The End of the War Against Terrorism

 

Professor Peter Head swallowed and shifted in his seat. He felt uncomfortably far from the oak-panelled tranquillity of his rooms in Oxford. Moreover, he didn’t much like the person he had been brought to see. But then, not many people did.

 

‘Prime Minister,’ sighed the Professor, ‘just because I am an expert in the English language does not give me the right to redefine words on a whim.’

 

‘Words change their meaning all the time,’ argued the Prime Minister.

 

‘Words change their meaning because of the gradual and inevitable pressure of public usage, not because some Professor rewrites the dictionary entry,’ the Professor retorted, bitterly. If he had disliked the Prime Minister before being dragged to London, he positively loathed the man now.

 

But then, Derek Smawk was an easy man to loathe. A squat figure with a pinched face, it had once seemed that he had no hope at all of winning an election largely being fought on personality, something which he was entirely lacking. Being an unelectable candidate enabled him to make all kinds of promises without the worry that they would be put to the test; what had ultimately tipped the balance of the election was Smawk’s ill-advised guarantee that he would end the war against terrorism. He hadn’t anticipated that a series of unsuccessful but potentially catastrophic attempted car bombings by a small terrorist group fighting for the liberation of Wales from its English oppressors would put the whole country into a state of sustained panic. If Scotland was allowed its own laws, the group argued, Wales should be allowed some too, and they would not cease their campaign until their demands were met – and one day, commentators predicted, they would certainly work out how to wire up a car bomb so that the thing actually worked. After decades of terrorist activity from one group or another, the British people had finally had enough; Derek Smawk floated to an improbable victory on the back of his rash assurances.

 

Victory against the terrorists was not going to come so easily. Indeed, after three and a half years in power, Smawk had discovered that his promise was all but impossible to fulfil. Of course, politicians are rarely bound by their promises (Prime Ministers especially), but in this respect Smawk was a casualty of his pre-election confidence; during that period he had given a number of interviews complacently declaring that if the war against terrorism hadn’t ended by the end of his first term in power, he would definitely resign. These interviews had become decidedly convenient to the opposition, the media and the electorate, none of whom thought he was up to much as a Prime Minister. Hardly a day passed when he wasn’t taunted with footage of his own stupid mouth opening and closing with words that guaranteed the impending end to his political career.

 

His latest ploy was to try to redefine the word ‘war’ to make it easier to bring about any kind of resolution to this one, but Professor Head, a leading figure in the development and use of the English language, was telling him now that ‘the power to change the meanings of words is simply not vested in me.’ The Professor glared at the Prime Minister and spitefully added, ‘I’m pretty sure it isn’t vested in you, either.’

 

Derek Smawk didn’t like the Professor’s attitude and was beginning to wonder if sufficient power was vested in him to have the man locked away as a traitor. ‘I’m not asking you to rewrite the definition, for crying out loud,’ Smawk told him, ‘I’m asking you if there is an existing interpretation of the word that might… might…’. He paused, choosing his words carefully. ‘Make my problem easier to solve,’ he concluded.

 

But the Professor was already of the opinion that the Prime Minister had misused the word in the first place, given the necessarily two-sided nature of conflict and the essentially one-sided nature of terrorism. If the word ‘war’ was being employed in the more less specific sense of a campaign to end something then the Prime Minister had chosen it even more unwisely, given the impossibility of putting an end to hostilities with such an ill-defined group of antagonists. Smawk had rehearsed the problem many times in front of his political advisor, the only person left who would still listen to him talking on the subject, though since her most substantial advice to date had been to leave terrorism out of the election manifesto altogether, she considered it particularly unfair that she was now the default punchbag for the Prime Minister’s self-inflicted angst.

 

‘If it was an ordinary war,’ Smawk told her, reporting back on his fruitless conversation with the Professor, ‘it would be easy; I’d get the leader of whoever we were fighting into a room, we’d have a few drinks, I’d offer a few concessions, we’d shake hands and peace would reign.’ He paced the length of his office. ‘That simply isn’t possible with terrorists. Who would I get into the room? They’re not organised enough to have a leader, they all just go at it as and when they please. It’s not even clear how we communicate with them – we don’t have so much as a phone number.’

 

‘Not even a return address for those grainy videos they keep sending to issue threats?’ Smawk’s political advisor meekly asked. Smawk, who was completing a la of his desk, slammed his fist down on its surface without warning.

 

‘The videos!’ he exploded. ‘They say it all, don’t they? Why the hell are they still using video? Judging by the quality they’re still recording straight to VHS with something from the 1980s! You’d get better quality with a webcam and a memory stick. They’re a bloody shambles.’

 

‘Maybe their lack of organisation is one of the ways they feel they can best create terror?’ suggested Smawk’s political advisor, to whom a missing diary entry was a fairly terrifying scenario on its own. But Smawk wasn’t listening.

