us and them

The Australian Financial Review (Review Section), 15 July, 2005


The fundamental question that's facing us all is whether or not we're capable of dealing with the whole question of us and them.    - Roger Waters

Within hours of the London bombings Tony Blair, like George W. Bush and John Howard before him, reminded the world how it should think about Islamist terror.

According to Blair we need to "defend our values and our way of life" against those who seek to "impose their fanaticism and extremism on all of us." This was a struggle between "civilized nations" and "barbarism," and "our values will long outlast theirs." It's us and them.

For those who remain sceptical of official orthodoxy and wish to make up their own minds about the London strikes, it is worth noting that in the aftermath of each terrorist attack since September 2001, "binary narratives [portraying events and their responses as a struggle between good and evil] displaced any complex or critical analysis of what happened and why."

This may have been because "retribution required certainty," or that it was easier to evade the consequences of our own behaviour by suggesting at the outset that there is nothing for us to address.1 Apparently "our values" are not on display today in Falluja, Abu Ghraib, Konar province in Afghanistan or Guantánamo Bay, just as they weren't during the 1960s in Vietnam or in Nicaragua during the 1980s. When we kill innocent people - usually in much larger numbers than the jihadists - it is always with the very best of intentions.2 The West is the innocent victim of terrorism but never its perpetrator.

Binary narratives, whether they are at the heart of strident nationalism, the formation of states or a contest of values, are often alluring to the framers of orthodoxy. The threat of an enemy has always been a powerful means of ideological control and social discipline. It turns dissenters and non-conformists into traitors, and drives the population to greater levels of dependency on the state. The English historian E.P. Thompson argued that the process of dividing people into two groups - insiders and outsiders - is a common human experience which can be easily exploited for political advantage:

The fear or threat of the Other is grounded upon a profound and universal human need. It is intrinsic to human bonding. We cannot define whom 'we' are without also defining 'them' - those who are not 'us'. 'They' need not be perceived as threatening: they may be seen only as different from 'us' - from our family, our community, our nation: 'they' are others who do not 'belong'. But if 'they' are seen as threatening to us, then our own internal bonding will be all the stronger.

This bonding-by-exclusion is intrinsic to human socialisation. 'Love and Hate', William Blake wrote, 'are necessary to Human existence.' This will not go away because we do not think it nice. It is present in every strong human association; the family, the church or political party, in class formation and class consciousness. Moreover, this bonding-by-exclusion establishes not only the identity of a group, but some part of the self-identity of the individuals within it. We belong to a family, we are citizens of Worcester, we are middle class or working class, we are members of a party, we are British: and some of this is internalised, it is our own identity.

Throughout history, as bonding has gone on and as identities have changed, the Other has been necessary to this process. Rome required barbarians, Christendom required pagans, Protestant and Catholic Europe required each other. The nation state bonded itself against other nations. Patriotism is love of one's own country; but it is also hatred or fear or suspicion of others.3

The responses of Western governments to 9/11 and subsequent attacks look like classical illustrations of this phenomenon. There is good v evil, civilization v barbarism, respect for life v nihilism and freedom v repression. The point of these binaries is not just to simplify complex issues. They are designed to enforce a stark choice on people by claiming that there is no middle ground, no room for compromise and no acknowledgement that the other side might have legitimate grievances. As President Bush declared shortly after the 9/11 attacks, "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."4 Perhaps an imperialist West requires a militant Islam?

Such black and white moral accounting rests on the assumption that horrific events such as the September 2001 attacks are exceptional and therefore beyond historical or theoretical explication. "What we are up against is apocalyptic nihilism," declared Michael Ignatieff. "Those honest souls who believe the terrorists' hatreds must be understood, and that what they hate must be changed so that they will hate no more, do not understand terrorists," as Ignatieff apparently does.5

The zero-sum framework is not an unusual approach to crisis management, as liberal commentator Anatol Lieven observed in the months before the war against Iraq in March 2003: "the classic modern strategy of an endangered right-wing oligarchy ... is to divert mass discontent into nationalism."6 You are either with us or against us. There is no middle ground. Of course this is also the view of the jihadists.

Settling on cultural hatred as the official explanation for the wave of attacks over the last four years absolves governments in the West from examining their own actions. According to Prime Minister Howard, Islamic militants seek "to destroy our way of life." Australians, like the British and Americans, are targeted by extremists "because of who we are, not because of what we have done. We are a western country and what these terrorists hate is western civilization... ." They have a "detestation of western values."7

Some Muslims may find our values repulsive, perhaps with good reason, but it is likely many more despise our policies - from the occupation of Palestine and Iraq, to the puppet government we installed in Kabul and our ongoing collusion with repressive tyrannies across the Arab world and beyond. Until we face up to this and stop asserting the superiority of our values, we are unlikely to bring these attacks to an end.

If Tony Blair can remember when IRA bombers struck London's West End during the 1970s and 1980s, he might review the us and them binary he has copied from his friend in Washington. The consistent refrain from Downing Street during the Troubles was that the British Government would never negotiate with terrorists because they didn't share "our values" and had no respect for human life.

As long as England responded with violence and political trials which traduced the reputation of British justice, it elicited more terror from the IRA. However, when London began to consider the legitimate concerns of Irish Republicans and took some measures to deal with them, the situation improved enormously. It wasn't utopia, but it was vastly better than 10 years before. Mutatis mutandis, the same principle applies today in this latest battle which we are told is between us and them.


1 James Der Derian, 'In Terrorem: Before and After 9/11' in Ken Booth & Tim Dunne (eds), Worlds in Collision (Palgrave, Basingstoke 2002), pp.102 & 103.

2 See for example, Sam Harris, The End of Faith (Free Press, London 2004), pp.139-47.

3 E.P. Thompson, Zero Option (The Merlin Press, London 1982), pp.170-1.

4 George W. Bush, President Bush's Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, 20 September, 2001.

5 Michael Ignatieff, 'It's war - but does it have to be dirty', The Guardian (UK), 1 October, 2001.

6 Anatol Lieven, 'The Push for War', London Review of Books, 3 October, 2002.

7 John Howard, Address to the National Press Club Canberra, 13 March, 2003; John Howard, Interview on Radio 4BC Brisbane, 23 May, 2003; John Howard, Address to the Sydney Institute, 1 July, 2003.