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LONDON BLASTS AND BRITAIN'S DILEMMAS

Print edition : Jul 29, 2005 T+T-
Near the site of the bomb attacks at King's Cross in London, two days after the July 7 explosions. The British people's response to the attacks was far more restrained than the hysteria that gripped America after the September 11 events. The question they face is whether the `war on terror' has made their own homes and cities less safe.-JACK GUEZ/AFP

Near the site of the bomb attacks at King's Cross in London, two days after the July 7 explosions. The British people's response to the attacks was far more restrained than the hysteria that gripped America after the September 11 events. The question they face is whether the `war on terror' has made their own homes and cities less safe.-JACK GUEZ/AFP

WHEN I started assembling notes for this article on July 6, I planned to write on developments in Iraq over a six-month period, since the pseudo-elections of January this year. That shall have to be postponed for now, since there has been something of a historic interruption in that plan, in the sense that the very next day, on July 7, four explosions rocked the London transportation system, within seconds of each other, at roughly 8:50 in the morning. At the time of this writing, two days later, more than 50 deaths have been reported, hundreds of the injured are lying in hospitals and many are still missing, in the heat and rubble of the underground tunnels.

I have been in London for just over two weeks, living in a friend's flat on a quiet street, about a mile away from King's Cross where a bus - M30, which I have sometimes taken to go to the British Library - was burnt down to cinders, not too far from the Library, with many but still undetermined number of casualties. I did not know of the attacks and found out when I came out of the flat into the street, and a young woman, scantily clad, with pierced nose and lip, perfectly composed in demeanour, stopped me to ask for directions to walk to Camden Town. I told her that she would have to walk for well over an hour and would be well advised to take a bus or the underground. Well, she had already walked from King's Cross, all London transport was at a standstill, and - then she told me what had happened, in a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone, assuming that it was the work of Al Qaeda but with none of the unease and suspicion of my skin colour, none of the anti-Muslim hysteria that would have been the case in New York or Los Angeles. She thought I was a fellow-Londoner and she was sharing with me the woes of "our city". I decided to assume this odd identity of a fellow-Londoner that she had bestowed upon me and said, "We should have never invaded Iraq!" She looked sideways, paused and said, "Yes, that was wrong."

I was restless, went roaming on the streets, got further unsettled by the air of utter normalcy - except that there was much less traffic, and no buses. Then, as a shower came down, I took refuge in a large grocery store and was aimlessly looking at vegetables when another woman, older, well groomed, more typically middle class, obviously needing to talk to someone, told me the latest news that she had heard on her radio, advised me not to go beyond the safety of "our" area, said that she remembered the London of the 1980s at the height of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) troubles, as she delicately put it, and wondered if the city was again going to become as unsafe as it was those days; she had left the city then, with her small children, and had moved back to London only recently. Neither my accent nor the colour of my skin had meant anything to her, and she too exuded that sense of fellow-residents of the city worrying about its safety, and I again said, "We should have never invaded Iraq." Her non-stop talking suddenly stopped, and in a hushed, intense, angry voice, she said, "That man!" She was obviously referring to Tony Blair, her Prime Minister.

This was liberal England, a certain liberal corner of London. I went into stores, randomly, and stood close to other people so that I could hear what they were saying to each other. Most were not talking of the attacks at all, others were discussing the news, issues of security, and wondering how long it would be before buses and trains would start running again. So, I returned to the flat and, after a while, started watching BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), intermittently.

Blair predictably said that "they" were out to destroy "what we hold dear". Elsewhere, however, there was much sobriety and restraint. Most channels were going on with their shows. The news channels were glum, efficient, and for the most part factual, apparently rather concerned that the gratuitous violence is not used for spreading hatred and violence against the British Muslim communities. There was the Police Commissioner saying that the only way to "isolate" the small number of Muslim extremists was to maintain such good relations with the Muslim communities that "we" can move easily among "them". There was the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston, speaking from abroad and saying (in paraphrase) that the attack had not been on "the rich and the powerful" but on the "working people of London" - all the people of London, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews and the rest (implying, perhaps inadvertently, that an attack on the rich and powerful - the Bushes and the Blairs, the perpetrators of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan - might have been more understandable). I heard a lot about British multiculturalism that afternoon.

