On Jeremy Corbyn and Terrorism

I increasingly believe that if you want a different kind of politics in Western societies and if you want to move beyond the failed paradigm of the “War on Terror” (or whatever euphemism it goes by now), then you should support politicians who are willing to utter three truths:

  1. Western citizens can never enjoy total security against terrorism, including terrorism perpetrated by jihadists and jihadist sympathizers;
  2. Terrorism is not a significant threat to the security of most individual citizens of Western countries; and
  3. Western countries’ foreign policies are one factor in generating domestic terrorist attacks, especially by jihadists and jihadist sympathizers.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, recently made an eloquent speech that touched on the third of those truths. He has been widely criticized for the speech, often by people who twist his words and his history.

But if you read the text of his speech, I think you may find that it was a moving and sober response to the tragic suicide bombing in Manchester on May 22. He argues for a combination of domestic (largely non-military) preparedness and more thoughtful foreign policy execution. Here is the most relevant portion:

At home, we will reverse the cuts to our emergency services and police. Once again in Manchester, they have proved to be the best of us. Austerity has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap. There will be more police on the streets under a Labour Government. And if the security services need more resources to keep track of those who wish to murder and maim, then they should get them.  

We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

It is important to underline, as Corbyn does, that attempting to explain jihadists’ motivations is in no way equal to endorsing or excusing their attacks.

Reading the New York Times‘ account of the incredibly complex journey that the young British-Libyan suicide bomber undertook over the past five years, no one could reasonably argue that British foreign policy was the sole cause of his decision to attack in Manchester. But no one who is being honest, I think, could reasonably deny that the UK’s decision to support the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 was one of the causes of this man’s actions:

As Colonel Qaddafi tottered in 2011, Mr. Abedi’s father, Ramadan, returned to Libya to finish the fight he had started two decades earlier, and took his British-born teenage sons with him. The elder Mr. Abedi, a onetime Qaddafi enforcer, fled Libya in 1991 after supporting Islamists seeking to overthrow the brutal leader. Now, as Western warplanes pummeled Tripoli, the capital, that dream was finally coming true.

His sons — Ismail, Salman and Hashem — accompanied Mr. Abedi to Tunisia, where he worked on logistics for the rebels in western Libya. The sons knew very little about Libya, having grown up in the Whalley Range, a working-class area of Manchester. But their father, a proud Islamist, wanted them to follow in his footsteps at this euphoric moment.

Salman, a lanky 16-year-old at the time, joined his father as the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade descended on the Libyan capital that summer.

Other factors were undoubtedly involved in Salman Abedi’s decision to commit a horrific and unconscionable act, including his own personal makeup, as well as what seems like his patchy knowledge of Islam, and also his difficult relationship with his father and his family. But Corbyn is right that British foreign policy decisions played a strong role in shaping Abedi’s trajectory.

Some of the vitriol directed at Corbyn over his speech is simply partisan, coming from people who hate him, hate Labour, and hate the left. But another part of the vitriol comes from elites who are averse to any honest discussion of jihadism and terrorism; they prefer to treat it as an apolitical moral evil and/or as a psychological disorder – in other words, as a sickness that comes from within the jihadists. And they want the discussion to end there.

Because if the discussion ends there, then there will be sharp limits to the kinds of criticisms that can be made of Western foreign policies that have failed, including the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as the War on Terror itself. And if the discussion ends with the invocation of evil and insanity, and not with real-world events, then there will also be sharp limits to the kind of futures we can imagine for our societies. Without more imagination, we will end up fighting a pointless “War on Terror” for generations. And that would be a tragedy for the world, including for the Western countries that desperately need to chart a new course in domestic politics and foreign policy.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the British public seems to agree with Corbyn’s views on this topic – if recent polling results are accurate, then a slight majority of the British public feels that British foreign policy plays a role in generating terrorism, and significant portions of the population feel that the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were mistakes.

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