Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Justifying vs. Explaining Terrorism

The British have more tact than Americans. After the London terrorist attacks, very few people rushed to the fore to shout, "It's Iraq, stupid!" This sort of thing DID happen in the US after September 11th; once the dust had cleared, it didn't take long for various commentators on the left to leap into the breach saying that the attacks were the result of self-serving, short-sighted, and unpopular American foreign policies in the Middle East. The right then denounced the left, saying that it was in horrible taste to "justify" the attacks. It's been a couple of weeks for the same sort of thing to get cooking in Britain. (Granted, the rather strident John Pilger got his licks in a bit earlier than this, after a mere week's pause -- but frankly, much as I agree that the war in Iraq is and has been a horrifying folly at best and a criminal obscenity at worst, and as often as I've found myself in agreement with Pilger's camp over the last few years, there's something rather revoltingly "See! I was right! Now will you LISTEN?" about this article... Yes, John, we all know that the British government should not have supported Bush in Iraq, but they did; the question is what to do now, not to look for proof of your righteousness among the blood and fragments of your own countrymen... It seems I've come unstuck from the standard leftwing views on these matters, to the extent that I flat-out reject some of what is said in this article as propaganda and bullshit; when I read the Jamail report that "children, the elderly, were shot dead in front of their families, in cold blood," it strikes me as hysterical nonsense and little else.)

To explain suicide bombings, in London or elsewhere, it is inadequate to point solely to one's own country's actions as a cause, but it's probably a natural reaction among people of conscience. This seems to be the crux of the sort of disagreement we see here (between "explaining" and "justifying" terrorism). If a stranger walks up to you and shoots you on the street, it is completely valid to ask yourself, as you lie bleeding, "What did I do to deserve this?" Surely you'll look towards your own actual guilts before you look elsewhere -- one doesn't even have to be a liberal to understand this; even if your own past sins don't seem to merit such a punishment, to make sense of what has happened, you'll try to find something you might have done... One wants to believe the universe is just, and that things make sense; to lie dying in sheer incomprehension, unable to think of a single thing that could possibly have incurred such hatred, would be far worse than to have identified your fault and attempted some sort of psychic atonement. And, really, I mostly agree with Dominic Grieve, in the Independent article first quoted; surely Muslim reaction to British involvement in Iraq (along with local but related grievances, as part of the British support for Bush's war on terror) was 99% of the motive for the crime. Grieve seems like a man of conscience and good intent; and obviously, if Blair had not supported Bush in Iraq, this wouldn't have happened.

There is, unfortuately for us liberals, a fair bit of validity to taking the opposite point of view, though; that terrorism is caused by terrorists, and that (in this case) it is their fanaticism, religious delusion, and disregard for the lives of others that drives their action, as much as any actual grievances they may have. Grieve's opponent in the article, a Ms. Blears, states, "I don't see any justification for people blowing themselves up and murdering hundreds of other people," regardless of British foreign policy errors, and she's got a point, too. It is not particularly acceptible -- is racist, taboo, etc. -- for liberals and "enlightened people" to criticize members of another race or religion for their actions, but there is something to be found in certain strands of Islam that is dangerous, backwards and crazed; that the suicide bombers believed themselves to be committing a virtuous action which would somehow better the world is pathologically confused behaviour. I can almost rationalize the September 11th attacks as a well-thought out strategic move (however evil) on the part of Al Qaeda -- by provoking US overreaction, bin Laden hoped to gain support for his own side, which he was abundantly successful in doing. Given the current situation in Iraq or in the world, though, how blowing up British commuters could possibly serve any strategic ends is beyond me; surely the only sane end anyone could want to serve at this point would be to end this war, not to perpetuate it. If Muslim grievances are at the crux of the matter -- well, they'll have a fair bit more to grieve over, now, as British Muslims everywhere bear the brunt of British government reaction to these crimes. It's not like it's going to make Blair recant his support for the war in Iraq, either; just as Bush gained support after September 11th, Brits will rally around their leader even more, now, entrenching themselves in the Iraq quagmire for years to come. Assumedly this is not what the bombers thought they were achieving. Whatever was in their heads probably has more to do with a craving for glory, the bliss of martyrdom, and the desire for heavenly virgins than any actual political goal they thought they might achieve; there is backwardness, confusion, error, and extremism in all of this, which has as much to do with the London attacks as Blair's policy decisions. The suicide bomber's actions are simply not, however, as Grieve claims, "completely explicable" in terms of Iraq, regardless of how big a crime/blunder/what have you the war there has been. It is not simply our own house that needs cleaning... As one lies bleeding and shot in the street, as natural as it may be to wonder what one may have done to "deserve" it, it might be helpful to also remember that the murder of civilians is a crime, regardless of what one has done.

Unfortunately, I imagine it's a matter of months before similar terrorist actions happen in Canada. I can't say I'm looking forward to it. It all starts to remind me of a rather famous James Joyce quote.

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