Christopher Coker, London School of Economics and Political Science Paper prepared for a seminar on “The Prospects for the Canadian Summit,” sponsored by the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, the Japanese-British Society, the LSE International Social Economic Forum in Japan and the G8 Research Group, Ninth Floor, Nippon Press Centre, Tokyo, Japan, June 10, 2002.
Contemporary history, it has been said, begins when those factors that are important in our own lives first began to take shape in our imagination. With the benefit of hindsight we can glimpse an intimation of the events of September 11 in a remarkable novel by Joseph Conrad which was published as long ago as 1906. Central to the story is a plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Conrad was inspired to write the novel by a real event, an incident in Greenwich Park in 1894 in which a bomb exploded killing the anarchist sympathizer who was carrying it. Conrad’s book is set in London but it is a metropolis which is not at peace with itself. For London, the centre of the world in the early 20th century, harbors an anarchist cell whose members are intent on the destruction of the bourgeois way of life. Conrad captured its spirit in the person of Mr Vladimir, the shadowy puppet-master who uses the anarchists for his own cynical ends. Cynical or not, he is a true nihilist in spirit. In conversation with the double agent Verloc, Vladimir waxes lyrical. What is needed, he muses, is a set of outrages that must be sufficiently startling to astonish the bourgeoisie. What act of terror would disconcert them the most? Not an attempt on a crowned head or a President - that would be mere sensationalism; not a bomb in a church otherwise that might be construed wrongly as a crime against organised religion; not blowing up a restaurant and the people eating in it for that might be dismissed as a social crime, the act of a hungry man. Not an attack on the National Gallery for no-one in England would miss it. But what of an attack on reason? Pity it was impossible to blow up pure mathematics. The next best thing was zero longitude, on the one hand a very unreal concept, on the other something that was very real for the commerce and communications of a world centred on London. Such an outrage, Vladimir concludes, would be an act of ‘gratuitous blasphemy’ against the modern age. Blasphemy is the vernacular of the weak. It is expressive, not instrumental for it is not intended to change the world. To be blasphemous in a secular or irreligious age an act of terror must be aimed at the civic religion of the hour. In this case the act was designed to strike at the heart of the heady confidence of Edwardian England in progress. As a ‘gratuitous’ or ‘meaningless’ act it challenged its invincible faith in the future. Conrad’s novel addresses the anxiety that all ‘senseless’ acts inspire in the complacent and sensible. Edwardian society was not frightened, or fearful of anarchism. It was anxious. Today the terrorist targets our anxiety in the risk societies we have become. For
we too find violence meaningless and irrational. Terrorists play on our uncertainties and anxieties; our anxiety about the side effects of our own technological advances, and in the case of September 11 our anxieties about the underside of globalisation. “For the foreseeable future”, claimed the US Defense Secretary a few years ago “there are few who will have the power to match us militarily … but they will be dedicated to exploiting the weakness of our very strength”. The more globalised the more vulnerable we apparently become. As we introduce more sophisticated technology new risks proliferate at an exponential rate. The information technologies of the 1980s facilitate international crime and assist terrorism. And it is now a commonplace idea that the risks we face are more catastrophic than those of the past because they are global. We live in an age of globalisation.