We’ve globalised terror, but the solution is localSIMON JENKINS
First the gods sing to us, then we die. I cannot recall a London week in which fantasy and reality were in such contention. Hyde Park’s cheering masses gave way to the ecstatic Olympians of Trafalgar Square — and then the bloodied commuters of Russell Square. I was walking across London wondering what could link a £20m concert, a £100m Gleneagles binge and a £5 billion sporting spree to all the misery in the world. There was an almighty bang.
The bang is easy to handle. Its horror is palpable and its cause indefensible. The nation’s response was put with dignity by Tony Blair on Thursday. He does these things well. So, too, does London. It has much in common with New York, victim of 9/11, but there is something in its genes, in the understatement of its architecture and its gentler urban language that renders Londoners immune to panic. At Euston Road I saw rescuers, victims, passers-by all calm, as if in dignified ritual.
Normalcy defied terror. This could only be in London.
The difficult part comes next. A wise general keeps sight of his enemy’s objective. The terrorist’s objective is not to kill but, by doing so, to publicise a cause and incite a violent and repressive response. Blair said on Thursday that “the purpose of the terrorist is to terrorise”. True. But why then the stomach-churning media hyperbole that surrounds these incidents? It is one thing to report, another to wallow in grief pornography as if the bomb itself were a celebrity. Such massive publicity feeds terror’s first objective and incites its second.
After 9/11 Britain joined America in a retaliatory attack on Afghanistan, killing far more civilians than had died in America. That war failed to find Osama Bin Laden or suppress terrorism and led directly to the assault on Iraq. Britain joined in that assault, on a pretext now known to have been mendacious. American marines in Iraq are still told they are “fighting 9/11”. Blair still regards it as a valid response to global terrorism.
The result has been an unstable Afghanistan, murderous anarchy in Iraq and increased hostility to the West across the Muslim world. Blair is right to insist that bombing London serves no purpose beyond inciting anti-Muslim sentiment. Why does he not apply that logic conversely to bombing Iraq? We must hope and pray that Blair, with George Bush in attendance, does not use Thursday as an excuse to kick hell out of another poor country in their “war on terror”.
On the radio yesterday Blair struggled both to assert that the London bombs validated his “war” analysis and yet were not the outcome of his conduct of that war. His proof was that everyone suffers from terrorism, including Russia. This clashes with the joint intelligence committee warning that going to war in Iraq would increase the risk of an attack on London.
Yet confused analysis should not infect sensible response. The IRA’s bombing of London in the 1970s and 1980s was plainly an outcome of British policy in Northern Ireland. Londoners could do nothing about this and rightly treated the bombing as the work of common criminals. Eighteen IRA bombing campaigns yielded an overall death toll similar to Thursday’s.
The campaign had no effect.
Blair eventually released the perpetrators and the White House even invited their leaders to tea. Londoners were told to accept the risk that goes with a reputation for an open welcome. A bomb in a bag will sometimes get through. Therefore it was indeed best to treat the bomber as a criminal. I believe that was right.
Blair’s desire to associate the London bombs with the global war on terror leads him into dangerous territory. Like a number of MPs in the Commons on Thursday, he implies that Britain fighting to bring democracy to the Arabs is a noble war, but their fighting to bring Islam to London is mere terror. I know there is a difference, but it was Blair who gave terrorism the status of a war. He can hardly complain when his enemy treats it as such.
Such confusion leaves Britain vulnerable to a lethal moral calculus. It invites critics worldwide to set the number of dead Londoners against the number of Iraqi civilians killed each month by coalition forces. It asks how many Muslims have British forces killed. It asks why the West waxes hysterical over London’s dead “innocents” and not over equally innocent corpses piled in the morgues of Baghdad as a result of British policy.
The global village responds with the indecency of priorities. How can we blow £100m on a weekend at Gleneagles for the sixth successive “poverty manifesto” in a row, or blow £20m in Hyde Park singing about it? How does it inspire Africa’s youth for Olympic tycoons in the lap of Singapore luxury to pledge £5 billion for a three-week celebration of sporting stardom?
Last week’s G8 globalisers left Blair with stirring communiqués to his credit. It left Bush making promises on trade he knows he will not keep. None of the campaigners will harry America’s Congress against cotton subsidies or the European commission on sugar. Nobody tells Britain’s National Health Service to stop robbing Africa of its medical staff. Nobody gets their hands dirty. As for the continuing genocide in Darfur, I can hear the reply now. Darfur? I thought that was last year’s issue and world leaders called it unacceptable.
Thursday’s bombs invite the same inflation, that they are part of a global war on terror and therefore somehow beyond our control. They must not be given that importance. They are a crime, a failure of domestic policing yet one from which no city can be immune.
They are not politically significant. They do not impoverish millions or alter the balance of world power. They are not an act of war between states, actual or virtual. They in no way diminish Britain’s national security or way of life. We are too robust for that. Therefore the bombs do not justify some new illiberalism from Blair, Charles Clarke and the security lobby.
The cause of democracy is not damaged by terrorism. Bombs will always get through. But the menace of terror lies in the poison it can inject into the community, tugging at its freedoms and taunting its tolerance. To that menace, democracy must be immune.