Religious violence and the logic of all-out war

With a seminar on religious violence approaching at the weekend, I’ve been reading Mark Juergensmeyer. One of his big points about 9/11 was how the government response to the atrocity turned a terrorist attack into a cosmic war – a conflict that understands itself via the symbolism of the apocalypse. It allowed a rich eccentric extremist called bin Laden to present himself as winning against America. The conflict ramped up exponentially, and left the political sphere to become perpetual.

He contrasts that with how the government responded to Timothy McVeigh, which was to treat him as a terrorist, plain and simple, a strategy that starved his following of any oxygen. He also points to the success in Northern Ireland, where the British government learnt from its mistakes, reached a strategy that refused to escalate the violence, and so paved the way for a political solution. Religion could feed hope rather than rage.

Anyway, it was striking to read this as David Cameron was announcing an ‘all-out war’ on gangs. Paul Mason took to the streets and asked gang members what they made of it. There’ll be ‘big war’ was one response, ‘bigger war than already’. There’s the logic. Never can they have felt so important, provoked, thrilled.

If Juergensmeyer is right, the metaphor of war is all wrong. Criminality is quite adequate.

(Image: Burnt out van, Hackney, Alasdair)