Terrorism is terrible, sure. We should fight it tooth and nail. But it isn’t an existential threat

One of the many things wrong with the “war on terror” is that it’s a rhetorical device which is used to legitimise all kinds of surveillance activities which, in normal times, would be absolutely verboten in democratic societies. A real state of war is one in which a society faces an existential threat — which is why between 1939 and 1946 the UK was, effectively, a dictatorship in which the government could do anything deemed necessary in order to prosecute the war and confront the threat. In those circumstances, the British people may not have liked many of the things that the government was able to do – which included not just censorship, but also the power to commandeer your house without notice because it was needed for the war effort — but they acquiesced because they understood the nature and the gravity of the threat.

In our time, the threats posed by global terrorism are being used to justify a “state of exception” which looks increasingly like becoming permanent. And the mantra which is incessantly used to justify this is of course the aforementioned rhetorical device. So it’s interesting – and welcome – to hear a major politician explicitly declare that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to our societies. This is what Barack Obama said recently in an interview:

What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order. You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what’s the — you know, what’s essence of who we are.

Spot on. How long, therefore, before the Republicans, primed no doubt by the spooks, begin talking about the US President as a “surrender monkey”. Who knows, maybe the guy even likes French fries?