Daniel Johnson: I thought we’d start with Philip’s striking thesis in Terror and Consent that everything we thought we knew about terrorism and how to deal with it is obsolete and we must start again. It’s a very radical view. Why do you think that?
Philip Bobbitt: Terrorism is the name of an epiphenomenon, a symptom of the state. Different constitutional cultures and orders produce different forms of terrorism. Perhaps the most vulnerability-making quality of our constitutional culture is our refusal to realise that it and the kind of terrorism it produces are undergoing a fundamental change. So we bring the habits of mind of a century of success against terrorism and they are just as inappropriate as those of the French knights who walked onward to Agincourt.
DJ: Michael, what do you think of that? Can the British claim to have learnt something with their long struggle with the IRA?
Michael Gove: Well, one of the things that’s great about Philip’s thesis is that it’s direct and provocative and it forces us to reassess all the assumptions that we have. There’s one aspect of Philip’s analysis with which I completely agree. As states evolve, as technology changes, as states and their citizens change their attitudes towards each other, so terrorist organisations have evolved as well. Not just in reaction to how states act and how states enrage them, but because they too have become more technologically sophisticated. Philip very effectively points out that just as with the modern market state, the development of the traditional nation state is a decentralised, outsourced political structure. So al-Qaeda is a decentralised network organisation that outsources much of its activity. And in that respect I completely agree with Philip’s analysis and I think it’s provocative and useful.
The area where I think I depart, or would certainly place the emphasis slightly differently, is on the lessons that we can learn from history. Philip’s book is stuffed full of historical examples and all the more enjoyable a read for it. But I do think that one of the things we can crucially do is analyse the specific threat that we face from al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism with reference to recent terrorist campaigns and also with reference to recent ideologies. I think that you can see Islamism as a sibling ideology to Fascism and Communism. It’s another type of totalitarianism, there are as many similarities as there are differences. And I also think that we can learn from some of the mistakes that the West has made in dealing with recent terrorist atrocities as well as learning from some of the alleged successes.
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