Happy New Decade: Are you (still) Afraid? (2004, 2009)

As we head towards the new year and every media outlet on the planet compiles lists of definitive this and that, I found this 2004 piece on my hard drive, which seems to do a reasonable decade-summarising job. It was a column for Arena magazine. I'm not sure they printed it, though I remember they took my picture on the concourse at Waterloo station. The War on Terror has defined the last ten years. This piece, with its mordant tone, reminds me of how angry I was back then, when we were unsure how far it would escalate. Now we've just grown accustomed to our state of perpetual warfare. It's the air we breathe, and it's corrosive. Here's to a better next decade

Unfurl the flag, sound the fife and drums and kiss your sweethearts goodbye because the men of yet another generation are off to war. Heroic, eh? Except that for us it’s not the fight against the Nazis or even the bloody mess of Vietnam. No, history has offered us the weirdest of all conflicts - the war on terror. My dictionary succinctly defines terror as ‘extreme fear’, which makes it sound rather like base jumping. It also defines war as ‘strife usu. between nations conducted by force.’ But (hang on, I’ll just check), we’re apparently fighting a feeling, not a nation. It’s like something that would happen in The Matrix. Watch them plug Keanu into the grid! How afraid does he feel? Only when Keanu has conquered his own fear, when he feels chilled out again like in Bill & Ted, will the war be won!

I hate the formulation ‘war on terror’ because it obscures everything that’s really going on, all the concrete political, religious and economic manoeuvring that is killing Spanish commuters, US marines, Saudi Mujaheddin, Afghan villagers… In fact it obscures ‘the enemy’ completely. It’s a narcissistic phrase, a therapy phrase. A ‘war on terror’ isn’t about politics. It’s all about us. It makes us into the Woody Allens of global conflict, neurotically worrying about our hurt feelings. It’s a phrase that plays into the hands of everyone who profits from a climate of fear, both the terrorists and the proponents of a security state. Frightened people will accept every kind of infringement of civil rights (especially other people’s) if they think it will save them from dying.

But let’s take our terror seriously. How afraid do you feel? Where and when do you feel it most strongly? Remember, soldier, your mind is the battle ground! Your emotional state directly contributes to the war effort! Do you personally feel like you’re winning or losing?

I’m writing this in Christchurch, New Zealand. The nearest this country has come to Al-Qaida is the revelation that a senior operative visited Auckland in the early nineties, pretending to be a shoe salesman. Ordinarily I live in London, where it all feels rather more real. During the last IRA bombing campaign in the late nineties, I remember times when I felt seriously uneasy on the tube. It was always a low level thing, a tinge of unease. Once or twice it got stronger, a sudden vivid imagining of how the people in the carriage would look as they exploded, as their faces were blown apart, their limbs torn off. I would find myself conjuring up the force of the blast, the pain I would feel as the percussive wave disintegrated my body, disintegrated me. Since September 11th, I’ve had that feeling frequently, in crowds, at airports. For some reason Waterloo station always brings it on. It’s something to do with the scurrying commuters, the high ceilings. The place has a theatrical quality, like a stage set for disaster.

This is the kind of thing that a fear-warrior, however reluctant, isn’t supposed to be admitting. I’m losing it! I’m worried about getting blown up! Do something Mr George and Mr Tony! Make me safe! Don’t worry kid, we arrested some more Arab-type dudes. Just carry on shopping. This might satisfy me, as it seems to satisfy people who cling to a residual faith in the probity and altruism of our leaders, were it not for my other occasional role in the general pageant of terror. There’s nothing I can do about it, but I just seem to have that Al-Qaida look. That whole dark thing. I’ve been surrounded by nervous staff at American airports. I’ve boarded planes and seen whole rows of faces fall. I won’t even tell you about the time I was almost arrested outside LAX, trying to return a rental car. I think about that when I see pictures of Guantanamo Bay, or hear about the plans to pre-emptively people suspected of being about to do something terrifying. Frightened citizens aren’t noted for their logic. As often as I imagine what it would be like to be the victim of a terrorist attack, I imagine what it would be like to be mistaken for a terrorist. So, fellow soldiers, how are you feeling today? Are you winning or losing? When do you think the war will end?

5th April 04