Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 10:37 am 
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Published by the Baltimore Chronicle

London in perspective

"Terrorism, like viruses, is everywhere," Jean Baudrillard wrote in his long essay, "L'Esprit du terrorisme" (English version; French version).[1] "There is a global perfusion of terrorism," he went on, "which accompanies any system of domination as though it were its shadow, ready to activate itself anywhere, like a double agent. We can no longer draw a demarcation line around it. It is at the very heart of this culture which combats it, and the visible fracture (and the hatred) that pits the exploited and the underdeveloped globally against the Western world secretly connects with the fracture internal to the dominant system."[2] For acts of terrorism, there is always a reason. In London, the reason was twofold, and clear: it was a protest against England's close support, by way of Prime Minister Blair, of the war in Iraq, and the timing was determined by the long-known scheduling of the G8 Summit Conference in Scotland, attended by both Blair and Bush.

On July 7, 2005, three homemade bombs went off on London underground cars and a fourth exploded simultaneously on a double-decker bus killing over 50 and injuring 700. In one sense it may be accurate to call this, as newspapers have been doing, the worst assault on London since the Blitz in WWII. But we need to be aware of the well-established European and American tendency to dramatize assaults on large western cities beyond all others -- a tendency that plays right into the hands of the perpetrators. The cold truth is that events causing 50 deaths and 700 injuries happen almost daily in highly populated areas all over the planet and are often quickly forgotten -- that is, if they happen elsewhere, or result from acts of nature. There's really no comparison of an attack on London on one day in July 2005 with the Blitz -- which went on day after day for months and left the city in ruins and in flames. But the fact that this comparison has been repeatedly made is nonetheless significant.

Londoners are inured to terrorism through the IRA and they still remember the Nazi siege of sixty years ago. And so they possess a sense of proportion that was lacking in the Americans of September 2001, who shut down their whole country for days and crippled their economy for years as a result of the assaults on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. With their gift for muddling through, Londoners went right back to using their Tube system the very next day. And they were wise to do this. Whether they will respond by tossing out Blair as the Spanish tossed out Asnar is doubtful. But the English have avoided doing the one thing terrorists want them to do: they haven't become purely reactive. They've been shaken, but they've gone on with their lives. Unfortunately there have nonetheless also been new repressive measures proposed and some signs of a public backlash against local Muslims.

Words for the gullible

And, English sangfroid aside, western analyses of the London attack still follow the old double standard: terrorism elsewhere is one thing; terrorism in the West is an outrage, a tragedy, an affront to the "higher" values, to "all we hold dear," which Blair emotionally declared will be defended. "They" (assumed to be Arabs and Muslims before anyone even knew for sure) only attack "us" because they "hate freedom," they "resent democracy," and so on.

From this myopic point of view it's of no importance that this same sort of thing happens on a much greater scale in other parts of the world -- most obviously at present in Iraq. The suicide bomb death toll in Iraq just for the past three days -- a pretty random sample -- is twice the London total. Business as usual over there, a terrible tragedy in England. And what about the "Shock and Awe" period in Iraq three years ago when mass death was a daily occurrence, or later when American forces destroyed a whole mid-sized city with no compunction? None of that seems to matter in the West. Hence the effectiveness of terrorist acts against western targets is once again proven as well as the inability to prevent them or to stifle the response to them once they occur.

It's a familiar red herring to claim any terrorist attack aims at destroying "all we hold dear." Al Qaida attacks have been firmly focused on western imperialism and its Mideast policies, not democratic values.

Bush and his allies immediately held up the bombings in London as proof that the killing in Iraq needs to be continued. He has seized the occasion to repeat his preposterous assertion that hunting down "terrorists" in Iraq reduces terrorism in the rest of world and keeps them from coming to America. Of course the exact opposite is the case. Reports have repeatedly shown the US occupation of Iraq has made it a fertile ground for terrorism -- when it never was before. But Bush and the neo-cons aren't wasting their words when they repeat their fabrications. The sad paradox is that it's easier for the gullible to believe the exact opposite of the truth than any subtle variations on it. Hence people can be talked into thinking that the London attack -- another clear sign that the "war on terrorism" isn't working -- somehow proves this phantom "war" must remain the number one priority.

Failed and untried strategies

"Can they be stopped?" a US newspaper breathlessly asks.

What does this mean? "Stopped" in this case means punishment, counterattack, eradication of individuals. This is the neo-con stance: track them down and kill them. That is the way to "stop" terrorism. This is akin to radical surgery to a ravaged organism rather than innoculation to prevent disease in advance. When the neo-cons report "gains" in the "war on terrorism," they mean some known or alleged Islamist terrorists have been tracked down and killed or incarcerated. This was actually public policy, a failed one, in Afghanistan, when Osama bin Laden, who isn't talked about now by the Bush administration, was Public Enemy Number One and the "coalition" forces tried to find him and capture him. But they couldn't do that. They had to settle for a sitting duck, Saddam Hussein, a dictator in a nearby oil rich but already disabled country -- a better place to occupy than the miserable Afghanistan -- and as time has shown, a more fertile breeding ground for terrorists.

The virus goes on spreading. Western agencies have succeeded in preventing terrorist attacks, and they have tracked down known terrorists. But terrorist activity still flourishes, and London shows how powerful a force it still is -- if anything, more so than ever. It clearly looks like "they" can't be "stopped." But what good would "stopping" "them" do, anyway?

The liberal or progressive stance, mocked recently by Karl Rove, is that terrorism is best fought by eradicating the causes of unrest, not the individual perpetrators, who will only multiply the more when some of them are eradicated. Is this more peaceful approach valid? Would terrorism actually dry up if its root causes were wiped out? Time isn't likely to tell, at least in the short run, because this view isn't getting much of a chance to be tested. But what is clear is that the more the West over-reacts with belligerent responses to Islamic terrorism, the more motivation it provides for the terrorists to continue and for new followers to organize. Show terror, and terrorists are justified -- because they know anger and outrage and threats are only masks for fear. And fear is the goal they seek to achieve.

Moreover, as Baudrillard explains in his essay, the relationship is symbiotic. The western powers need the "war on terrorism" as much as militant Islamists need their bombs. For the former, it's the new hot Cold War, the endless war with all its benefits for imperialism and power that seemed to have slipped away for a minute with the fall of communism. Now there is a new everlasting enemy, and since it's without a political structure, nations and corporations -- the forces of globalization -- are free to do business among themselves perpetually. And as long as there is western domination, terrorism will be focused to oppose it.

The Muslim position

There's little doubt about the fact that the enemy the West's (and the other world powers') phantom war is organized to oppose is primarily a Muslim one; hence it's as important as ever to distinguish the Islamist terrorists from true Islam. The Qur’an in no way glorifies war, and recognizes it as only a necessary, final resort. In keeping with this view, Islam condemns preemptive attacks. "Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you," it says, "but do not attack them first. God does not like the aggressors.” (2:190). (So much for the Bush-led attack on Iraq.) Islam doesn't condone terrorism either, of course, and clearly surprise attacks on New York, Madrid, London, and in the Middle East in the name of Islam are travesties. None of these events should be seen as changing relationships between the world's cultures and religions.

Reprinted here:

[1] Originally publshed in Le Monde, Paris, November 2001.
[2] Quoted from Chris Turner's translation published by Verso, 2002; rev. 2003.

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