In truth, Mr Blair has become the prisoner of the peace process. Like a gambler who has invested so much, he has to keep heaping on the chips to obtain a return. This has resulted in a combination of credulousness and cynicism, even in the face of murder most foul. What makes this all the more noteworthy is that it sits so ill at ease with his moral clarity on the broader war on terrorism.
This, unfortunately, is right. Moral clarity on terrorism requires distinguishing the force used by the democratic state from the violence of private armies. The PM knows the difference perfectly well, and needs to stand by it, because not everyone does. For some reason, there is a type of fringe academic who is particularly resistant to reasoning along those lines. I referred some months ago to the dispiriting case of a popular historian, Howard Zinn, who had written in The Guardian of "the occupation of the US". There is a difference of kind and not only of degree between disagreeing fiercely with the policies of a democratic government and regarding that government as illegitimate.
There is also a difference of kind between political protest and political violence. Many readers will feel this point so obvious as not to need stating, and some may consider that I am caricaturing those I disagree with by suggesting that the point is not universally recognised. But I am not. Consider this report from a regional newspaper a couple of days ago:
LONDON'S suicide bombings were not the acts of terrorists but just an extreme Muslim demonstration, a Chester professor has claimed.
The attacks that killed 52 people and threw the country into shock last July were part of a long history of demonstrations sparked by British Muslims, according to Professor Ron Geaves.
His controversial comments were made at a lecture given at the University of Chester that attracted dignitaries and members of the Muslim community from around the North West.
As part of his research, the professor's recent report looks at the history of demonstrations by British Muslims.
From the 1980s Salman Rushdie demonstrations to the anti-war protests surrounding the Iraq war, his work charts the changing nature of Muslim communities in Britain.
Prof Geaves said: "I have included, rather controversially, the events in London as primarily an extreme form of demonstration and assess what these events actually mean in terms of their significance in the Muslim community.
"The word terrorism is a political word which always seems to be used to demonise people."
Before yesterday, I had never heard of Professor Geaves (or, to my discredit, the University of Chester). But his argument, while extreme, is not novel. Few would go as far as he does in criticising the term "terrorism" to describe killing 52 civilians, but many would argue that violence in some manifestations, while illegitimate, ought to be considered a form of protest by the voiceless as a counterweight to the violence of the state.
It is true, as Professor Geaves points out, that the word terrorism is used politically in order to denote illegitimacy of certain types of violence. And there's much to be said for that, as there is for referring (as I have done in this post) to the "force" exercised by the security services of a democratic state as against the "violence" of those arraigned against democratic authority. To do this is not queering the argument of those such as Professors Zinn or Geaves; it is to use language discriminately where moral discrimination is essential. The democratic state uses violence, and terrorists use violence; but these acts are not alike.
No one has perceived the essential moral difference more clearly than the historian Conor Cruise O'Brien, who as a Labour member of the Irish government in the 1970s argued cogently (and at great personal risk) against Republican terrorism and its sympathisers. In a lecture on Granada Television in 1976 (reproduced in his book Herod: Reflections on Political Violence 1978, pp. 77-8) he said:
Institutionalized violence is a necessary part of every organized state since without its availability any state would disintegrate. But those who make most use of the term tend to ignore the fact that the institutionalization of violence within a democratic system is the most responsible way available to us for containing violence. Democratic institutions can be altered by non-violent means; the use of violence by the democratic state is subject to scrutiny and criticism, and abuses can be punished and corrected. None of this works perfectly, but it works to some extent, and no such restrictions at all apply to other uses of violence, whether by non-democratic states or by terrorist organizations.If the violence used by the young men who bombed London's trains and buses last July is classified as "primarily an extreme form of demonstration", it elides the most important aspect of this issue. However great the grievance of a particular segment of our society, even supposing it is justified, nothing is gained in explanatory power and much is lost in other ways by treating political violence as "not the acts of terrorists". We can speculate on what motivated these men, and we can listen to their words on videotape if we wish; but all we know for certain about them on 7/7 is their acts rather than their mental states. They murdered those Polish girls, and that engaged couple from Hereford, among very many others. If you talk of them as Professor Geaves does, then you literally don't understand the first thing about them.
I am close to being an absolutist on the issue of free speech. I believe the state must protect the right to free expression in almost all cases save incitement to crime, incitement to violence and (a close relation of these) race hatred. It must certainly protect the right to offend. There is a corollary to the right to free speech, though, which is the knowledge that free speech is not costless. There will certainly be cases where offensive speech causes psychological harm and distress; my point is that this emotional hurt is no concern of the state, and those who suffer it have no redress in a free society other than to test in the public sphere the utterances that they find exceptionable. That will, I hope, be the fate of Professor Ron Geaves of the University of Chester. Let me encourage any readers who write for the electronic or print media to lift his name from its current obscurity, and expose it to the mockery, derision and denunciation that are his due.