—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Media Monitor
30 August 2005

The London Bombings

If a man is killed in Paris, it is a murder; the throats of fifty thousand people are cut in the East, and it is a question.

       - Victor Hugo

I found that I could not keep the above quotation out of my mind during that week in early July when four simultaneous bomb attacks claimed the lives of 52 Londoners. After all, the following weekend 150 people were killed in Iraq by fourteen suicide bombings (ten on Saturday, four on Sunday - one of the Saturday attacks blew up a fuel tanker, instantaneously killing 55 people), and yet the London attacks continued to dominate the news. The disproportion of press coverage given to mass killings of inverse magnitude suggests that the West has, quite simply, become inured to the unrelenting violence in Iraq.

'Unrelenting', of course, is the key word. Perhaps one of the worst things about the present situation in Iraq is that its horror tends to evanesce the longer the violence itself continues. The sense of revulsion elicited by reports of violence does not have a cumulative effect: rather, if the violence is constant, our capacity to be horrified by it diminishes. Shocking though it may be to observe, the truth is that bomb attacks are now such a quotidian fact of life in Iraqi urban centres that they have ceased to be an issue requiring exigent press attention in the West. Sustained and repeated violence in a distant land actually erodes the media's ability to continue reporting on it.

Two reporters from the London Independent, both of whom have spent long periods in Iraq, did a compare-and-contrast which illustrated the point. Patrick Cockburn pointed out that the cumulative effect of the bombings is quite the reverse for those who have to live among them; there is simply no becoming inured to the violence, for its reoccurrence makes normal life impossible:
Last Friday, there were no fewer than 12 attacks killing at least 28 people. ...
It is not just the number of the dead and injured that makes the bombings in Baghdad so much worse than London. A single incident of danger is easier to endure than relentless attack and the knowledge that the bombers were here yesterday and tomorrow they will return again.[1]
By July 23rd The Economist, in an otherwise fatuous article, still admitted that 'It is sobering to reflect that in the period when London has mourned its 52 dead, another 200 Iraqis have been killed by suicide bombers.'[2] And the next month, the other Independent journalist, Robert Fisk, also reporting from Iraq, had the following to say:
At the al-Kindi hospital, relatives had a problem identifying the dead. Heads were placed next to the wrong torsos, feet next to the wrong legs. A problem there. But there came not a groan from England. We were still locked into our 7 July trauma.[3]
The London bombings were as barbarous as they were stupid. Their crowning cruelty was their description by al-Qaeda as 'glorious', in a videotaped coda to Mohammad Sidique Khan's posthumous confession. When Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that the bombings were 'a slap in the face of the arrogant, crusader, British rulers', it seemed to have escaped his notice that none of these 'rulers' were injured or killed that day. And when he told us that the attack was 'a sip from the glass that the Muslims have been drinking from'[4], was he incognizant of the fact that the lives of five Muslims were extinguished that day? Shahara Akhter Islam, a 20-year-old devoutly religious woman, killed in Tavistock square, was the first confirmed Muslim victim.

Press reaction

Given time to reflect on the matter, and pursuing even-handedness with its usual cack-handedness, The Economist soon cooked up a goulash of conflicting assertions. In late July, one article told us that 'Nobody who has set foot in the Muslim world these past two years can doubt that the war has inflamed Muslim anger, especially against America and Britain, and so added to the pool of people willing to be martyrs to al-Qaeda's cause.'[5] In the same issue another article asseverated that 'Mr. Blair is right when he says that London would have been a target even if Britain hadn't invaded Iraq.'[6] The conjunction of these two propositions can be maintained only by some studied hairsplitting and the most delicate verbal tightrope-walk. The above opinions appeared in two different articles. But the contradictions of The Economist are not simply a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Consider the following excerpts from that week's Bagehot piece:
In the immediate aftermath of the outrage only George Galloway was sufficiently tasteless to argue that Londoners were being killed as payback for Tony Blair's Iraq policy.
An ICM poll in the Guardian this week found that at least 64% reckoned that the invasion of Iraq bore at least some responsibility for what happened a fortnight ago.
Thus it seems that Mr. Galloway is being condemned by The Economist for saying aloud what The Economist reports a majority of Britons to be saying aloud ... it's not 'only' Mr. Galloway, apparently. There are other gems. Consider this passage:
Mr. Blair's blank refusal to acknowledge a possible link to Iraq is wrong. But so what if there was one? Those who would go on to conclude that the right course of action in the light of the bombings would be for western countries to flee Iraq are in danger of making a very much bigger mistake. This is not only because of the need to defend the principle that the foreign policies of democracies should be made by representative governments, not by disaffected young men bent on murder. It is also because, whatever reasons America and Britain had for invading Iraq in 2003, they now have a moral obligation not to abandon its people to mayhem.[7]
Where to begin? Britain's slavishly Atlanticist foreign policy towards Iraq produced anti-war demonstrations on a scale never before seen. It might just be posited that a truly 'representative' government might have taken this rather conspicuous expression of public opinion into account and paused for thought before hurtling into a mess it now has 'a moral obligation' to remain mired in. And then there is the troublesome Spanish precedent. When an Islamist link to the Madrid bombings was brazenly denied by the Aznar government, it was hurled from office by popular vote, which meant that the government of José Zapatero which replaced it was very much a representative one. Yet Spain then pursued precisely the opposite course recommended by The Economist. So was that a bad thing or a good thing?

