At a session on terrorism at Davos. Liveblogging a few notes….
Shaukat Aziz, prime minister of Pakistan, issues all the usual cant on terrorism: not died to a religion… no borders… root causes…. all that. He complains about profiling and says it “adds to heartburn.”
Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security in the U.S., tries to put a yardstick up to terrorism response, saying that rational people would agree to actions to stop a nuclear bomb that they would not agree to to stop one person from being shot. He focuses on what he calls “high-consequence events.” Stopping these requires inconvenience, some economic impact, and “some adjustment in even how we conceive of some of our liberties — but the key is not to go overboard.” What is high-consequence? what is overboard?
David Cameron, Conservative leader in the U.K., tries a similar act of measurement. “We’ve got to get right the hard-nosed defense of liberty rather than ineffective authoritarianism.” He says that there is a “quantum difference” in terrorism, worse than the days of the IRA and Baader-Meinhof. As a result, he says, “there are some big changes we have to make. It is vital that we get the balance right.”
Carefully countering Aziz on root causes, Cameron says that there is not “a list of demand that will stop Osama bin Laden from doing what he is going to do.” As a result, he says, the first reaction to terrorism must be security. Then one can “drain the swamp” that creates it. He also says that there is an “ideological cause” in the root of terrorism: “a perversion of Islam.” Aziz is shaking his head.
Cameron also says that he is against creating a separate ministry for counter-terrorism but instead wants two ministers in the Home Office, one devoted to police activities and the other devoted to counter-terrorism. Criticizing Blair, he says that “there has been too much focus on law and not enough focus on good administration.”
A Harvard professor asks Cameron whether he agrees with the UK Foreign Office’s advise that government officials should not use the term “war on terrorism” as it “plays into the narrative” of the terrorists and turns them into “martyrs in a holy war.” Cameron says he agrees. Chertoff says he wants to work with moderate members of the Islamic community to understand how they want to describe what is happening. Gijs M. de Vries of the EU attacks the phrase “Islamic terrorism” and says “there is no such thing…. Whether we call this a war or not, let us fight this fight within the bounds of human rights.” Aziz says the average terrorist is sitting in some remote location getting brainwashed and is not reading Foreign Office papers. He emphasizes the rhetoric of recruitment: deprivation, rights, and so on: “Let’s get reality.”
If rhetoric could kill…
Chertoff is asked by an Islamic organization official in the audience whether things are better five years on in the war/struggle/fight on terror and whether the day will come when we will sit down with a terrorist group, as the UK did with the IRA. Chertoff says let’s “get reality,” like Aziz, and recognize that bin Laden’s demand is for us to go back to the 12th century and there is no discussion with that. Cameron says “that is the big difference between the IRA and al Qaeda…. I’m not in any way belitting the IRA and what it did…. But to get this debate right we have to recognize the difference between IRA terrorism and suicide bombing… That is a different sort of terrorism and we would be betraying our populations if we did not recognize that and act on it. ”
The head of Amnesty International now also wants to look at reality and says that the U.S., U.K., and Pakistan have eroded human rights with torture and more. She asks to what extent undermining human rights “feeds the flames of terrorism.” Chertoff says he agrees we should not sacrifice human rights but also not treat every departure from normal process as a catastrophic betrayal of what we believe in. Aziz talks about the checks of having a free press and independent judiciary. Cameron says that of course we must defend freedom but also says that “in order to defeat terrorism, we have to maintain a balance,” citing, for example, how long the government may keep a suspect in jail when “you are trying to break up a complicated plot.”