On terrorism considered as one of the fine arts

For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

Thomas de Quincey, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” (1827)

Let me apologise straight away for basing this essay on what in the nature of things is a third-hand account, and one with an intrinsic bias, to boot; but I really cannot let this pass without comment. It would now seem that in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is my country if the front cover of my passport is to be believed, it is now a matter of interest to the counter-terrorism police that a foreign national works for a publishing house in that person’s country, some of whose authors may not be wholly in favour of the government of that foreign country.

The country in question is France. It is certainly the case that there is a fair amount of turbulence in that country at the present time. Apparently there are quite a few people there who find some discrepancy between the ideals of democracy on the one hand and the practical reality on the other whereby an unpopular and entitled careerist wishes to rule by decree. Whatever I may feel about it, however, it seems pretty clear that this is a domestic matter, and not something on which the UK government needs to take a position.

It is not, after all, the UK whose roads are being blockaded or whose towns are convulsed by rioting. Nobody is setting tractor tyres alight in Downing Street. After all, that would clearly be causing inconvenience to people of consequence, and therefore illegal. But in principle, the UK government does not have a dog in this fight. If the overwhelming majority of the French population is opposed to their President – and the last time I looked, M. Macron enjoyed a rating of around 15% – well, they are presumably entitled to get rid of him. If democracy means anything, it surely means that.

The unfortunate gentleman who was arrested by the counter-terrorism police was the foreign rights manager of a French publishing house. Now it is entirely possible that the purpose of his visit to the UK was to try and flog the foreign rights of some of his firm’s authors to UK publishers. That is very much the kind of thing that foreign rights managers do; it would be quite unsurprising if there were foreign rights managers for UK publishers doing the exact same thing in France at this very moment.

Let us suppose that all of these authors hold profoundly objectionable views. I have no idea one way or the other, but let us suppose so for the sake of argument. It is still very hard to argue that trying to sell the UK rights to those views amounts to a terrorist act. If he was going to demand that UK publishers buy those rights at gunpoint, a case could possibly be made, but that is not the way foreign rights managers typically operate. I have certainly seen no suggestion that such was his intention.

In any case, what definition of “profoundly objectionable views” is being suggested? Apparently, not being in favour of M. Macron is meant to qualify as such, although it is very hard to see what His Majesty’s government could be objecting to in that case. If a UK publisher, some of whose authors might not be 100% behind the government of Mr Sunak – assuming such a thing might be wildly possible – were to send their foreign rights manager to France, would the French government arrest that person on counter-terrorism grounds? If they did, would the UK government approve, or would they be moved to some kind of protest? After all, the whole premise of Brexit, to which Mr Sunak is apparently deeply committed, is found on a visceral suspicion that Johnny Foreigner has been interfering with our liberties.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, however, it does bring the fore that ever-popular but profoundly questionable word: terrorism. Everyone agrees that terrorism is a bad thing. What people are less unanimous about, however, is what it actually is. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary (1989 edition) has to say about it:

(ˈtɛrərɪz(ə)m) [a. F. terrorisme (1798 in Dict. Acad., Suppl.), f. L. terror dread, terror: see -ism.]

A system of terror.

  1. Government by intimidation as directed and carried out by the party in power in France during the Revolution of 1789–94; the system of the ‘Terror’ (1793–4): see terror n. 4.
  1. gen. A policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorizing or condition of being terrorized. Also transf. Cf. terrorist 1b.

OED 2nd ed. (1989) (illustrative quotations omitted for brevity)

I pass over here the sublime irony by which the first meaning is ascribed to the French Revolution, but I would draw your attention to the primary definition: “A system of terror.” No doubt you recall the bemusing attempt by President George W. Bush to declare war on terror, after which no abstract noun could consider itself safe. But a system of terror, abstractly, looks something like the following:

  • This thing is really scary! “This thing” can be anything, from Al-Qaeda to International Jewry to Communism to climate change to Covid-19 to the tribe in the next valley.
  • I can protect you from the scary thing! Again, “I” can be a charismatic leader or simply the embodiment of the regime du jour; “I” can be the Pope or Napoleon or Hitler or Franklin D. Roosevelt or the CDC.
  • So do what I tell you and you will be safe! This is obviously what “I” would want everyone to believe, and it seems to flow so naturally from the previous claims.

This is the basic mechanism of tyranny. It isn’t simply that tyrants employ beefy men with big sticks to thwack anyone who disagrees with them, although of course they always do, because there will always be some fraction of the population who isn’t buying it. But if people are scared enough of the Scary Thing, they will want to believe that someone can save them from it.

What’s insidious about this is that there are genuinely scary things out there in the world, and we all have to deal with them one way or another. It’s a bit like eating disorders: you actually do need to eat food in order to stay alive, and total abstinence is not an option (and I realise that some people don’t want to hear that). I am not here to tell you that climate change, for instance, is not very, very scary. It is. Indeed, in my opinion it is a lot scarier than religious extremists wishing to hijack airliners, and several orders of magnitude scarier than anything I can imagine the average foreign rights manager trying to do.

If M. Macron is looking for my advice – and I’m pretty sure he isn’t – he would do well to come up with a Scary Thing from which he can claim to be saving France. (Scary to the average French elector, I mean; he mostly seems to feel that the Scary Thing is some sort of obstacle to his personal career trajectory, and that doesn’t seem to be capturing the popular imagination right now.) There certainly are plenty of candidates for that, although whether he can plausibly claim to be saving France from, say, the ongoing disintegration of its agricultural sector is a moot point.

I am, however, struggling to imagine how any of this counts as terrorism from the point of view of the UK, unless Mr Sunak is also entertaining fantasies of ruling by decree. I’d like to think that isn’t the case, but perhaps I’m taking too romantic a view of the liberties the UK claims to stand for – well, so long as that doesn’t stop us flogging arms to Saudi Arabia, anyway.

For the moment, visitors to the UK – and residents as well – are probably best advised at least to appear to be in favour of the current thing. I believe those counter-terrorism people cost us a fortune in overtime.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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