Only the next day did I learn, from The Guardian, that within hours of the attack, 30,000 abusive and threatening e-mails were sent to the Web site of the Muslim Council of Britain and that the fear of anti-Muslim violence was so acute that the Islamic Human Rights Commission had advised the London Muslims to stay indoors. This uglier side I actually found less surprising, because one knows of the extent of the fascist vote in Britain (England in particular), the permeation of the fascist mentality among many of the Tory ranks, the hold of the colonial mentality over much of the British imagination, the racism rampant in these British Isles, and so on. So, I was particularly pleased to see, two days after the attacks, large numbers of purdah-clad ladies and bearded gentleman of a certain religious persuasion out on the London streets in full force, and, among them, a group of three Muslim girls, dressed in exquisitely designed hijabs, laughing and waving their mugs of cold coffee as they walked down a fashionable street, knowing perfectly well that their beauty, visible on the faces and enhanced by the expertly cut (and clinging) gowns, was turning every head, male and female.

And I said to myself: this is at least a divided city, a divided country - genuinely. There has not been as much political hysteria as there would have been in the United States, and the reason perhaps is that there are not enough buyers for that kind of hysteria. So few dare talk on TV about the motivation behind these terrorist attacks because too many Britons are now too acutely aware of the illegality and inhumanity of their government's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps enough who understand that some sort of retaliation, no matter how cruel or irrational or bizarre, was nevertheless bound to come. There is more of a political culture, more of a possibility for debate even in the mass media than is permitted in the United States.

I found the contrast striking because it did so happen that I had arrived in Toronto only three days before the World Trade Centre bombings of September 11, 2001, and watched the American responses from up close, as the CBC (the Canadian equivalent of BBC) simply handed itself over to CNN. I have told my own story of that day in the introduction to my book Afghanistan, Iraq and the Imperialism of Our Time, and would not want to repeat it. Suffice it to say that certain contrasts were striking. In New York that day, communications with the outside world - landlines, cellphones - were simply cut and airports closed; in London now, there was undoubtedly some surveillance over communication channels but no blacking out, no interruption of air traffic - or, for that matter, any kind of traffic in the rest of the United Kingdom - and every effort was made to quickly restore normal (or as close to normal as possible) services on precisely that London transport system that had been attacked; buses were indeed back on the road by the afternoon. Bush Jr. had spent that day of September 11, 2001, dodging his duties, hiding in far-away places and leaving the task of governance in times of danger to his underlings in Washington; in Britain now, Blair flew back to London as quickly as possible and went straight to take charge of the new situation at meetings in Downing Street. On U.S. TV stations that day, all else had stopped, there was talk only of blood and gore and retribution, as all kinds of rented pseudo-experts got paraded, in great numbers, with their litany of numerous (and mostly implausible) suspects, while captions like "Attack on America" and "Another Hiroshima" adorned TV screens for hours on end; on the BBC now, on the day of the attacks, the phrase one heard repeatedly was a variant of "to the best of our knowledge" and "according to". If U.S. officialdom was preoccupied that day with the production of hysteria, British officialdom now seemed preoccupied with the reproduction of normalcy - and the electronic media obediently followed in each case.

SOME of this contrast is the result of very different past histories and present-day political cultures. The U.S. has the unique privilege of being the only country that has never been attacked by others, even though it has attacked countless countries and otherwise intervened militarily in many more; London, by contrast, has known military violence on its streets as recently as the British military occupation of Northern Ireland and the Provisional IRA's retaliations on British territory. There are other contrasts as well, though, which are closer to the present moment. We now know that the entire Bush team that had come to occupy highest offices of state with the advent of his presidency - Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and so on - had already put in place elaborate plans for conquest and restructuring of West Asia and that the events of September 11, 2001, proved to be precisely the kind of event they had hoped for so as to start implementing those designs; on the next day, Condoleezza Rice asked her staff "how do we make use of this opportunity" while Rumsfeld argued in a Cabinet meeting that the U.S. must attack Iraq immediately. No such historic moment exists in the United Kingdom today for Blair and his men to utilise for grandiose plans of world conquest. For all its imperial delusion and pomp, Britain is a vulnerable little island off the coast of continental Europe, and even Blair knows that he cannot have his day in the imperial sun except as a poodle of the United States.

