It might seem like a strange question, but what precisely is the threat that terrorism poses to governments? Think first of acts of terror themselves. Did 9/11 weaken George Bush in any way? Far from it. Nor is there a reason to assume that there is any relationship (inverse or otherwise) between the scale of an attack and its impact on the state. When John Reid tells us that we were recently threatened by a plot on the scale of 9/11 or bigger, his reasons for emphasising scale need to be picked apart, but it's not obvious that this is something that he would be necessarily more panicked by than a smaller attack (it would depend heavily on how televisual the attack was).
It's become a truism that the nation state is fatally weakened by the fact that its latest enemy is not organised into any identifiable territory. But think of the things which the current wave of terrorism cannot achieve:
- it cannot spread fear amongst the political elite themselves. The mobilisation of fear as a large-scale cultural and political tactic operates upon the population at large, rather than attempting to frighten the Cabinet themselves. Our leaders' behaviour is not being influenced by the prospect of imminent harm to themselves, which is not the case for those people who now refuse to fly or use the London Underground. (The IRA's attack on Thatcher's cabinet is obviously the exception, but this appeared to be born out of a desire to blow up Thatcher's cabinet, rather than spread fear as such).
- it cannot undermine government's ability to use force. As we have been witnessing for the past five years, 911 has given governments the rationale and the impetus to wage devastating wars and undermine human rights without even explaining why. The irrationality of terror ushers in irrational use of force by all sides and so governments are now more powerful in this respect, not less. If, as it appears, 911 was the needed excuse for abandoning the 350-year-old Westphalian state system (in which nations do not cross one another's borders unless provoked) then it will go down in history as one of the most important buttresses of western state power in history.
- it cannot directly threaten political credibility. This is less clear-cut, because we saw how the Spanish government lost power shortly after the Madrid bombings, but this was primarily because they lied about their perpetrators in the hope of sneaking through to election day. Equally, the Israeli government has lost political capital thanks to its failed attempt to wipe out Hizbullah, but this too is primarily bad PR management - imagine how much nationalistic fervour they could have whipped up if they'd allowed Hizbullah to rain shells down onto their territory and not bombed Lebanon into the ground. Their error was not in failing to win, but in promising to do so in the first place. These examples are not typical, and governments win as many PR battles (at least in the eyes of their own populations, as with 7/7) as they lose.
Now think of things which do still threaten governments:
- Other states. Because they can build nuclear bombs, and then have to be taken seriously.
Is there really anything else? Yes there is the impact of terror on elections, but these have no impact on the vast majority of the state apparatus (security services, military, policy, bureaucracy). And it is hard to conceive of a major political party having any room for manouvre on how it behaved towards terrorism beyond the PR battle which rumbles on. It is not as if the emerging surveillance and judicial practices which terrorism seemingly legitimates would be undone under a different political party, either here or in the US.
One thing which we have to be brutally honest about is that excruciating physical violence, such as that suffered by tube travellers on 7th July last year, is not passed on to the state in its horrifying quality, and nor is it in terms of its quantity. An attack 'on the scale of 911' would affect John Reid's choice of tie colour for a few days, and would have a major impact on UK politics; he may even be sufficiently empathetic to be genuinely upset by it. But to assume that it would have any impact on the government per se is, I think, misguided. Chaos only strengthens the case for order, even as it engulfs it further.