A Further Reflection on the London Attacks


Avishai Margalit wrote a short book a few years ago called The Decent Society. Margalit proposed that a decent society was one which, in every aspect, created and maintained its institutions so that they would not humiliate. The principle of non-humiliation, then, was its organising principle.

Humiliation and non-humiliation are concepts that might go some way to answering the question I posed in my article two weeks ago: why is it that terrorists act as they do? They might also go some way to explaining how it is that young men, who had lived all their lives in Britain, could become London’s bombers.

Thanks to Leahy

Thanks to Leahy

Jane Caro, in her response to my piece, suggests that a foundation for terrorism might be a sense of moral superiority combined with economic and military inferiority. I agree, but to fully understand what’s happening I think we have to try to get at how this might feel. And that’s where humiliation comes in.

Just imagining for a moment: for a young man adherence to a religious creed, which asserts its absolute rightness and permits no deviation from the word, would be a source of profound security and belonging. This would be particularly so if, at the point of entry into this world, the young person had been unsure of his identity. If the creed further asserted its superiority over all others, one might expect the young person to take great pride in it and at the same time to seek to defend it against any explicit or implicit attack. By doing so, of course, so he would be defending himself. The intensity of this defence is likely to be great. For that reason I think Moira Rayner’s suggestion that a critical education might fix it will take us some way but only so far. As Elizabeth Lopez points out, in her comment on my piece, we are dealing here less with learning than with meaning.

Let’s say next that the young man is living in a Western country where his religion, his nationality and his colour are of the minority. He might experience discrimination, he might experience condescension and disdain. He might, as Jenny Lade proposes, find himself in systems that care nothing for his predicament. His faith, and even the fact of his belief, might be ridiculed. No matter how tight his immediate world, the one pressing in on him from outside may humiliate him.

More than that, his parents might also have been the subject of systemic and individual discrimination. No matter how talented, the times and their prevalent discriminatory attitudes might have permitted them to aspire at best to the ownership of a successful fish and chip shop and that other external symbol of success, a Mercedes. With his university education, he might be humiliated for them.

He might look beyond his national borders and see that neither power nor wealth reside with the nations of his religion. The injustice of this might cast him down. Further, he would see the nations of the rich and the powerful as his antagonists. In several countries, he would observe that overwhelming force is being used to lay waste the peoples of his faith in the name of some alien, secular ideology. He would experience the heavy stamp of their foot on his creed and his confreres as humiliating. In Iraq he would see the death. In Israel he would see the Jew.

His hurt would have been aggravated exponentially by the events at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It is difficult to conceive of anything that would have provoked more anguish and rage, even among moderate Muslims, than the spectacle of Charles Graner and Lynndie England using vile, violent and pornographic means of humiliating their Iraqi captives. The cost of this alone will have been incalculable.

He might then be told to look to history. And in history, he would perceive great battles fought in the terrains of faith. Despite the unquestionable moral ascendancy of his own, he might come to believe that too often it had been the inferior, or worse the ungodly, that had triumphed. He would be humiliated on account of his faith. And so on.

In the end, I suppose, there is a limit to the humiliation one can stand. But even with all this, most young Islamic men will not take the path of the London bombers. The ones that cross that line are likely to have one additional factor added. An indoctrination in the home, mosque or madrassa where an unyielding, fanatical belief in the transcendent necessity to wage war between believer and infidel, faith and falsehood, morality and degradation, civilisation and barbarity will have been framed and fanned.

At the farther end of the extreme, then, a violent strike at the oppressor or some representation of it, ‘them’ or whatever, may finally come to seem a heroic course — a powerful act of ‘de-humiliation’ as one writer puts it. All the more so when one’s reward for executing it may be thought to lie in paradise.

So, humiliation metamorphoses into undifferentiated hatred, its own kind of mental disintegration, and then it makes no difference whom one strikes. For the strike alone is the means to avenge one’s creed, to restore pride in one’s people, to relieve the shame of one’s family, to create fear in the enemy and to vindicate one’s own moral career.

If this is anything like right, we face awful problems. For then it’s not just Iraq and Palestine. In this cast of mind, it’s a concertinaed clash of peoples, nationalities, cultures, values and faiths over decades and perhaps centuries.

So, with friends in other faiths, and across the community, we’d better get working on this and quickly. But how? I don’t think anyone has the monopoly of wisdom on this but let me make a few, perhaps counterintuitive, suggestions by way of taking the discussion a step further.

In The Decent Society Margalit proposed that the design of society’s laws and institutions should not be such as to humiliate. The foundation of that view is that before the law and in its administration, everyone should be regarded with equal respect and concern. Consciously or unconsciously to privilege one segment of society over another, therefore, is anathema. Differential treatment by society’s laws or institutions will engender the very humiliation that the decent society ought not to tolerate.

