Friday, September 17, 2004

I’ve had a comment which deserves a full response

It was basically complaining at my rather off-hand dismissal of American fears of and reactions to terrorism. (For the full comment, which is reasonably argued, and should really be read in full before reading this post, see here.) I’m sorry if this goes on a bit, but it sort of has to.

I’ll quote the final bit, and then make a few basic retorts: “please, spare us the sarcasm and self-righteousness. And indulge our paranoia and our desire to protect our diplomats and citizens; our apprehension is not without basis.”

I’m writing a semi-anonymous political blog. Of course the tone is self righteous. But enough with the glib…

America has had the constant threat of terrorist attacks for three years. In London (and Britain as a whole) we’ve had it for thirty. We know what it’s like. I know what it’s like:

On 12th October 1984, a few miles from my house, a massive IRA bomb blew a huge chunk out of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, nearly wiping out the entire government. I remember seeing Norman Tebbit pulled from the rubble. I remember the dazed, dust-covered faces of the conference delegates as they stumbled onto the street. It was my first experience of terrorism.

On 30th July 1990, my MP – the great man who was Ian Gow – was blown up outside his house by the IRA. He lived less than two hundred yards from the primary school my brother had attended. He lived next door to one of my best friends. My friend found pieces – yes, pieces - of Mr Gow in his treehouse, thirty yards from where the carbomb detonated.

On 9th February 1996 I was on my way up to London to check out my future university and meet my uncle for dinner in the evening, once he’d finished work at the Sunday Telegraph at Canary Wharf. The IRA had other ideas. For several hours we had no idea whether he was alive or dead. He thankfully wasn’t. But nonetheless this got my grandmother, who worked as a nurse in London throughout the Blitz, so worried that I might be killed that she started trying to bribe me to go to university elsewhere. This coming from someone who experienced London when thousands of bombs were going off a day...

On 30th April 1999 I was meant to be in Soho, visiting a movie memorabilia store in Brewer Street with a couple of friends. Afterwards we were going to head to a pub in Greek Street, passing down Old Compton Street to get there. Instead we decided to get drunk. Just as well, because otherwise we would have been walking past the Admiral Duncan when the nailbomb went off. For once, it wasn’t the IRA, just some right-wing lunatic. He still caused a lot of death and injury.

On 2nd August 2001, the "Real IRA" detonated a bomb outside a pub in West London. It thankfully injured nobody seriously, but came on the back of an attack on the MI6 building the previous September and a bomb attack on the BBC a few months earlier. I, and everyone I know, spent the next few weeks worried about every car we passed.

On 11th September 2001 I, like countless others, watched in horror as the World Trade Centre smoked. I saw the second plane hit on live television. I saw both towers collapse. My reactions were the same as yours, and words cannot do justice. What some American readers may not realise is that there was panic in London as well. An investment banker friend of mine saw his entire office in the city evacuated, and as essential staff he was to be transferred to a secure bomb shelter. Another friend of mine, working at the House of Commons, had to continue working at a site which everyone knew was a prime target. For weeks afterwards we were all terrified that ‘planes might start dropping out of the skies.

None of these attacks had anything to do with complacency about security. They had everything to do with people trying to lead normal, free, everyday lives. In Britain, life carried on as normal during the period the IRA were campaigning, despite the occasional attack (and they were anything but occasional), because we didn’t want to give in to the bastards.

Yes, we could have locked up every Irishman in the country if we wanted to, and we could have happily shipped them off to an offshore processing facility, denied them a trial, and left them to rot while telling anyone who complained to piss off because we were at war. We could have stopped and searched every single boat coming across the Irish sea. It would have irritated and inconvenienced a lot of innocent people, but we could have done it. And instead the IRA would have hired mercenaries to plant their bombs, or entered the country by a different route.

In February 2002 I started work at the House of Commons. You may not realise this, but there’s a flight-path directly over the Houses of Parliament. It’s one of the major approaches to Heathrow which, being only a few miles away, means that the 'planes are pretty low. Every time I saw one approach Westminster from the south I realised how vulnerable we were.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror. Those responsible for 9/11 achieved this expertly, but the reason I continue to be terrified is not because I live in fear of a ‘plane smacking into me every day, or the knowledge that any unattended bag on the tube could contain a bomb or Sarin gas. The likelihood of me being the victim of a terrorist attack, despite living in one of the prime targets, and despite going through Westminster every day on my way to work, is minimal.

