Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Film brings terrorism back into sharp focus

NZ First MP's anti-Muslim rant only serves to add fuel to the flames

Both NZ First list MP Richard Prosser's "Wogistan" diatribe and the furore surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, the Academy Award-nominated film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, are reminders that we still live in the shadow of 9/11 and are still searching for a consensus on the most effective and appropriate way to combat 21st century terrorism with its global reach and appetite for destruction.

Prosser's call for Muslims to be banned from Western airlines invited various reactions ranging from disgust to disbelief, via cynicism - a great advertisement for MMP - and facetiousness: so if Sonny Bill Williams returns to rugby and makes the 2015 World Cup squad, he should have to hitch a ride to England on a container ship while the rest of the team flies business class?

The outburst represents a small victory for terrorism. As the term implies, the object of terrorism is to instil fear. Fear can sap the target group's will to resist, thereby leading to appeasement: if we give the terrorists some of what they want, they'll stop terrorising us.

Or fear can make the target group paranoid, causing it to overreact, thereby validating the terrorists' world view and call to arms (in this case that the West wants to destroy Islam), and repudiating its own core values.

At the heart of al-Qaeda's loathing of the West is the knowledge that in the battle for Muslim hearts and minds, particularly those of the younger generation, secular democracy poses a strategic threat to its preferred model of theocratic authoritarianism.

Rhetoric like Prosser's is a propaganda gift enabling Islamists to say "we told you so: we told you the West's fine talk about diversity and human rights was hypocritical."

Likewise the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq played into bin Laden's hands by conforming to his narrative of the West as modern crusaders intent on humiliating and subjugating the Muslim world.

One school of counter-terrorism argues that terrorist attacks, even those on the scale of 9/11, should be seen as crimes rather than acts of war.

Its adherents point to "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland in which 3256 people were killed compared with the 2996 who died in the 9/11 attacks. Despite provocations such as the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and the Brighton bombing which nearly wiped out Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, the British by and large treated the Irish problem as one of law and order.

The counter-argument is that Northern Ireland is constitutionally part of Great Britain and the British were caught in the middle of a political and ethno-religious struggle between Catholic Republicans and Protestant Loyalists, therefore comparisons with the fight against al- Qaeda are invalid. It could also be pointed out that it took three decades to end the conflict in which 2 per cent of Northern Ireland's population were killed or injured. In an American context, that would amount to 10 times as many casualties as the US suffered in Vietnam.

Zero Dark Thirty begins with audio recordings of cries for help from the upper floors of the World Trade Centre. The opening scene takes place at a "black ops" site where a CIA agent is attempting to break an al-Qaeda operative. Thereafter the protagonists' obsessive, often brutal, pursuit of bin Laden is punctuated by terrorist attacks like the July 7, 2007 London public transport bombings.

The film-makers have been accused of glorifying torture. While there's ongoing dispute over whether or not torture extracted information which ultimately led to bin Laden, that's not really the point. History and common sense tell us torture will sometimes get results.

The real message of these harrowing scenes is that in its paranoia the US, a signatory to various accords and conventions which deem torture to be morally indefensible, abandoned its principles.

Zero Dark Thirty will disappoint those expecting an action blockbuster. The pay-off takes up a small portion of its 157-minute span and comes after a painstaking, unspectacular build-up.

Not your usual dumbed-down, jazzed-up Hollywood rewrite of history, in other words.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of the George W. Bush phase of the war on terror. Barack Obama's weapon of choice is the unmanned drone.

While the drone programme is a logical (and cost-effective in terms of blood and treasure) response to terrorism, criticism is mounting. Those who deplore the drones have to answer the question: what is the most effective and appropriate way to combat terrorism?

- NZ Herald

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