‘The wars against terror have begun, but it will take some time before the nature and composition of these wars are widely understood.’ So argues Philip Bobbitt, a senior advisor to both Republican and Democrat administrations for decades and Professor at Columbia University, in his new book Terror and Consent. We are experiencing a war on terror, but there will be more. This is not simply in light of the expected wars over energy and water in the coming century, but because of a fundamental change in the nature of the state and the communications environment it operates within. Put simply, when states exist, as Bobbitt says they do now, to empower individual citizens and private and third-sector organisations to create economic and social value through global, decentralised networks, then they also create the template for the very form of terror that will strike back against them. Through history, each state has indirectly shaped the nature of terrorists that have attacked it, and today’s ‘market state’ triggers a mirror image response from global, decentralised networks like Al-Qaeda. The wars and terrorist groups of the twentieth century were made possible by – and were a reaction to – the twentieth century nation state. But that state has gone. As long as the twenty-first century is governed by market states, we can expect more wars on terror.
Bobbitt calls for a fundamental re-think of the relation between strategy and international law so that we have a common framework for dealing with these wars, just as the twentieth century witnessed a particular legal framework for dealing with wars between nation-states. This implies, however, new forms of regulating communication, and on this he is less specific. It is the very diffuse, emergent character of communication today that makes it difficult to get a grip on what is being regulated. This thing, ‘communication’, does not stand still long enough for regulators to comprehend what they are trying to regulate. Last week’s attempt by Viacom to get Google to hand over the details of anyone who has ever viewed Youtube demonstrates this. Bobbitt’s ostensibly reasonable attempt to harness state conduct of war within law (to avoid any repeat of the abuses the current war on terror has produced) could be used to justify unreasonable control of our communications by states.
Given that researchers at the NPCU are producing analysis of jihadist media and the current battles for consent and legitimacy between Al-Qaeda, other jihadist groups, and Western states, we might seem well placed to explain the role of communication in the generation, prosecution or hopefully avoidance of future wars. But it is imperative that far-sighted thinking about law, the state and war should be accompanied by equally far-sighted thinking about communications. One cannot work without the other.