 

‘If I can’t speak to their leader,’ he was musing, ‘and let’s face it, I can’t get every single one of them into a room to negotiate… perhaps a representative terrorist would do for the lot of them?’

 

‘You could at least make an official peace,’ agreed his political advisor, ‘even if the other terrorists chose to ignore it.’

 

‘Right!’ said Smawk. ‘And nobody could blame me for that!’ So he set about finding a representative terrorist to negotiate with.

 

The ideal candidate presented himself in the form of Stephen Repton, founder member of a small organisation called “Funding Arts”. Having been refused funding for a PhD in music in spite of achieving an outstanding double first from a highly regarded red brick university, Repton had decided that the government needed to be called to account for their flagrant disregard for the arts and humanities when it came to the national budget. Being an out-of-work musician, he had the advantage of week after week of empty days in which to plot and put into action dramatic demonstrations for his cause. Most recently he had arranged for thousands of percussionists to take woodblocks onto underground trains and spend an entire day performing works by Philip Glass to the commuters and tourists. ‘And if that isn’t terrorism,’ said Smawk, ‘then what is?’

 

The Prime Minister was dismayed to learn from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there was no money available to make concessions to any musician, since the budget at that time was largely committed to paying for an expensive inquiry into wasteful government spending. In the unlikely event that money was left over, the Chancellor explained, it would be needed for defence. He was not to be swayed by Smawk’s hopeful argument that arts funding could come from the defence budget since it would, after all, end the war against terrorism. Smawk had no choice but to consider what concessions he might make to the group known as “Funding Arts” other than actually funding arts. He found a solution in a more traditional approach.

 

‘To bring an end to our feud,’ Smawk told Repton, ‘and to show the world that from now on we will be working together, I am prepared to offer you my daughter’s hand in marriage.’

 

Repton frowned. ‘But you’re not prepared to make any changes to the level of arts funding?’ he persisted.

 

‘It’s a very complex issue,’ Smawk explained, vaguely. ‘Of course,’ he hastily added, ‘as my son-in-law you could certainly expect my personal support for any financial needs as far as your PhD was concerned.’

 

Repton frowned again and took a gulp of the 1787 Chateau d’Yquem they were drinking, the cost of which would have paid for fifteen music PhDs, and considered the offer. He wasn’t really the marrying type; on the other hand, he had grown weary of organising demonstrations when all he really wanted to do was a PhD in music, and a wife would make his parents happy. ‘What’s she like?’ he asked.

 

‘Not especially attractive,’ admitted the Prime Minister, ‘but she’s quiet.’

 

And so it was that Prime Minister Smawk appeared on the cover of every newspaper the next morning, grinning broadly and holding hands with his daughter on one side and her fiancé on the other, and declaring that the war against terrorism was over. ‘This marriage,’ he announced, ‘seals a future in which the British people will no longer fight terrorists but will work with them, side by side, to make a better world.’ The voters were impressed; suddenly, Smawk was a hero and his second election victory was a mere formality.

 

Four days after Smawk’s re-election, the Welsh People’s Liberation Front crashed a truck loaded with gelignite into the Scottish Parliament, blowing up half of the building and killing 107 people, an action explained in a grainy video by a bearded Welshman angrily saying that if Wales wasn’t allowed its own assembly then Scotland couldn’t have one either.

 

The country demanded answers and the Prime Minister was naturally called to account. ‘This was not an act of terrorism,’ he told the world at a special press conference, a statement confirmed by Steven Repton, now his son-in-law, who had been hastily unearthed from his thesis on Shostakovich to condemn the attack on behalf of all terrorists.

 

Professor Peter Head was dragged once more from his rooms in Oxford and driven to an emergency meeting at Downing Street to offer solutions. A few days later, Smawk made a second announcement. ‘The attack,’ he said with a sad, serious expression, ‘was carried out by activists. Since we can not allow our country to be intimidated in this way, I have no choice but to declare that we are now at war with activism.’

 

Distressing though the news was, a ray of hope came in the form of a message from the Welsh activist leader indicating that he was prepared to negotiate with the Prime Minister. Willing as ever to find a peaceful solution, Prime Minister Smawk duly ordered another bottle of Chateau d’Yquem and arranged a meeting.

 

‘You must understand,’ he told the Welsh activist leader, ‘that the liberation of Wales is a complex issue.’

 

‘Ah. Oh. I see,’ nodded the Welsh activist leader. He swallowed and shifted in his seat. He felt uncomfortably far from the homespun simplicity of his cottage in Wales. Moreover, he didn’t much like the person he had been brought to see. But then, that was hardly the point. ‘Oh well,’ he said nervously, giving the Prime Minister an edgy smile. Then he leaned forward and rested his shaking hands on the table, ready for business. ‘Well then,’ he began. Smawk nodded encouragingly and the Welsh activist leader cleared his throat. Finally, he spoke again, a sheepish look on his face. ‘Do you have any more daughters?’ he asked.