What Blair also knows is that even though sentiment against the involvement of their troops on the Anglo-U.S. side in Iraq was already running very high across Spain, the outraged reaction of the Spanish public to the bombings in Madrid on March 11 last year as something that their government had brought upon them by colluding with the U.S. fed decisively into the defeat of the pro-U.S. government of Jose Maria Aznar Lopez and the return of the Socialists to power. Will the London bombings similarly intensify the already widespread revulsion against Britain's extensive involvement, as junior partner, in the American war against Afghanistan and Iraq? Or, will the attack on British soil galvanise the patriotic sentiment and unify the nation behind an imperial fantasy, as was witnessed not too long ago under Margaret Thatcher when Britain chose to fight it out with Argentina over the Malvinas islands (the so-called Falklands). The material consequences for the dead and the injured are of course horrific enough, but the symbolic power of the London explosions is even far greater, for, once the dust of immediate events settles, what this tragedy seeks to force every Londoner, and more generally all Britons, to do is to ask themselves a simple question: four years after our armies conquered Afghanistan, and two years after they conquered Iraq, are we in our homes and cities safer than before, or less safe?

We do not know how the majority of Britons shall answer that question, or how many of them shall be willing to go out and force their government to retreat from an imperial involvement that is bound to bring forth more such tragedies. Too deeply committed to the current policies already, Blair is likely to respond with a rhetoric that he will borrow partly from George Bush Jr. and partly from Maggie Thatcher, to frighten the British public on the one hand and to galvanise their patriotism and imperial nostalgia on the other. If this peculiar mix of great fear and delusion of imperial grandeur does take hold, Blair will then undoubtedly ask for more troops for the twin missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, more restrictions on civil liberties and more arbitrary powers for the government in this fight against "terrorism", and a deeper, more insidious commitment to the whole ideological universe of the "Clash of Civilisations" thesis: "Us" versus "Them", Islam Versus Western Values, Terrorism versus Democracy, and so on. Many people have expected Blair to announce in the not-too-distant future that he is ready to hand over the leadership of the party and the government to someone else in mid-term, well before the next elections; he may, on the contrary, now choose to use these London attacks to instil fear and argue that he must stay at the helm to steer England to safety in these terrible times.

That is not an unlikely scenario, and Blair may yet turn this public tragedy to his own personal and political advantage. The debate has been joined, however. The morning after the London blasts, The Guardian carried a fine piece by Tariq Ali. Sensing that Blair would use these blasts for obtaining more stringent legislation in favour of the national security apparatus and for concentrating more power in his own hands, Tariq Ali recalled that "despite all the various Prevention of Terrorism Acts passed by the Commons" during the 1970s and 1980s, "the IRA managed to target mainland Britain", almost succeeded in blowing up Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet in Brighton, fired a missile on No.10 Downing Street itself, and targeted the financial district of London. He also recalled the prescient words of Ken Livingston, the Mayor of London, when he appealed to Tony Blair not to support the war in Iraq: "An assault on Iraq will inflame world opinion and jeopardise security and peace everywhere. London, as one of the major world cities, has a great deal to lose from war and a lot to gain from peace, international cooperation and global stability." Blair did not heed the advice, took Britain into America's wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and Londoners were now paying the price.

On the same day, The Independent carried an equally fine and hard-hitting piece by Robert Fisk which began by recalling what Osama bin Laden has said in his video tapes ("If you bomb our cities, we will bomb yours") and went on to ask: "If we are fighting insurgency in Iraq, what makes us believe insurgency won't come to us?" That arguments of this kind would come from the Left was predictable but that such articles would be published - and published routinely - in mass-circulation dailies marks a difference of political culture in Britain as compared to the U.S. where even writers of Noam Chomsky's legendary stature are never invited to write for newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

And, again in sharp contrast to the U.S. where everyone who is invited to write for the mass media is expected to rally round the flag and participate in rituals of mass hysteria in the face of attack by "foreign terrorists", the fact that such critical and scathing articles can be calmly published even before the dead and the missing have been fully counted, and indeed while human bodies still lie smouldering in the wrecked tunnels, testifies to a resolve that the political debate must in all circumstances continue. Not that the British media itself is not dominated by the rightwing. However, arguments emanating from the Left have a space, no matter how narrow a space, in the mass media in a way rarely possible in the U.S.

And, the debate has been joined by many who can hardly be considered Leftists and are indeed much more influential in British mainstream politics. Robin Cook, the former Foreign Minister who famously resigned from Blair's Cabinet due to disagreements over the then impending invasion of Iraq, published an article in The Guardian two day after the London explosions in which he held the West responsible for creating the terror network in the first place and rejected the notion that the war on Iraq could provide security within Britain.