And the enfeebled moral arm-twising of 'abandoning Iraqis to mayhem'? Well, as some some contemporaneously-released reports (discussed below) show, the mayhem is plainly the result of the occupation. Are we not 'morally obliged' to at least explore the possibility that ending the occupation might end the violence? The only other option is to simply keep things the way they are, with more carnage and chaos mounting month by month. Iraqis themselves are certainly in no doubt about the locus of the problem: Patrick Cockburn reports that there is near-total unanimity in Iraq that the US must withdraw, with only the occasionally encountered qualification that the withdrawal be phased. Is The Economist listening? Not really:
Besides, fleeing the terrorists is not even likely to advance the West's own safety. All the evidence since the emergence of al-Qaeda in the 1990s, its declaration of jihad against "Jews and Crusaders", and the attacks in East Africa, New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid and elsewhere suggest that "victory" in Iraq would merely encourage the terrorists to pursue the defeated infidels home.[8]
Thus it seems the Iraqis will just have to put up with living in continuing mortal terror until we decide that we feel safer. To put 'all the evidence' in perspective, while there is little doubt that Bin Laden is speaking from a kind of demented medieval mindset, his three grievances were listed openly and well-promulgated even before Sept 11, 2001. They were: the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine and US support for it; the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia (which he also regards as an occupation); and the US-enforced economic strangulation of Iraq (then in place for a decade). In short, all of al Qaeda's grievances flow from Western (proximately, US) interference in Arab nations. Since then, two of these issues have remained susbstantially unchanged and the third has been exacerbated by yet another occupation. Despite what we are being told explicitly, however, The Economist would have us believe that a reduction in precisely the kind of Western interference which inspired the attacks in East Africa, New York, Washington etc. would make us less safe.

* * *

Writing in The Guardian, prizewinning novelist Lionel Shriver came across as an angry young woman (yes, Lionel is a woman). Decrying Tony Blair's uncompromising stance on terrorism as a fraud, she spent a good deal of time raking over Blair's compromises to Sinn Féin, without a word about how such compromises were largely made possible by the Irish Republic's reciprocal (and quite self-sacrificial) rescinding of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution (which define Ireland as the island of Ireland), which played a major role in indulging the agenda of Northern Unionists. Additionally, Shriver's timing was off: within weeks, it was the IRA, in the face of Paisleyite stonewalling, who decided to make the historical first move, and after thirty years, they declared the war to be at an end.

But back to Shriver on Iraq:
Islamist goals have been so hazy, inane and apocalyptic. ... Yet this vagueness of intent has begun to firm up into quite realisable and therefore negotiable goals - the withdrawal of western troops from Iraq and Afghanistan - and that gives me the willies. Numerous commentators have called for just such an obliging response to Thursday's bombings, and these people should be on al-Qaida's payroll. Now, personally, I think the invasion of Iraq is the most calamitous US foreign policy mistake of my lifetime. Yet to discourage tube bombers in future, surely Britons are better off broadcasting, "Actually, we were thinking of leaving Iraq lock, stock, and barrel next week, but now that we realise that would make you wankers happy, we've decided to dig into Baghdad for the next 50 years."[9]
And there you have it. Never mind what the maimed and terrorized Iraqis want: we're going to stay in their country and make it all worse out of simple bull-headed spite. Note that declaration of the Iraq invasion to be 'the most calamitous US foreign policy mistake of my lifetime' is immediately followed by a recommendation to continue that mistake. Note that it is precisely such institutionalized spite (and postcolonial pride) that has kept Britain pointlessly mired in Northern Ireland to this day. It takes a talented writer ...

