Thirty-five years ago, an era ended with the bombing of the Bologna railway station, in Italy. Eighty-five people were killed, when a bomb exploded in the station waiting room, a massive toll for the time. No single act of non-state terror had come close to that toll since Menachem Begin’s destruction of the King David Hotel in 1948 — and the King David was to some degree a military target.
Through the decade of the ’70s people had become accustomed to “small”-event, non-state terror as a fact of life. The relative acceptance of it — emphasis on the “relative” — was for any number of reasons. There was simply more death around, for a start — car crashes and heart attacks being far more frequent and commonplace events.
There was a degree of sympathy for much of the politics behind it. And the notion of “safety” — from terror, safe spaces, safe discourses — had not yet become the grand spirit of the age that it is in ours. Technologies of total surveillance weren’t there for a start, and there were simply cultural limits to the levels of everyday control that people would accept or propose.
But the Bologna bombing put a stop to that, though it was a strange and still not fully explained event. It came after years of urban guerrilla warfare by the Red Brigades and a few other ultra-left groups in Italy, and — less well remembered — bombings by fascist groups with various names.
Both sides had a “strategy of tension” — the Red Brigades believing that their actions would provoke the state into a repression that the Italian working class would resist, the “Black” fascist groups believing it would create a dictatorial state that would eviscerate the left. The fascist groups were unquestionably bound up in the Italian state security apparatus, not wholly creatures of it, but having porous borders with it. Indeed, some of the ultra-left activities, including, possibly, the abduction and murder of former Italian PM Aldo Moro in 1978, may have themselves had a degree of Italian state involvement, under a false flag.
But the overall framework of the post-war, semi-democratic, semi-liberal Italian state stayed in place — until the Bologna bombing. The event had more in common with terrorism in our era than in that one. No warning was given, there was no clear purpose, no military/police/capitalist/left target. Eighty-five people were simply eviscerated.
The event was an act by fascists — though it is often falsely remembered, when it is remembered at all, as a Red Brigades act — and it supercharged a process already in place, the wholesale suspension of Italian democracy and rights.
Thousands of people were rounded up, far more ultra-left than fascists, and accused of being Red Brigades members, based on the testimony of penitenti, Italian supergrasses. Many were members of radical groups like Lotta Continua (The Continuous Struggle), who had a street-fighting aspect, but who had been harshly critical of the Red Brigades’ assassination/abduction strategy*. Didn’t matter. Everyone was accused of being Red Brigades on the basis of often tortured, deranged and corrupt informants.
But of course the “strategy of tension” had triumphed, though only for the fascists — the mass uprising never appeared (the Communist Party of Italy had denounced the Red Brigades, and assisted in their capture). At some point, a form of radical state action against non-state agent violence becomes inevitable. Driven in part by the sense that a certain level of tolerated violence is getting out of hand, the state’s reaction is as much about propriety as about public safety.
The Paris attack has pushed this new strategy of tension — the drive to get Western states to clamp down on all Muslims, and get out of the “grey zone” — to its greatest point so far. Whatever valid moral point people have in pointing out the disproportionate global attention given to the event, compared to bombings elsewhere, there is no denying that the Paris attack was a different type of event. Had it simply been shooting up some restaurants — sudden, random death — it would not have had anything like the impact. It’s the Bataclan massacre that lies at the heart of it. As further details emerge of this literally sickening event, death doled out slow to a crowd of young people waiting and hoping they wouldn’t be killed, would get to live their lives, the anger will grow.
The bombing of Islamic State targets will make people feel better for a while — many Europeans, and European-Australians, will be surprised, in the coming weeks, to find how indifferent they are to the prospect of civilian casualties there, to a darkness that has been laid into their own hearts — but it won’t do anything, and everyone knows it. Bombing never destroyed a state, and even if a follow-up military campaign did, it would have the same effect as whacking an ants’ nest does to a picnic. Destroy the IS state, and thousands of battle-hardened IS fighters will either simply blend into what is once again Iraq and Syria, scatter further in the Middle East or return to Western countries (at least some of them with new identities, courtesy of IS’ cashed-up criminal networks).
And, of course, bombing and attack will generate hundreds, if not thousands, of new recruits in the West. Indeed, it will have the effect of creating silent recruits — young men and women currently in the stream of secular conventional life, so angered by the wholesale attack on Muslim civilians that the IS message begins to resonate with them. Shame will be the key driver of their actions — shame at their own inaction in the face of such slaughter. Shame at their failure of collective solidarity will assuage what guilt they might feel at the act of violence itself. Shame also makes death of little consequence.
