In the aftermath of the Sousse massacre, David Cameron has spoken a fair amount about the tragedy, both in the House and in public. On Radio 4 the other day, he was talking about Daesh (I’m refusing to call them ISIS or ISIL ever again, except in the context of a quote – they aren’t a bloody state, and calling them one simply feeds into their warped narrative). He said that they “have declared war on Britain and they are attacking our people at home and overseas.”
Here’s the thing: I know the prime minister has to issue some harsh words in the wake of such a horrible event. But unfortunately, “declaring war” is not a fuzzy concept to be thrown around by heads of government casually. If those who seek to form an Islamic caliphate, in the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Islamic world, have indeed declared war on Britain, then it is beholden on us to fight them militarily, immediately. If Russia had declared war on Britain, we would take that to mean that they were going to invade our island and thus we would either need to surrender or fight back. That’s what the words “declare war” actually mean, particularly when coming from the mouth of a prime minister or president.
But we’re not going to send troops to Syria and Iraq to fight them any time very soon, are we? Dropping words we don’t mean is actually very harmful – it makes us sound like we’re full of steam. Which actually potentially places us in more danger. It’s like if you say to a bully, “This is my line in the sand – cross it at your peril”, and said bully walks deliberately right over it and your counter response is “Okay, this time I mean it”. It sends a signal that you’re full of crap and can be bullied further.
It reminds me of the post 9/11 melee and Bush’s “War on Terror”. Like David Cross once memorably put, you can’t fight a war on terrorism; it’s like fighting a war against jealousy. You can militarily take on a stated group – such as Daesh. You either have the will to do so, or you don’t. If you don’t, refrain from using words like “declare war”, please.
What happened in Tunisia was a horrible tragedy. But either we think we can do something to stop something similar ever happening again, such as marching into Syria to destroy those we feel were behind it, or we accept that there are horrible people in the world and we’re somewhat powerless to stop things like what happened in Sousse a few days ago taking place from time to time. As scary as it is, being honest about it all is so much better than not confronting the truth of what we’re facing here. It just seems to me that all those people who died on that Tunisian beach a few days ago deserve more than empty rhetoric.