Cook wrote: "Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the [19]80s he was armed by the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and funded by the Saudis to wage jehad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, literally "the database", was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden's organisation would turn its attention to the West... The danger now is that the West's current response to the terrorist threat compounds that original error. So long as the struggle against terrorism is conceived as a war that can be won by military means, it is doomed to fail... . President Bush is given to justifying the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that by fighting terrorism abroad, it protects the west from having to fight terrorists at home. Whatever else can be said in defence of the war in Iraq today, it cannot be claimed that it has protected us from terrorism on our soil."

All this is of course common sense but when it comes from Robin Cook, a man deeply entrenched in the British establishment and hardly known for his pacifist convictions - and comes, moreover, the day after the attacks on British soil - it serves as a call for sobriety, for recognition that the monster that hit London this week was itself a creation of the CIA and other "Western security agencies", and that the war on Iraq has made cities like London not more secure but less safe. This piece by Robin Cook was followed, in the same newspaper the next day, by a much more analytic and hard-hitting piece by David Clark, a former Labour government adviser, who presented a fuller, quite unanswerable argument and should therefore be quoted at some length:

"... It must be said that everything that has followed the fall of Kabul has been ruinous to the task of winning over moderate Muslim opinion and isolating the terrorists within their own communities. In Iraq we allowed America to rip up the rule book of counter-insurgency with a military adventure that was dishonestly conceived and incompetently executed. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed by U.S. troops uninterested in distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant, or even counting the dead. The hostility engendered has been so extreme that the CIA has been forced to conclude that Iraq may become a worse breeding ground for international terrorism that Afghanistan was. Bin Laden can hardly believe his luck.

The political dimensions of this problem mean that there can be no hope of defeating terrorism until we are ready to take legitimate Arab grievances seriously. We must start by acknowledging that their long history of engagement with the West is one that has left many Arabs feeling humiliated and used. There is more to this than finding a way of bringing the occupation of Iraq to an end. We cannot seriously claim to care for the rights of Arabs living in Iraq when it is obvious that we care so little for Arabs living in Palestine. The Palestinians need a viable state, but all the indications suggest that the Bush administration is preparing to bounce the Palestinians into accepting a truncated entity that will lack the basic characteristics of either viability or statehood. That must not be allowed to succeed.

... Having stood with America, and paid a terrible price for doing so, it is now time to turn that demand back on Bush. We have a vital national interest in defeating terrorism and we must have a greater say in how that is done. The current approach is failing and it's time for a change. If Tony Blair cannot bring himself to say this, he owes it to his country to make way for someone who can."

COOK, Clarke and their kind are articulate and influential members of the British establishment, but they are also men who lost the argument and had to leave government. Theirs is very much a minority opinion in the echelons of power even though what they say on the issue of the Iraq war resonates with the sentiments of perhaps the majority of Britons. Their willingness to speak forcefully and publicly at this juncture signifies at least three things. First, divisions in British society over the issue of the Iraq war run so deep, so wide that even national mourning in the aftermath of the London explosions cannot be used to end the debate, suppress the dissent and paper over the divisions. Second, the substance of what these dissidents from within the establishment are saying converges so substantially with the arguments put forth by the Left that the Left itself cannot be dismissed as some sort of an unpatriotic, lunatic fringe. And, third, the possibility is kept alive that as the intensity of anger and grief recedes, and the most shocking of the visual images begin to disappear from the tabloids and the TV screens, Britons in the aftermath of the London bombings may eventually go the way of the Spaniards after the Madrid bombings last year.

It is much easier to predict what Blair's designs would be if the tendency to rally around the leader in times of national grief prevails. But what happens if the anti-war sentiment begins to overrun the populace? It would undoubtedly mean that Britain shall not so readily join the U.S. forces in aggression against any other country, be it Iran or Syria, if such aggression were to come about. The more fundamental question, however, is whether there is any real possibility that Blair will under any circumstances actually turn around, repudiate his policies and disengage from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? That seems most unlikely.

Blair has been deeply over-committed to the twin wars, from the beginning up to now, right down to his blatant stonewalling of all public interrogation during the past few weeks regarding the leaked documents that came to be called the Downing Street Memos which showed that he had promised to Bush Britain's full participation in the invasion of Iraq as long ago as Summer 2002, neither on the issue of the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction nor of terrorism but, simply and clearly, for the single purpose of "regime change" (ouster of Saddam; installation of a client regime) in violation of all international law. He therefore has no choice to do more of the same. Could the pressure of public opinion, if it turned massively and militantly against the war, force a change of prime minister at some not-too-distant a date but within this term of Parliament? Conceivably yes, as a last resort. Could a new Prime Minister disengage Britain from those wars and, in doing so, disengage also from the fraternal, infernal embrace of the United States?