What terrifies me now is the reminder I get every time I see the security barriers outside the House of Commons, every time I see armed police on the streets of London and people not batting an eyelid, every time I hear someone willingly give up their hard-won civil rights because a tiny, insignificant minority of fanatics might, just possibly, do something. Terrorists will always find a way to spread fear – that is what they do. The way to deny them their power is to keep efforts at countering them as unobtrusive as possible.

As was pointed out in the reply to my earlier post, yes someone broke into Buckingham Palace this week, and yes, people managed to get into the Commons chamber. The Commons has the same high-profile, highly visible security measures as the US Embassy – concrete barriers, police with automatic weapons etc. etc. It didn’t do them any good. It wouldn’t do the US Embassy any good either.

In Britain we know terrorism, as they do in Spain. For Americans, with their limited experience of living with the constant threat of attack, to lecture Brits or Spaniards (as happened after the Madrid bombs) on the correct response is somewhat rich. In time, the US will learn to live with it too. It never gets any easier when the terrorists do strike, but it gets a lot easier not to be constantly thinking about the next time they might.

And, lest we forget, and as I pointed out earlier, there are several flight paths right over central London. As we all noticed three years back, ‘planes can cause a lot of damage in the wrong hands. What good is a bobby with a tommy-gun and a concrete barrier going to do against a 747? If you alter the flight-paths (which considering the air congestion over western Europe and London in particular is practically impossible) it would still take only a few minutes for a hijacked ‘plane to be re-routed to central London. Fighter aircraft may well be on constant patrol, but the order to destroy the ‘plane – filled with innocent civilians and flying over populated areas which would be hit by the falling debris – would not be taken lightly, and couldn’t be taken until it was obvious what was happening. By then, as became apparent back in September 2001, it is too late.

So, if the so-called security precautions are actually not going to do anything other than terrify the local population, thus doing the job of the terrorists for them, what useful purpose do they serve?

That was the point I was trying to make.

Making torture fun

It has to be said, Manic has a great talent for getting things spot on:

1. The War on Terror is a lie that will not protect you from terrorists
2. The War on Terror is being used to curb civil liberties and human rights
3. The War on Terror has been used by the Bush administration to justify torture
4. Including the torture of people who aren't terrorists
5. One day, it will be you with a bag on your head, and you'll wonder how it all came to be

A Plea To Americans

You came in rather late, but thanks for saving our asses in WW1.

Again with the lateness, but you did it again in WW2. It's appreciated.

Now, if it's not too much trouble, we need you to save us from WW3.

It's going to take more than your vote. You also have to reach out to the people around you and show them what's really going on. And it's not going to be easy.

Tim Ireland, 17th September 2004

A short piece on hunting

Yesterday's Daily Mail was amusing, but has got some people pissed off.

It's a load of overblown bollocks, that's for sure. But one thing this whole business has done is turn me from loosely pro-hunt (I grew up in the countryside, and have seen the damage foxes can do etc. etc. etc.) into really not giving a flying fuck about their cause. Especially after they fucked up the hillside near my parents' place.

Without their pathetic pissing about there could have been a proper debate on the subject (perfectly legitimate parallels could be drawn between the pro-hunting minority's fight to be allowed to do what they want to do and the homosexual minority's fight to do what they wanted to do during the 1950s - both pursuits are seen as fine by the people who do them, but as morally reprihensible by their opponents).

But never mind eh?

Note to people planning on any future political protests: try being amusing or maintain the moral high ground through peaceful protest. Don't act like a twat.

US Eyesore

Interesting piece in the New York Times about the US Embassy in London (here registration required). Well, I say interesting, but for anyone who's had the misfortune of wandering through Grosvenor Square at any point in the last three years every point the article makes is blindingly obvious:

"It is impossible to miss the American Embassy, hulking menacingly in genteel Mayfair with all the subtlety of a man wearing sunglasses and body armor to tea at the Ritz."

What is interesting is the fact that this has been noticed by a major newspaper in the US itself (even if it is the supposedly left-wing Times). Everyone is a bit miffed at the US at the moment, and it must be said that the security measures in place round the US Embassy seem somewhat more appropriate to some kind of warzone than the capital city of America's closest ally. It's been three years, guys - time to redecorate...

This and this is what Grosvenor Square used to look like; this is the Embassy pre-9/11 (it was pretty ugly then). Perhaps surprisingly, photos of the defences themselves are hard to come by. But this and this is the sight that greets you as soon as you get within a couple of hundred yards of the Embassy.

For our American cousins a quick reminder - we don't really have guns in the UK. The sight of a policeman in a flak jacket and armed with a sub-machinegun in the centre of London only ever used to happen after IRA attacks. To turn the corner and be greeted by one of these guys scares the living hell out of me every time. I always think a bomb's about to go off.

