historical forces have long since given way to other, more contemporaneous ones. And the most fundamental one is that on 23rd May 1998 the majority of Irish people in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland approved the Belfast Agreement and its core principle of democratic consent to future changes to the political structures on this island. Today the factors that McDonagh described as shaping the ideology of violence in Ireland no longer pertain. All we are left with are the Real IRA and the 'supremacy of the gesture'. Like last Monday's car bomb. Gestures that certainly demonstrate the existence of the perpetrators but which have no prospect of achieving any political change simply because the conditions are no longer those that can be shaped by violence as in the past.

So why do the Real IRA, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups persist? Do they think that they can ultimately secure political gains otherwise withheld by those they attack? An analysis by Max Abrahms suggests that this is the wrong question. As he points out, modern day terrorists:
(1) attack civilians, a policy that has a lousy track record of convincing those civilians to give the terrorists what they want; (2) treat terrorism as a first resort, not a last resort, failing to embrace nonviolent alternatives like elections; (3) don't compromise with their target country, even when those compromises are in their best interest politically; (4) have protean political platforms, which regularly, and sometimes radically, change; (5) often engage in anonymous attacks, which precludes the target countries making political concessions to them; (6) regularly attack other terrorist groups with the same political platform; and (7) resist disbanding, even when they consistently fail to achieve their political objectives or when their stated political objectives have been achieved.
Sounds familiar. So why persist? Abrahms thinks people turn to terrorism for social solidarity - like joining a street gang. It might seem a somewhat fatuous explanation, but a recent study by Demos - The Edge of Violence - was based on interviews with convicted Muslim terrorists and non-violent radicals and observed that:
Terrorists, radicals and young Muslims had all experienced some degree of societal exclusion, had a distrust of government, a hatred for foreign policy, many felt a disconnection from their local community, and many have had an identity crisis of sorts. Of particular note was a high level of distrust among young Muslims towards policing and intelligence agencies, with obvious implications for counter-radicalisation efforts.

...The spread and acceptance of radical or violent ideas can be helpfully conceived as a social epidemic, because whether an individual comes to accept such ideas depends on how far their peers do and the extent to which they are seen as worthy of imitation. An increasingly important part of al-Qaeda’s appeal in the West is its dangerous, romantic and counter-cultural characteristics.
Thus much of the momentum behind persistent problems of terrorism (when objective factors such as repression and occupation do not pertain) is the problem of disaffected young men who feel increasingly alienated from the society they live in. As the drug gang related violence in our cities shows, once you create the conditions for 'competing sources of violence' to emerge, then it's very hard to win the competition in a democracy.

This is yet another reason to give our young men - on both sides of Ireland's border - a deep sense of investment in their society in the form of jobs, wives and children. For the sake of our democracy, and our freedom.


  1. Your post brings to mind a book that I recently read called 'Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution 1909 to 1923' by Damian Lawlor that discusses the role of Na Fianna - a little discussed group that had an instrumental role in the lead up to 1916 and for some years afterwards. It was set up as a bulwark against new boy scouts movement and trained young men in basic camping, semaphore and later handling arms. The Queen's visit in 1900 was coupled with an event for Irish children in the Phoenix Park and the boy scouts movement was also seen as a threat to the nationalism of Irish children. Countess Markievicz and others set about opposing these forces by setting up Na Fianna. I mention this because it is a little discussed part of Irish history. It's relevance to your post? Well, I suppose it just shows how powerful any intervention in young lives can be whether good or ill.

  2. True gereard, the irtish state came into existence through violence. Because of the lanmark feature that is 1916 in our history we often tend to forget that prior to the irish state there was another state across this island - the United Kingdom. Ireland's entry into and continual particpation in that state was maintained through violence.

    Our analysis of political violence in Ireland is incomplete if we ignore that. There has been a tendency to ignore it though because some fear such things give support to modern armed actions. But collectively ignoring it does not contribute to our understanding.

    I dont support the dissidents but did support the IRA campaign and their decision to stand down once normal politics was an option.

  3. A lot of former members of An Fianna (some of them still very young) fought in 1916. Also former students of St Endas (I suspect that most if not all St Enda's students were Fianna members).

    I would question the morality of using a school as a recruiting station, but I appreciate that this was not unusual at all in education at the time.

    Although St Enda's (a great place to visit, by the way, the museum is excellent) was in many ways a very forward thinking school, I worry about this aspect of it.

  4. sdaedulaus,

    In my previous post i commented how we tend to ignore selectively armed actions by one side but in this post I would like to highlight another flaw in how we view 1916. Our tendency to interpret is in total isolation from its context of the edwardian world.
    You comment about St Enda's but you must realise that kids with guns was the common ethos of the UK at the time. It was very Baden Powell / boy scouts stuff.

    Similarly I would answer that those who say the rising was an orgy of violence and needless death with the comment that this too was a very UK thing to do.

    We love to look at the rising and identify negatives, which is valid; but this is a flawed analysis is we dont consider the world in 1916.

  5. Anonymous

    What can I say?

    Yes, kids with guns & orgies of violent death were very UK 1916.

    Thst's what I meant by saying that a school as recruiting station was not unusual for the time.

    Doesn't make it right on either side though.

    Ironically, the threat of conscription was at least as big a factor as 1916 in securing independence.


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