“We need a milieu movement that can reinforce and give strength to each other’s views.”
Prof. Dr Frank Furedi, University of Kent
42: As a sociologist, would you define terrorism differently after 9/11?
Frank Furedi: I wouldn’t. I think defining terrorism is always problematic because it is difficult to distinguish it from other forms of political violence. I deny that 9/11 was a major singular event, but it has had its impacts on the global environment. We feel insecure. But essentially speaking, the key element of terrorism is to inflict terror – not only on the people you target to kill but also on the population as well, and this distinction is very important. Secondly, it’s about provoking a reaction of the population. That is much more important than the act of terror itself. People should recognise that. But those factors and elements are just as important today as they were in any other historic moment – not just since 9/11.
42: What do you think is the predominant feeling in Western societies after terrorist attacks?
FF: I was involved in a research project three years ago, and it became clear that terrorism is the one threat that governments are more worried about than people. However, there are other threats, such as crime, or immigration, that people are more worried about than governments. I think most people are not very concerned about terrorism. Certainly, not as much as you would expect when reading newspapers. The only time of generalised fear is in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack.
42: In how far is sensation-mongering an element of this generalised fear?
FF: When you look at history, at the last 150 years, there has been far less sensationalism than you would expect. Although now and again, especially in popular culture, you have all these terrorist related fantasy films and the attempts to award this big danger, there has been an attempt to keep sensation-mongering fairly limited. It is very interesting that in case of a terrorist incident in Europe, there often is a reluctance to blame somebody for it and people are unwilling to go in gung-ho immediately. There is almost a desire not to say who is responsible because the last thing that many people want is for these anxieties to blossom and become more powerful.
42: In which way have different Western societies been dealing with the aftermath of terrorist attacks?
FF: There has been a rough similarity in the way that societies have dealt with it. Primarily because, culturally speaking, most Western societies are pretty similar. They might have different emphases in the way that their police forces are seen and in the way the threats are perceived. Nevertheless, some societies have been better at dealing with it than others – Belgium, for example, had its problems with shootings. The Belgian authorities overreacted to a considerable extent: They became confused and disoriented, cancelled football matches because they panicked. England, on the other hand, reacted quite effectively, when it experienced the bombing in London in July 2007. Its reaction is a classic example of not letting the event change the way you lead your life. There are minor differences, but by and large, there has been an attempt to deal with the consequences of a terrorist attack in a targeted way and then move on as fast as possible – at least on the surface. That is the way it has been perceived, and none of the targeted countries have overreacted too much. There hasn’t been this out of control, anti-social kind of reaction that you would have expected.
42: Do you think the terrorist attacks had the impact the terrorists intended, thus that it changed Western societies?
FF: I think it had a big impact on America. It coincides in any case with the loss of confidence in the American way of life, which happened more or less at the same time, namely in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. At this point, the certainty about the enemy they were fighting was lost, and this brought about insecurity. America had already imagined that it would be terrorised in the ten years previous to 9/11. I think what terrorism in that sense has done, is that it has unravelled that sense of security which was the characteristic feature of the post-war period. It has heightened some previously existing tensions. But it didn’t fundamentally change society. It just made the politicisation of fear an even more prominent element of what has been happening since 9/11.
42: But security measures such as camera surveillance, for example, have changed society, don’t you think?
FF: Well, we have to remember that camera surveillance has been kicking in beforehand since the surveillance was seen as a quick fix solution to crime, even before 9/11. In the previous decade, there has already been a proliferation of these things, and that has continued. The whole shift towards surveillance and the use of technology, all these things predate 9/11. 9/11 just provided extra resources and more momentum but the event hasn’t changed the quality of the global picture in the West.
42: After terrorist attacks, research finds that there is a trend in politics to become more conservative. What would you say are the factors that lead to this change in politics?
FF: I think there is a change and the change that you identify is due to various factors. One is the continuous erosion of what we still call “the left”. Throughout Europe, the left has become more and more feeble, and even people who call themselves left-wing in the cultural domain, have attitudes that differ immensely from what were classical left-wing ideals. At the same time, you see a decline in the influence of classical conservative and classical liberal parties. They, too, lost their way a bit. I think what you call conservative is Hollande’s reaction after the attacks in Paris, for example I would see this as more of a technocratic sort of reactionary conservative impulses, coming to the surface. This has become a generalised way of governing European societies. But terrorism is only one aspect. There is the failure of multiculturalism, the growing segregation of society, the loss of national identities: What does it mean to be French or what does it mean to be German? These are questions that nobody can answer properly. And I think that all those things have congealed together to create that kind of technocratic, oligarchical response. The way that this has happened is very interesting, but there are many reasons that have been pushing in the same direction.
