July 10th, 2005


Inevitable and inadmissible

In today's Observer Yahia Said publishes a piece of commentary headlined Asking Why Will Dignify Criminals and straplined "The bombers are psychopaths without political worth".

"Many in London and round the world are looking for meaning behind the atrocities of 7 July," Said, a research fellow at the London School of Economics specialising in Iraq, writes. "Why did they do this? What is their goal? What did we do to provoke them? Is there anything we could do to dissuade them from doing it again? There is no political answer to these questions... To try to divine a political goal, let alone a rational agenda, behind such attacks would only dignify these criminals and feed into their illusions... The best political reaction to the atrocities is to ignore them."

While I agree that to ignore the bombings might be a good reaction (in the Christian or Gandhian sense of failing to respond in kind, escaping the cycle of violence, turning the other cheek), I find it unsettling that an academic is so resistant to asking "why". Surely we try to understand "even" psychopaths and criminals, and perhaps particularly those people? Isn't it precisely when we don't understand something that we need to ask why most urgently? Our rationality is not just there to help us understand the kind of thoughts we would have. And even if we only understood our own cultural logic, we would alas have to recognize indiscriminate bombing as something we do too, for reasons rational and irrational.

We wouldn't ask security services or policemen to "ignore the atrocities" or stop asking the question "why?", so I wonder why we accept this logic from commentators, and listen when they suggest that politicians do likewise? The fact is that politicians, policemen and security planners have prepared for a 7/7-style event in London ever since 9/11, and with increased intensity since the invasion of Iraq. On January 21st 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair said he expected terror groups like Al Qaeda to attack Britain. CNN reported:

"I believe it is inevitable that they will try in some form or other," Blair told a committee of MPs on Tuesday... Blair predicted the public would eventually back a war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq if other means of disarming him failed. He said he understood people's concerns but said if he did have to order military action, the public would find it "acceptable and satisfactory because there is no other route available to us."

After the Madrid bombings, in which 200 Spaniards were killed by Al Qaeda bombs, the "inevitable attack on London" theme re-surfaced. "A terror attack on London is inevitable," said Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Stevens. "It would be miraculous if London escaped attack," echoed Mayor Ken Livingstone. Cabinet minister Peter Hain said the UK was a "frontline target" for attack by international terrorists. UK security services, he said, were working "three times harder than ever" in a bid to foil possible attack. Hain, leader of the Commons, said "anyone resisting international terrorism becomes a target." Home Secretary David Blunkett urged people to be "alert but not alarmed" and said it was "quite likely a terror attack was being planned against the UK".

However, now that the "inevitable" attack has happened, those, like George Galloway, who've made any link between 7/7 and the Iraq war have been vilified.

"London has reaped Mr Blair's involvement in Iraq," Galloway said, contradicting Home Secretary Charles Clark's statement that 7/7 had nothing to do with Iraq or any other particular foreign policy, but was "a fundamentalist attack on the way we live our lives."

Galloway continued: "The terrorists themselves have said... that that's exactly why they carried out the act. So only a fool believes that this came out of nowhere. It came out of a deep swamp of hatred and bitterness that we have soaked in blood these last few years. This is obvious to any sentient being. And the only way that we can truly resolve this matter -- and of course, in the interim, in the short term, I'm thoroughly in favor of the most rigorous policing and intelligence response to try and stop these dastardly acts from happening, but the only way we can really be clear of them, the only way we can be safe from them, is if we reduce the number of people out there who are ready to support those who are ready to hurt us. The fish has to swim in water, and bin Laden is swimming in this water, in this swamp that we have created... We have to be tough on terrorism, and tough on the causes of terrorism."

Someone called Lee on I Love Everything echoed many of the tabloids in his outrage at Galloway's comments. "What the hell is this idiot Galloway doing ventriloquising the bombers? Blood still fresh on the streets, and he's spewing his mouth. And he calls his party "Respect". Ironic? Nauseating?" My friend Ed, who marched against the Iraq war, agreed: "The next bishop or George Galloway I meet is likely to get a kicking!" Someone called Porkpie added to the virtual lynching: "I would also like 5 minutes in a room with Mr Galloway."

Personally, I don't really see why people want "five minutes in a room" with Galloway or accuse him of lack of respect, especially if they marched against the Iraq war. Wasn't one of the reasons we marched that we didn't want to be used as human collateral in a war? That we knew that violence would just breed more violence? Isn't that what Galloway is saying too? The Iraq War was a terrible mistake, based on a false premise about weapons of mass destruction which we now know didn't exist. Tony Blair has paid, on our behalf, a threefold price for it. He lost seats, he lost soldiers, and now he's losing civilians. Five minutes in a room with Tony Blair is what we should really be thirsting for, those of us who still have any bloodlust whatsoever.

While I understand distaste at the "demagogues and polemicists and religionists who would claim this tragedy as their own", the problem is that to claim 7/7 as a neutral tragedy, a random event, a force of nature or something bizarre and insane, is equally irresponsible. 7/7 has a political dimension and must be discussed politically at some point. Tact and timing should play a part, of course. But the political conclusions should not be postponed indefinitely, nor should tact forbid us to make the obvious connections with policy.

I'm really sick of this line that "there's no logic whatsoever, it's all random, they hate life for no reason, they work without political motivation"... An Islamist terrorist attack on London may have been possible before 9/11 and likely after it, but it became significantly more likely after British involvement in the pre-emptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We know that security has been ramped up since the Iraq war. From a purely practical point of view, the authorities have certainly considered that the Iraq war made this kind of event significantly more likely, and we expect exactly that sort of realism from them. I'm curious to see commentators failing to admit what we'd condemn security planners for failing to admit. We wouldn't want a police investigation to assume that the bombers were madmen without any motive or any political affiliations, would we? That investigation would surely fail, because it would be quite incapable of relating any fact to any other, of establishing links, motives or money trails. So why do we allow commentators to utter such inanities?