* * *

But where would this column be without a spiel from Charles Krauthammer? A full-throated supporter of the war on terror must now bray even more loudly to deny the long-predicted consequences of Bush's adventurism which have now arrived on our doorstep. In a sic et non exchange with Daniel Benjamin in Time, Krauthammer proved himself worthy of the task, and pulled out all the big adjectives. His rejoinder to Benjamin's essay 'Why Iraq has made us less safe' was entitled 'Why that's Ridiculous'. Some excerpts follow:
For the next decade, whenever there is a terrorist attack anywhere in the world, there will be those blaming it on America: if only America had not been distracted from the war on terrorism by the war in Iraq, if only America had not stirred Muslim resentment and increased al-Qaeda recruitment by invading Iraq.
       Nonsense. The "distraction" argument is the most obvious nonsense. What exactly is the U.S. not doing in the war on terrorism that it would be doing if it weren't in Iraq?
Al-Qaeda always invents some excuse, some historical injury to justify its barbarism. ... Only the gullible and the appeasers buy them. Now we're told that the Iraq invasion has increased al-Qaeda recruiting.
       The first thing to be said is that no one knows.[10]
'No one knows'. Krauthammer was not only wrong, his timing was poor. Hardly a week after this piece was published, two new reports emerged - one from the Saudi government, the other from an Israeli thinktank (the Global Research in International Affairs Centre) - which comprehensively contradicted him. Their findings were summarised in an article reprinted in the Melbourne Age:

Studies of the backgrounds and motivations of hundreds of foreigners entering Iraq to fight the US have found that most foreign fighters are not former terrorists and became radicalised by the occupation itself.
       The Saudi Arabian and Israeli studies ... together comprise the most detailed picture available of foreign fighters ...
       [I]nterrogations of nearly 300 Saudis captured while trying to sneak into Iraq and case studies of more than three dozen others who blew themselves up in suicide attacks show that most were heeding the calls from clerics and activists to drive infidels out of Arab land, according to a study by Saudi investigator Nawaf Obaid, a US-trained analyst who was commissioned by the Saudi Government and given access to Saudi officials and intelligence.
       A separate Israeli analysis of 154 foreign fighters compiled by a leading terrorism researcher found that despite the presence of some senior al-Qaeda operatives who are organising the volunteers, "the vast majority of (non-Iraqi) Arabs killed in Iraq have never taken part in any terrorist activity prior to their arrival in Iraq". ...[11]
In Krauthammer's geopolitical fantasyland, however, 'on 9/11, the U.S. was rudely injected into a Muslim civil war' and '[b]y taking the fight to the Arab/Islamic heartland, the U.S. has forced Muslims to commit.'[12] He's correct on that last count, of course, but unfortunately he doesn't seem to be aware of which side they've committed to.

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1 Patrick Cockburn, 'Iraq: A nation where suicide bombing is a fact of life', Independent, 18 July 2005
2 'Baghdad's Bombs, and London's' The Economist, July 23 2005
3 Robert Fisk, 'How easily we have come to take the bombs and the deaths in Iraq for granted', Independent, 27 August 2005
4 Anton LaGuardia, Neli Tweedle, 'Tube bombings were our work: al-Qaeda', Sydney Morning Herald, 3-4 Sept 2005
5 'Baghdad's Bombs ...' Economist
6 'Bagehot: Business (Almost) as usual' The Economist, July 23 2005
7 'Baghdad's Bombs ...' Economist
8 Ibid.
9 Lionel Shriver, 'So you won't give in to terrorists, Mr Blair? Really?', The Guardian, 12 July 2005
10 Charles Krauthammer '... Why that's Ridiculous', Time, 10 July 2005
11 Brian Bender, 'US occupation blamed for new Iraq terror front', The Age, 18 July 2005
12 Krauthammer, ibid.