In November 1932 the then-British prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a speech to the Houses of Parliament that became known as “Fear of the Future.” Faced with the growing menace of Hitler and the coming war, Baldwin was musing on one single idea that today has terrible resonance for our own times: “The bomber will always get through.”
In Baldwin’s day, the bomber was an aircraft piloted by airmen loyal to a sovereign state and operating under the rules of war. In our own time, the bomber is, too often, an explosive vest with legs, loyal to none but those who brain-washed him into thinking he does Allah’s work. Or, in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar, rucksacks toting pressure cookers with ball-bearings ready for detonation at the Boston Marathon.
Back in an other age, Baldwin told a skeptical and war-averse parliament: “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through, The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves…If the conscience of the young men should ever come to feel, with regard to this one instrument [bombing] that it is evil and should go, the thing will be done; but if they do not feel like that – well, as I say, the future is in their hands.”
Without knowing it (for he was still thinking in terms of conventional war and would have been unable to conceive the idea that the bomber might be “amongst us”), Baldwin had set out the terrifying dilemma that has plagued intelligence agencies ever since, and has come into ever-sharper focus with the development of pilotless drone technology on one side, and IEDs on the other. Baldwin was thinking of what Hitler perfected as the Blitzkrieg, and which London would experience just eight years later.
But eighty years later the idea of “defence is in offence” has prospered and become the guiding spirit of the drone campaign in Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa. Will the pre-emptive strike using drones — as the Obama administration clearly believes — kill more troublemakers than it creates new militants?
If, as Baldwin maintained, “the bomber will always get through,” how can drone attacks ever hope to stamp out this evil? Won’t they simply promote growth of new terrorists like a Hydra? But if we accept his gloomy prognosis, then what is left for us is surely the title of the almost-forgotten British premier’s speech: “Fear of the Future.”
Because of this fear, we need closed circuit TV cameras to watch our streets. We need intrusive searches to protect us before we get on airplanes. We need monitoring of our emails, our cellphones, our landlines, our internet usage, our bank accounts, and we need to be profiled every time we stand in line at the supermarket. But we feel no safer. So what if, despite all these things (and Boston certainly makes it look like Baldwin was right in this regard) “the bomber will always get through”?
What if all the drones, all the Homeland Security initiatives, the intelligence operatives, the scans, the swipes, the oversight, the centralisation of data and power and yet more data, are in the end impotent?
These days, it’s not a question of penetrating our airspace to “get through.” The Tsarnaevs – just like the British Muslims responsible for the earlier London 7/7 bombings – are right here among us. These disaffected citizens intent on becoming non-citizens, are like the sand at our feet. They’ve never been to West Point or Sandhurst to learn strategy, yet their action is invisible, unending, grinding away so effectively at established power structures.
During World War II (Baldwin was gone by then and Winston Churchill was in charge) the huge fixed guns that defended Singapore against attack by any enemy flotilla sailing into the harbour for the south , proved totally useless. Instead, the Japanese army chose to come by bicycle down from the north along the Malay peninsula, and met a near-defenceless city. We have to ask: are the “fixed guns” of today’s war on terror just as badly-placed?
Perhaps it’s something to do with the rather exotic names of the two brothers who perpetrated this outrage. But because of their central Asian origins, and because of their grim achievement in rendering the US agencies powerlessness to stop them, I am reminded of Shelley’s great poem Ozymandias. It remains a sober and timely reflection on the futility of power in the face of the billions of grains of sand we might also call the scouring force of disaffected ordinary people with hearts full of hate.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
There has to come a moment when we realise that the steps being taken to increase our security may be counter-productive. And if we are to consign “Fear of the Future” to the 1930s where it belongs, we need a new approach to disarming the bombers who come and go freely amongst us. We can’t stop them “getting through” because there is no border between them and us. Iraq, Afghanistan and a dozen other modern wars showed us that preemptive violence doesn’t stop violence. We have to disarm the bombers in our midst.