I’m proud to be a Londoner. Though I am away for now, part of me is always in the vibrant and diverse city that I have grown up in and where I have my home. It has been strangely dislocating to be so far away during the traumatic events of the last week – not knowing what has happened to family and friends, and alienated from the process of shock, bereavement and coming to terms with the attacks. With the luxury of distance, and now a little time, there are two thoughts I’d like us to keep in mind as we think about how to respond to these murders.
- First, we are not at war. The metaphor of a “war on terrorism” is a useful shorthand, but only in the same sense as the “war on drugs” or the “war on poverty”. This metaphor is now ubiquitous, so that it is almost impossible to speak about international affairs without lapsing into it – we now all routinely talk of battles, defeat and the enemy. But this is not literally a war, and by lazily falling back on military language we risk missing those parts of the problem that do not fit the military analogy. In particular, when we eventually find how to rid the world of this violence, it will not be through a military victory, but because we have somehow created the conditions in which it is no longer in anyone’s interest to prolong the conflict. Just as we did not “win” the “Cold War” in any military sense but through the convergence of ideas, we will not win the “war on terrorism” by killing people. As we look to the future for a long term solution, we should guard against allowing the way we use language to obscure the real choices that we face.
- If we are to bring violence to an end, we need a better understanding of its causes. Again, there is a danger that political rhetoric will obscure and not enhance our comprehension of the challenge. Despite the repetitive claims to the contrary by some political leaders, it does not seem to be true that Muslim militants are opposed to western democracy and freedom. Many Muslims are enthusiastic supporters of pluralism and freedom – a recent Pew Global Attitude Survey reports optimism among Muslims that they will move towards western-style democracy. The writings and speeches of senior Al-Q’aeda leaders do not attack western countries for the way they organize themselves at home (see this transcript of one of the Bin Ladin videos, for example.) We need to keep clearly in mind that the target of the hatred of the criminal fanatics is not western democracy but western policies in the middle east. Many Muslims believe that Western governments have become one of the most important barriers to freedom and self determination, supporting authoritarian regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan (as well as Sadaam Hussein, who was installed in Iraq by western powers). Fanatics are exploiting that dissatisfaction with western policies to provide support for their murderous activities. While we continue to pretend – as President Bush did today – that this is a battle for democracy, we will fail to understand the challenge, and we will consequently fail to find a solution to it.
I cannot resist making some less important, and perhaps slightly more partisan remarks:
- I am impressed by the way that both Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone have responded. They have rightly taken the view that our existing democratic institutions are the best way to find and punish the perpetrators of these crimes, and that it would be a victory for the criminals if they were to succeed in forcing us to dismantle our liberties and change our way of life. There has been no wild talk of invading foreign countries from UK politicians (compare this to Mr Bush’s speech today ). There has been no stoking up of fears and prejudices: just a calm, responsible call for life to continue as usual. Mr Blair, in particular, has displayed an uncanny knack of hitting the right note at times of national importance.
- It has been impossible not to be moved by the resilience of Londoners. This sign in a window in Covent Garden brought tears to my eyes. London has been attacked: but there has been no backlash, no panic, and no lynch mob. We want our police to find out who did this and bring them to justice, but we will not allow these crimes to change our values. And while I am being sentimental, I am full of admiration for our emergency services. Those guys and gals are saints; and we don’t pay them anything like enough for what they do for us.
- Surely this must be the final nail in the coffin of ID cards? It could be clearer after the London bombings that ID cards would not have kept us safe. Quite apart from the civil liberties arguments against ID cards, we surely have higher priorities for spending that kind of money?
- This is another entry in the grim roll of events that the Intelligence Services did not see coming (up there with the invasion of Kuwait). We spend a lot of money on our intelligence services, and we do not get a very good service for it. The budgets should be handed to the “user” departments, such as the FCO and MOD, for them to “buy” intelligence from whoever they want.
- The events highlighted the importance of the traditional news gatherers – as opposed to bloggers. While conventional news gatherers got information, photographs and news rapidly to the public, the bloggers were reduced to a secondary role, largely reporting on what the primary newsgatherers were saying. Even the photos on Flickr were mainly photos of what was on the TV, or grabbed from the BBC News website.
- There are people who say that Tony Blair is in some way to blame for the London bombs because he involved the UK in the war in Iraq. I am no supporter of our adventure in the middle east, but I agree with my Dad that this is a quite preposterous allegation. We would have been a target anyway. The killings were the fault of the murderous bastards who committed them, and only them.