Sunday, 18 August 2013

Cautionary tale of a good terrorist

‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land,’ proclaimed Thatcher in 1987. That was just seven years before Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, heading the first ANC-led government of the country.

One of Thatcher’s staunchest supporters, John Carlisle, at the time Member of Parliament for the constituency next door to mine, wasn’t even won over to the Mandela cause by the international adulation focused on the man.

‘This hero worship is very much misplaced,’ declared Carlisle in 1990.

Mandela: a terrorist being converted to a secular saint
These days, many supporters of the Iron Lady like to present her as having seen the merit of Mandela and even to have played a significant role in securing his freedom. The reality, as these two quotations show, is that she and the Conservative Party she led got it massively wrong. It’s an embarrassment, now that Mandela has become a globally adored secular saint, so now a myth has to be invented about her long time support and the ingenious, discreet ways she helped him achieve power.

The greatest irony is that neither Thatcher nor Carlisle were entirely wrong.

I’m not quite sure that there’s such a thing as a ‘typical’ terrorist organisation, since they all seem different from each other. However, Thatcher’s view that the ANC had been terrorist is undeniable. At least, it’s undeniable to anyone who looks at the evidence with anything like an open mind, though that doesn’t stop the more starry-eyed admirers of Mandela trying to deny it.

Equally, Carlisle was right to warn against hero worship. One admires a man more intelligently if one sees his faults as well as his merits. Mandela’s behaviour towards his family was often far from exemplary. And in marrying Winnie, he linked himself to one of the cruellest and most brutal political leaders I’ve seen in action in my lifetime: certainly, she didn’t carry out the kind of genocidal actions that Pol Pot took in Cambodia, but that may only have been because she was never close enough to power.

All this makes the achievement in South Africa all the more remarkable. Mandela was a flawed man and not a saint, but he had the vision and the nobility to preside over an astounding transition, from one of the most reviled regimes in the world, to a system which is certainly still shot through with problems, but at least offers hope of improvement.

To anyone who maintains ‘there’s no such thing as a good terrorist,’ I reply 
Consider Mandela. And think again.

Mandela’s ascent to power meant that many who
d said ‘we shall never talk to terrorists’ found themselves having to talk to this one. Naturally, they try to play down the terrorist side of the man. That’s regrettable: it would be much healthier and more honest if we could admit that we talk to terrorists a lot and, indeed, it’s often the best thing to do. 

And it might be no bad thing to accept that we haven
’t always been above a little terrorism of our own. If terrorism is the deliberate targeting of violence against civilians in the hope of achieving a political goal, when Britain and the US talked about bombing German cities to break the will of the German people to resist, what were they justifying but terrorist action against a civilian population?

And what of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Even now, when a US drone targets a wedding party in the hope of killing a Taliban member who may or may not be there, aren’t we in rather a grey area? To the Western powers that sent the drone, the civilian deaths are ‘collateral damage’, a beautifully euphemistic use of technical language to hide the reality of killing and maiming. To the people themselves, it must feel exactly the same as being caught up in a terrorist outrage.

The truth is that terrorism has often been used by many different political organisations, not all of them evil in themselves or pursuing deplorable goals. So the accusation of terrorism tells us little about the people we apply it to, nor about the way we ought to be dealing with them.

After all, the greatest breakthrough against terrorism in the last twenty years must have been the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. That wasn’t achieved by military action against terrorists or by refusing to talk to them. It was made possible by sitting around a table at which all sides made concession – painful concessions, bitterly given up.

Terrorism is the most acute question of international politics in our time. Whether it’s warlords in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaida acting against the West in Yemen or receiving Western support in Syria, Chechens in Russia (or, apparently, the United States), or any of the other countless theatres of terrorist action around the world, it’s the ugly force we all have to confront.

It won’t be beaten by pretending that we can never negotiate with terrorists. It won’t happen by pretending they’re not terrorists. And, as Thatcher and Carlisle showed, it won’t happen by writing the other side off as terrorist so you can retreat into self-righteous condemnation of everything else they might be.

Nor does it help if, once you’ve realised how massively you’ve screwed up, you suddenly start to discover all sorts of reasons why you were, in fact, covert but effective supporters all along.

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