THAT question goes to the very heart of the dilemmas of British politics, historic and contemporary. For, what Churchill conceived as a "special relationship" between two Anglo-Saxon cousins - between an empire in disarray and an empire rising - has been at the very heart of Britain's self-image in international affairs for well over a half-century. No significant section of the British ruling class has ever wholly committed itself to the European Union, to the extent of giving the Union priority over its trans-Atlantic relationship - virtually a union in its own way - with the U.S. No British government, not even any of the Labour governments of the post-war period, has ever broken with the U.S. on an international issue of any considerable significance, so that not all the student uprisings and anti-war marches of the 1960s could get Britain to detach itself from the U.S. designs in Vietnam when neither British troops nor British economic interests were directly involved, as they now are in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And British commitments have ordinarily been more unilateral than reciprocal, deeply unequal within the professed framework of equality. Blair himself claimed that if Britain cooperates in the U.S. invasion of Iraq it would be able to influence U.S. policy toward the Palestine question, which has simply not been the case. Britain is the one that has had to concede on all such issues, and within Iraq itself the British government - as distinct from British oil interests - has had a very minor role in the new architecture of political and military power that is being put in place there. Bush seems to be vetoing even the British plan to withdraw some troops from Iraq and re-deploy them in Afghanistan. For all one knows, the security arguments arising from the London bombings shall now be used to increase the number of British troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In all such matters Britain tends to get treated as a province of the U.S. and is therefore likely to suffer the fate usual for provinces.

The question of British disengagement from wars that are planned in Washington and executed according to U.S. plans is thus itself wholly subject to the far more central question of the U.S. withdrawal - rather, the longevity and modalities of the U.S. entrenchment in those countries. Any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in the foreseeable future is most unlikely, regardless of the intensity or breadth of the resistance. We are hearing a lot these days about growing similarities between the American predicaments in Vietnam some 35 years ago and in Iraq today, and there indeed are similarities. However, it is best to keep in mind all that which is not similar. I shall enumerate only three such factors here.

Vietnam had a historically unique mass revolutionary movement throughout the country as well as a stable revolutionary regime in the North which remained fully in charge of the resistance from start to finish. Second, it enjoyed not only the moral support of numerous revolutionary movements across the world but, more decisively, the material support of the Soviet Union. Neither of these crucial factors obtains today. There is massive resistance in Iraq today but it is organisationally and ideologically so fragmented that two years into this war of resistance, no revolutionary centre, nothing resembling a united front of all the resistance forces, has materialised; and so deep are the political, ideological and even religious conflicts among the forces of resistance that none may arise in the foreseeable future. There is quite considerable anti-war activity around the world but the revolutionary wave is very much on the ebb and there is nothing resembling the Soviet Union of the Vietnam era, as a global military power constituting a reliable rear for the revolutionary forces.

Thirdly, moreover, America's war on Vietnam was exclusively political and ideological in character, viewed by the U.S. as an episode - albeit a key episode - in the containment of communism, while the decisive centres of communist power were elsewhere. Neither Vietnam individually nor Indochina as a whole had any resources - strategic raw materials, markets - that the U.S. especially coveted. Even then, the U.S. fought on for over a decade, losing 50,000 lives of its own personnel, for political and ideological reasons. That political battle against the Soviet has now been won, and the U.S. is free to concentrate on where the money is. In sharp contrast to Vietnam, Iraq is at the hub of the very zone in which the world's most important strategic raw material is largely concentrated, and the wealth at stake runs not into millions or billions but trillions. Here, the U.S. is not fighting a proxy war against a competing superpower but, as the sole superpower in the world, it is fighting to capture the region for its own sake, because it is simply axiomatic in our time that the country that takes over the resources of West and Central Asia shall also be the country that dominates the world, through not just military power but corporate power. Because material interests of such magnitude are involved, every neo-conservative ideologue of any influence in America has said that the wars of our time shall be extended to the region as a whole and that these wars shall last for a generation. If corporate U.S.A. could give 50,000 lives for ideology in Vietnam, how many more might it be willing to give for a few trillion dollars?

What needs to be discussed, therefore, is not the prospects of a withdrawal but the very intricate modalities of the occupation, political as well as military; the new structures of power getting put in place; and, yes, the resistance in its political as well as military aspects.