Howard Jacobson: If there is a weakness in civilisation, it is our nostalgia for barbarism

A question: what's the difference between a Mancunian who supports Manchester City and a liberal citizen of a Western country opposed to terrorism? Answer: none. They both take a perverse satisfaction in losing
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A question: what's the difference between a Mancunian who supports Manchester City and a liberal citizen of a Western country opposed to terrorism? Answer: none. They both take a perverse satisfaction in losing.

Fronted by a Paxman AC-130H Spectre flying gunship, armed with 2x20mm Vulcan Gatling guns firing up to 2,500 rounds per minute, Newsnight last week addressed the issue of anthrax-alarmism, not so much alerting us to the dangers of panic – for that might have come across as a touch nationalistically self-concerned – but at least noting that there was, so far, nothing to be too anxious about, the M25 still being far more dangerous. Having said which calming words it then proceeded to put the fear of God back into us by showing slow-motion pictures of men in decontamination suits, moving as though to usher us in an orderly fashion out of existence.

Was the melodramatic, all-our-science-fiction-nightmares slowmo really in our best interests, taking it as read that no one's best interests are served by their being zombied into stupefaction? Or does the question carry a seed of that censorship, that assumption of paternalism, which would like to prevent our watching the Osama bin Laden Show most evenings while the kids are still up?

Do I wake or do I dream? The Government asks television to think twice about giving air time to the propaganda of our enemies, and we are furious lest our civil liberties suffer as a result. I like the notion of preserving civil liberties before preserving life. We will be grateful for our civil liberties, buried under the rubble of the city; we will sing the praises of dissent, masked against all the venoms science can concoct for madmen to propel.

But at least concern for our civil liberties is concern for us, whereas much else we are hearing would suggest we lack the resolution even to be on our own side. Subtly, a little more each day, as though it is the very mark of a civilised community not to mind what is done to it, we ratchet down our sense of outrage. What if we deserved it... what if we deserve more... what if we don't win... what if we don't deserve to win? An American bomb goes astray and we take a gloomy satisfaction in the incompetence. Millwall 1 Manchester City 0. The coalition creaks. Wolves 2 Manchester City 0. We are doing badly in the propaganda war. Torquay United 7... This is more sinister than defeatism; this is making love to loss. Very soon we will be ready to adore those who mean to destroy us, swept off our feet by the violence of their hatred, like so many Mitford girls flattered in the half-attention of a maniac. For they do have something, these monks of terror, that we in the faint-hearted democratic West do not have – call it conviction, call it passion, call it sex appeal.

Of all the sickening socio-sexual disturbances to which psychologists have shown our warped natures to be liable, the most disgusting is Stockholm Syndrome, named after the emotional attachments that hostages formed for their captors during the Sveriges Kreditbank robbery in Stockholm in 1973. Put roughly, Stockholm Syndrome goes like this: someone sticks a gun to your head and threatens to blow your brains out, whereupon you fall in love with him: a) because that seems to offer you a better hope of escape; b) because you are grateful to him for not after all blowing your brains out (gratitude and love being interchangeable, as any dog will tell you); and c) because the intensity of your captor's need for money, revenge, or whatever else it is he's after, impresses you, by very virtue of its ferocity, with its justice.

Just as feminists have been quick to see the usefulness of this syndrome for understanding the psychodynamics of the battered wife, so have psychologists seized upon it to help explain the survival strategies of the abused child. In order to save yourself, you learn to see the world from the abuser's point of view, grow hypersensitive to his wants and preferences – a refined epicure of another's senses – and in the process annihilate your own. That you blame yourself for what befalls you in the process goes, of course, without saying, for the only person capable of wrong in such a universe is you.

Stockholm Syndrome itself, though, is not usually the consequence of a lifelong physical or psychic incarceration. You're in, you're tied up, you're out. That your loyalties and attachments should be a little shaken up by the experience is not surprising. But that you should go on, long after the event, sympathising with – not to say, as sometimes happens, marrying – those who have trespassed upon your person, suggests either that yours is a nature rather too disposed to the sweets of self-abnegation or that your convictions were never robust in the first place. Not for nothing is it Stockholm Syndrome, rather than Tehran or Damascus Syndrome. You have to live in some very liberal-minded corner of a Western democracy, I suspect, to revere your torturer or assailant enough to want to change your mind to his mind after 10 minutes blindfolded in his company.

If there is a flaw in democracy, it is this hankering after the certainties of undemocracy. If there is a weakness in civilisation, it is nostalgia for barbarism.

It has become a commonplace of recent times that we will not find, because we do not know who we are fighting. A more pressing problem, it seems to me, will be finding ourselves.