One important step we can take then is to introduce a legally enforceable charter of rights in the form of a Human Rights Act. If there are grounds for thinking that members of religious, racial or national minorities feel continuously marginalied, then it would be a critical step symbolically and practically to say, from this point onwards, that each has equal rights and freedoms and that all will be treated without discrimination. Our society will adhere in this way to the values of respect and concern that lie at the heart of our most cherished traditions.

Enacting a law will of course achieve little without concomitant attitudinal change — but it is a start. It gives those in minorities a ground on which to stand and a human rights charter, setting down the rights and freedoms that everyone shares equally, with which to identify. It also provides society’s institutions with a benchmark against which to assess the appropriateness of their actions. Imagine, for instance, the preparation of a human rights impact statement for major governmental and departmental initiatives. The adoption of a Human Rights Act would be a gesture of inclusiveness. It would be a signal that the humiliation of any group is not what society intends.

There are two other reasons, in the present context, for adopting this measure. In an environment of heightened anxiety and insecurity it can reasonably be assumed that the government will take strong steps to crack down on anticipated terrorist threats. The revival of the ID card debate is a clear indication of this. These measures cannot be taken without some corresponding reduction in freedoms which we take as read. Our right to privacy is one.

I do not suggest that additional counter-terrorist measures are unnecessary. They may well be needed. What is crucial however is that we should have an informed debate, in relation to each and every new measure, about how the trade-off between security and freedom might best be effected. It is impossible to have this debate with any semblance of detachment unless there are transparent criteria in relation to which decisions about the trade-off should be taken. This is what a charter of rights does. It assists in providing us with essential human rights criteria against which to assess the validity of state anti-terrorist action.

Further, it is regrettable but inevitable that in the foreseeable future intelligence and law enforcement activity will focus upon members of the Islamic community. However appropriately targeted, this will have the effect of alienating some, and perhaps large numbers, of that community. If, however, we set in place human rights legislation that will provide those who may be placed incorrectly under surveillance, interrogated with insufficient reason, or charged without adequate evidence, with the means to challenge such action, then we say at the very least that we care for everyone’s freedoms equally.

Lest it be thought that all this is too wishy-washy and liberal, it needs to be remembered that the rights and freedoms contained in a human rights charter are not absolute. They are subject to restrictions that are necessary for the preservation of a free and democratic society. One general restriction is particularly relevant here. Nothing in a human rights charter may be seen to imply that any person has a right to engage in activities aimed at the destruction of the rights and freedoms which that charter contains.

To take one instance in the present environment, I do not think in principle there should be any objection to outlawing incitement to religious hatred and violence. The provocation of hatred and violence by one segment of society against another is the very antithesis of the values of equal respect and concern that should frame our actions. It is a grossly irresponsible use of the freedom of speech that we treasure. It is not the exercise of a human right, it is the abuse of one. Of course, the line between permissible and impermissible speech is fiendishly difficult to draw. But that difficulty should not prevent us from drawing it. Our law should send the clear message that speech calculated to incite hatred and, in so doing, provoke violence will not be tolerated.

The same kind of prohibition should apply to those who seek to visit this country in order to advocate hatred and violence as the means of their creed’s advancement. We should simply deny them entry and, if they are already here, require them to leave. I am acutely conscious of the parallels that some may draw here with the absurd refusal of entry to Egon Kisch in the 1930s in the context of a broader campaign to defeat communism. But the fact that this and other mistakes have been made in the past should simply encourage us to appreciate more clearly the dangers of over-reaction. Now we should ensure that the criteria for restrictions on freedom of movement are debated more widely and framed more appropriately within a just and democratic framework.

Underlying the suggestions made here, and there could be many others, is a primary conviction. Ultimately the war on terror must not be a war against law. It has to be a war for law. If our first response to this threat is to abandon legal principles that we hold dear, including our commitment to human rights, then we concede a defeat. If we promote such principles and uphold the rule of law, we assert our values against those who would erode or destroy them.

The war on terror must not be pursued against the grain of democracy. It must go with it. If, therefore, we counter the challenge by erecting a secretive state, we fail to defend our ideals. If, however, our leaders strengthen our democratic institutions, make government more open, remove sources of discrimination and take people into their confidence in furtherance of this battle, we inflict upon violent ideologies a decisive defeat.

If we understand what our laws and institutions are there for, trust in them and make the work even better, the capacity for terrorism to create a next generation of recruits will be fatally weakened. Feeling less humiliated, the young man I imagined at the commencement of this article might see that there is an alternative.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.