Notes on European political culture




Europe: The travel advisory

U.S. State Department issued last Sunday a Terrorism alert aimed at American citizens traveling or planning to travel in Europe until roughly the end of the year. The alert which urges ‘extra caution’ but ‘does not discourage Americans from visiting Europe’, does not actually mention Europeans. Nonetheless it implicates them massively.

The advisory is remarkable if only in its semantics: Americans in Europe, and by extension Europeans in Europe, you are under threat: globally, homogeneously, without nuance or distinction. Complete, full, integral threat. Threat without specification or detail, without determination or differentiation, without prescription or framing. Simple, perfect threat.

Europe, the proud homeland of any number of universal Enlightenment principles, universal rights, liberties and privileges, meets itself in the door: universal threat. No matter who you are, where you are, what you are, you are equally under threat.

Euro-America has increasingly in the last years made active use of fear and insecurity in order to govern its societies. Not fear of European and U.S. governments, but fear of the threats about which these governments hold the monopoly of information, interpretation and counter-measures. Information on and assessments of terrorist threat are the sole purvey of our authorities. There is no alternative but to put our trust in them.

At first glance, the lack of practical utility of the advisory is striking. Assuming that U.S. intelligence authorities have intercepted signs or detected evidence of pending terrorist attacks on European soil–and there appears to be evidence that they have–the added value of putting countless tourists and 500 million Europeans on high alert is from a pragmatic point of view quite dubious. It seems clear that only result will to be to increase unease and insecurity, the very aim of the terrorism which authorities aim to fight. Indeed, what else is terrorism if not every tourist in or citizen of Europe waking to the warning: ‘It is at present unadvisable to be in Europe’?

It is hard to imagine what measures citizens might be expected to take in the face of the global advisory. Be extra vigilant about unattended shopping bags? Regard with added suspicion the stranger sitting beside us on the bus to work?

What would it mean to be victorious in the ‘War on Terror’? It was never entirely clear from the outset of the War what a victory would look like, under what conditions we would recognize the day of victory, what peace agreement or political armistice would be concluded, who would be the parties to the surrender, and above all who would hold the legitimate authority to make the categorical judgment that the conditions for victory were met. Presumably every member of the global network al-Qa’ida would either have been killed, renounced all terrorist doings, or ended safely behind bars in a post-Geneva prisoner-of-war-on-terror camp.

What then would defeat in the War on Terror look like? Well, it would perhaps consist of entire populations being sent a canvas warning of the threat they are under, ubiquitous, permanent, invisible, unnamed and, with the exception of a handful of suspects, unnamable. In the eyes of the terrorists, it is hard to imagine a better result then the U.S. Advisory, notwithstanding some wholesale meltdown of Western societies. In short, if the War on Terror is over, have the terrorists won?

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