Global Issues

The modern war with terrorism: Jason McCue at TEDGlobal 2012

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Jason McCue

Jason McCue takes the stage wearing a T-shirt reading “Free Yulia in Ukraine.” It’s a reference to the 2011 imprisonment of Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko and a hint of what’s to come in his talk: a discussion of terrorism and the law.

“We are at war with a new form of terrorism,” he says. The traditional perception of terrorism, that it is sheer criminality, to be fought against with sheer force, is harmfully out of date. Instead, McCue wants us to think about terrorism in terms of branding. “Look at terrorism as though it’s a global brand, like Coca-Cola,” he says. “Both are fairly bad for your health.” The audience chuckles.

But McCue’s point is deadly serious. Terrorism is a flawed product, he says. “It’s bad for your health; it’s bad for those it affects; it’s not good if you’re a suicide bomber either. It doesn’t do what it says on the tin,” he adds, referring to a classic British advertising slogan that has become a common catchphrase. “You’re not going to get 72 virgins in heaven; it’s not going to happen.”

Viewing terrorism as a brand also helps to identify its Achilles’ heel: Just as global brands do, terrorism needs consumers to buy in. As such, there are fairly simple strategies we can employ to attack it. First, we can compete and reduce its market share. “We can show we’re a better product,” he says, adding pointedly, “if I’m trying to show we’re a better product, then I wouldn’t do things like Guantanamo Bay.” Next, we need to curtail the underlying need for the product itself by tackling issues such as poverty and injustice, the factors that feed terrorism.

Then, we can knock the product or “attack the brand myth.” By revealing the dangers in Brand Terrorism, we can reveal the absence of heroism in killing. In essence, we should focus not just on the producers or financiers of terrorism, but on those who consume it. “We’ve got to get into those homelands. That’s where they recruit from, that’s where they get their power and strength.” Engaging and educating at this level is a way to take action. Yes, he acknowledges, this does mean that “in effect we do have to have a little dance with the devil,” but we need to show that we’re better, we need to practice what we preach and we need to show how that other “product” is no good.

The best way to do this, he says, is to support and nurture the victims of terrorism. And at this point, he makes a confession that causes the audience to laugh nervously. “I wanted to blow you all up,” he says. “But TED, for health and safety reasons, says I have to do a countdown.” Seems like a good call not to give audience members a heart attack, but the boom of the fake bomb after his 3-2-1 is still loud enough to make people around me jump.

Everyone is silent as McCue explains what might just have happened. “The lady in 15J was a suicide bomber,” he says, and now we’re all victims. There are 625 of us in the audience, and our lives just changed in a heartbeat. “A father and son were in those seats,” he says, pointing into the auditorium. “The son is dead; the father lives. The father will probably kick himself for years to come that he didn’t take that seat instead of his kid. He’ll take to alcohol, and probably kill himself in three years. Those are the stats.”

There’s more. The “young, attractive lady” over there will be injured by “human shrapnel” she’ll suffer for decades. Another woman will lose her legs. Medical care and support from the government will be so paltry that her daughter will give up her university place to look after her mother. The rest of us will be traumatized for life.

Jason McCue

Here’s the point. “We sympathise, but after a while we start to ignore,” says McCue. “We do not do enough as a society. We don’t look after victims or enable them. Yet victims are the best weapon we have against more terrorism.”

That’s why McCue does the work he does, using the world’s legal systems to fight for human rights. He describes his work, which he calls “lawfare,” in more detail. “When we originally looked at bringing civil actions against terrorists, people thought we were mad,” he says, matter-of-factly. One of his first cases was connected with the 1998 Omagh bombing by the Real IRA in northern Ireland. Because it happened in the middle of the political peace process, no prosecutions were initially brought. That meant that the bombers remained free in a relatively small community, as McCue puts it, “shopping at the same supermarkets as the families of the victims.” So in place of a criminal case, a group of victims worked with McCue to bring a civil case. While it’s currently under appeal, McCue belives the case had significant effects. “Not just because justice was seen to be done,” he says, “but because for the Real IRA and other terrorist groups, their strength is as an underdog. When we put victims as the underdogs and flipped it, they didn’t know what to do. They were embarrassed; recruitment went down. Bombs stopped because of this action, and victims became the ghosts that haunted the terrorist organization.”

Beyond bringing cases, which he continues to do, he suggests this powerful anti-terrorism tool: Creating change from within, by engaging and connecting in poor, terrorism-prone areas. “These initiatives cost less than a missile, certainly less than a soldier’s life.” It’s not an easy road, of course. It’s politically risky for both protagonists and interlocutors. He shares a story of engaging in dialogue with one group who threw stones at him when he made a point with which they didn’t agree. Then again, they fired guns into the air when they did agree. Neither was ideal, he shrugs.

Terrorism in the 21st century is about more than mere military interventions. “We need to foster more modern and asymmetrical responses,” McCue argues, quietly yet clearly passionate. “This isn’t about being soft on terrorism. It’s fighting on contemporary battlefields.”

Most important, we need to ask — and answer — some big, important questions. Do terrorists really need to resort to bombs to get the world’s attention? Why are we ignoring human struggle? Are bombs our only wake-up call? Does society need a crisis to change? We have to stop being reactive and be more proactive, he argues. And as the Rolling Stones once sang and sing to us now over the theater’s sound system, we might just need to learn to have some sympathy for the devil.

Photos: James Duncan Davidson