How many more events such as Paris would there have to be before a real crackdown occurs? Two? Three? They would not even have to be of the volume of the Paris event, they would simply have to be of the same character — multiple incidents, great horror and cruelty, death-amidst-life, a city, for an hour or two or three, out of control (the staging is what is crucial. Almost 200 people were killed in the 2004 train bombings in Spain. Yet this too now barely registers in the Western public memory).
In France, it appears that mass round-ups have occurred by executive decree, with a dubious legality. What will happen, what will the public demand, if there is a series of such events? It may be something well in excess of what elements of the state think is desirable or wise, but with which they will have little choice but to comply.
The big crackdown is coming. Something more than control orders and surveillance, something involving lightning “preventative” or “precautionary” detention for weeks or months on end — a whole class of people, in their thousands or tens of thousands, who will be subject to such continued intervention. Here, or elsewhere, not today, not tomorrow, but it is coming. A few non-Muslim far rightists or far leftists and anarchists will be thrown in to give the process a liberal and universal character, but it will be overwhelmingly aimed at a section of the population seen as an “incubator” for terror. Any wariness about a “backlash effect” of such intervention will go out the window — a vastly expanded police force will simply pick up people at the drop of a guttural consonant. We’ll accept it if it happens here, the way we accept Villawood or other places in the heart of our cities, desert camps, island camps, or entire rendition states such as Nauru. Indeed, should such a crackdown occur, the historical purpose of mandatory detention will have been revealed — to make the extrajudicial detention of large numbers of people, and whole families as a unit, acceptable and normal to us — even if they are full citizens.
With such a crackdown will come the death of public space as we know it. The new generation of visual surveillance — face recognition, gait recognition — will be combined with chemical sensors (to establish extreme stress or adrenalin) and on-the-ground policing to turn public space into state space. Train stations, airports, etc, will cease to be places where people can linger, arrive early, grab a coffee, etc. You’ll be told to arrive within a certain time band and not linger (unless you pay for lounge privileges, all of which will be subject to a security check).
Public events and venues will be heavily policed and supervised. Having got accustomed to the sight of a registered bouncer and security staff (or having never known a time when there wasn’t such) people will get used to police, or some form of subcontracted quasi-police, on the door, and in the venue; to which, of course, will be added the banning of unauthorised encryption in communications, the extension from data retention to content retention, and much more on the electronic front.
This may not happen to anything like the degree I’m suggesting, but who could deny that it describes our current trajectory? We have the bloody-minded determination to bomb, bomb, bomb the Middle East as a solution that has less to do with any strategic imperative than it has to do with the need for a Western political elite to project power out of its borders, to deal with a decaying legitimacy at home. To do this, a post-liberal state, and a post-open society must be authorised — which has the added advantage of re-legitimising said elite, as “resolute leaders”. Look at Francois Hollande, an ineffectual moped-hopping pantsman cruising to defeat to a “post”-fascist party, now with the whole of la belle France flowing in his veins as he goes to war against the Islamo “fascists”.
Yet, it’s true that we are now in a position where the simple withdrawal from the zone of contention will not be sufficient. It’s clear that a certain number of men and women will need to be under reasonable surveillance (as Julian Assange noted, contrary to his anarchist image, specific surveillance is the alternative to general and total surveillance). But in doing so, if we care about freedom — and the ethnic divide of who does and doesn’t come under surveillance makes it unlikely that we will, much — then we will need to change the relationship of the security agencies to the state, and elected representatives, and have some form of civilian oversight board, with real powers, for ASIO, together with a strong commitment to a judicial-based warrant system. Paradoxically, it’s the need for such surveillance — and the wider recognition of such — that might make such institutional change more possible.
What we can know from the post-Bologna Italian example is that people will accept a great deal of limitation of their freedoms — because for most, those freedoms are formal in any case, and concern for them (and their importance to everyday well-being) is always exaggerated by journalists, libertarians, etc. Furthermore, the professional freedom!ists at the IPA, Centre for Independent Studies and elsewhere would fold like a bad hand of cards at any such threat, abandon their classical liberalism, and become simple authoritarians, a move to which they’re well accustomed.
Eventually, people do rebel against such strictures. But it took a long time in Italy and by the time it happened, the state had become a machine for the purpose of corruption, and organised crime had been re-enthroned, with a lethality, and a challenge to the state, far beyond the lethality posed by the Red Brigades, or even the fascists — who pretty much were the state. For the sake of the future, we need to get a handle on the present situation and recognise that we are already in the waiting room of the post-liberal order, ready to go god knows where.
*There were so many kidnappings in Italy in the 1976-77 that this correspondent remembers Italian-Australian kids from prosperous bourgeois families coming home from summer holidays there and telling how everyone had to wear torn clothes and look poor. National Lampoon ran a story in which hostages replaced the lira as the Italian currency.