42: Could you point out some of these reasons for the uncertainty within Europe?
FF: The key problem is what I call the rapid acceleration of cultural uncertainty. Where nations and societies in Europe don’t know how to give meaning to their experiences, they ask: “What is my community, what is it that defines who we are?” When you don’t have stability, people are looking for all kinds of different directions, and they are not sure about what will happen. In that context, terrorism obviously makes matters more complicated, but it’s the cultural uncertainty that precedes it and defines the European condition at the moment.
42: Is there something that society could actively do to deal with this feeling of insecurity?
FF: One of the most important things is to encourage communities to take more responsibility for their lives, rather than to wait for solutions from the government, the police or the army. Relying on communities to claim more of an active role in the conduct of their affairs is very important. I think we need to raise the level of education and the level of discussion and debate in our societies. This has become extremely thin in recent times. However, I also think we need to go back and be more active in using the legacies of the past. Since the beginnings of the Enlightenment, there have been some very important political gains, like democracy. All the enlightenment values, we have to give them more contemporary meaning instead of just rhetorically repeating them. There is a lot that can be done. But the really important thing is not to wait for another 9/11 but to rebuild our public life, to give it a much greater content and purpose than it is the case at the moment.
42: So, instead of constantly comparing situations now with events in the past, we should learn from the past and stay in the present to tackle current issues?
FF: Yes, I think we should stay in the present because the only problems we can solve are the problems of the present. But there are achievements, insights and experiences that we’ve gained that mustn’t be forgotten and that we need to harness. Particularly, as I said before, it is important to bring enlightenment values to the present. We need to understand that, in historical terms, the quality of our public life today is limited. It is useful to remember that. Not because we want to go back to the past. Public life wasn’t always the way it is now. There were more possibilities, and there was a more fluid and dynamic context.
42: What do you mean by “fluid context”?
FF: There are periods when ideas are thrown up in the air, where things are not simply fixed when people are more open to experimenting with ideas, when they have a genuine climate of debate and argument which everybody learns from and when we talk a little bit more with each other. At the moment, one of my main concerns about public life, universities included, is the way people have isolated themselves to such an extent that they only talk to people like themselves. And when you only talk to people like yourself, you never develop your own ideas because it’s like an echo chamber: You merely hear yourself. However, you don’t have conversations that the society as a whole can learn from.
42: But some people argue that discussions with right-wing populists and people who are xenophobic are pointless…
FF: This is a very defeatist way of looking at it. Because the logic of that statement is that if we disagree with each other, that is the end of the story. Nothing more can be said. Sometimes it is impossible to have a conversation, but that is because some people don’t want to have a discussion. Other times, when you talk to people who have very fixed views, you might not be able to convince them, but at the very least you can unsettle them, you can raise doubts. Other times you can even draw them out – talk to them and convince them. I think it’s very arrogant but also very cowardly to say, “we can’t do this”. A lot of my friends who are academics are scared to debate with people who are not like them. They don’t say that they are scared to debate the topics, but they are prejudiced. They blame the others: “They do not listen; it is all their fault. I’m the angel; I’ve got these sophisticated ideas – and they’re such simple people. How can we have a conversation?” I think it is our job to create conditions for constructive discussions, although we may face obstacles in the process.
42: So we need cooperating people who are willing to engage with public issues.
FF: Yes, because the more of us there are, who can make an effort, who feel confident about engaging with these issues in public, the more it will have a serious impact. Individuals are important, but in the end, we need more than individuals. We need a milieu movement that can reinforce and give strength to each other’s views.
42: Could such a movement prevent young people from becoming radicalised?
FF: I am not even sure if “radical” is the right word for terrorism. I know we use this expression radicalisation, but it is possibly a misnomer. I understand the emergence of terrorism in Western societies as the result of the fragmentation of communities in our midst, the failure of multiculturalism, of public life, and the failure to engage and inspire people. You always have people who have been alienated from the young in particular. In the past, they would have joined a motorcycle gang or taken drugs, something like that. In this situation, however, where alienation is apparent, with an evident and strong cultural element as it is a reaction to Western culture, you may now draw upon Islam, for instance. What is interesting is that when you go on any jihadist website, the music is “ghetto music” and the images are reminiscent of European or American, basically Western subculture that has been recycled and reshaped or reimagined in an Islamist form. What we see is an estrangement or alienation that has existed in the past. Nowadays, culture or communities themselves are much more feeble in pulling people together: This type of alienation has acquired a destructive, misanthropic form and in combination with the prevailing prejudices against Islam, this gives it a global, outwardly political force.
42: Thank you.
Interview: Lena Kronenbürger