"This is Mayfair, one of the toniest little enclaves in town, where housing prices are in the millions, the streets are thick with luxury-goods stores and "unattractive" is a four-letter word... the scary-looking eyesore in this otherwise elegant area has become, to some, a symbol not just of American vulnerability, but also of its arrogance and excess."

Unfortunately it's not going to change any time soon - according to the head honcho at the Embasssy: "'We have a lease here that's almost 1,000 years long' - it expires in 2953 - 'and we plan to stay until the end of that lease'." Hurrah...

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Commons' portly protector

Yay for Sir Patrick Cormack!

OK, I'll admit here I'm biased as I used to work for the man, like him personally and still meet him for a drink on a semi-regular basis, but top work!

"By this time, and we're talking about a few seconds after the incident began, MPs had snapped into action. They were giving the young men some very cross looks. Only Sir Patrick Cormack decided to become a have-a-go hero, and tried to grab one youth in an armlock.

"My goodness, I thought, if they had been terrorists armed with machine guns, some of the least known MPs in the country would be lying dead by now.'

"Sir Patrick addressed one of the youths. 'Get out!' he said. "I am furious! This is disgraceful!'"

Even before all this our man Sir P had tried to calm it down:

"Sir Patrick Cormack, MP, one of the strongest of supporters for the protest, shouted angrily: 'Don't let off those bloody things, they're not good for the horses, and you should know more about horses.'"

This is what British democracy is all about - moronic protestors break in to the heart of the country's political machinery, forget what they were there to say, and then get a stern ticking off. I doubt it would work with hardcore terrorists, but wouldn't the world be a much nicer place if it did?

The United States of America: hypocritical and patronising?

According to Fareed Zakaria (the editor of Newsweek International, but writing in Foreign Policy), Europe is "the only other player with the resources and tradition to play a global role... U.S. and European goals on most issues are quite similar. Both want a peaceful world free from terror, with open trade, growing freedom, and civilized codes of conduct. A Europe that charts its own course just to mark its differences from the United States threatens to fracture global efforts—whether on trade, proliferation, or the Middle East. Europe is too disunited to achieve its goals without the United States; it can only ensure that America’s plans don’t succeed. The result will be a world that muddles along, with the constant danger that unattended problems will flare up disastrously. Instead of win-win, it will be lose-lose—for Europe, for the United States, and for the world."

The rest of the article is fairly bland stuff (but thanks to Metafilter for pointing it out nonetheless), and says nothing especially new or interesting. But one bit of that paragraph got me thinking - is that really how they see it? Do they really think that the European experiment is incapable of succeeding without American help?

So it got me thinking, just what does America think it can contribute to the European project? It has jettisoned any chance it once had to act as mediator, as half the continent despises the current administration. Having had its latest escapade declared to be illegal by the Secretary General of the United Nations, and having seemingly decided that unilateral action is the only way to get anything done, can the US really contribute any specialist knowledge or advice to what is essentially a plan to get a group of nations working harmoniously together as one? Although it may be a federation of sovereign states in principle, the USA is to all intents and purposes a single entity, and a single entity with a very poor record when it comes to foreign affairs.

Now I'll be the first to admit that yes, immediately after the Second World War we very much did need US finance to get our feet back on the ground. After the devastation of the Blitz and the drain on the British economy that the years of diversion to military production necessitated, the UK was effectively bankrupt; mainland Europe, meanwhile, had been all but turned to rubble.

But the Marshall Plan was hardly the ideal solution, as the good intentions of some within the US government were swiftly subverted by the growing anticommunism of the Truman Doctrine. This was an early example of an on-going and worsening problem - the United States' apparent inability to see that it is highly hypocritical to go on about "promoting democracy" all the time and then use force or threats to compel sovereign nations to accept a system of government acceptable to the US.

This is hardly a new idea and certainly not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States - pretty much any nation which has been in a position to dominate others has tried to impose their own governing ideas on them, from Egypt to the USSR (and countless others, including Britain, of course).

The only thing is, it always seems to backfire when the US does it: try to get friendly regimes installed in Cuba, end up with a standoff lasting five decades; try the same in Latin America, end up with fascistic military dictatorships and a pissed-off populace; try it in Iran, get a rabidly oppressive and anti-American bunch of religious fanatics in charge; Afghanistan - Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and a severe attack on the American mainland as thanks; Iraq - Saddam Hussein, two wars, tens of thousands of deaths, and what looks to be a rapidly approaching civil war. There are countless other examples - Grenada, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, etc. etc. etc. It rather looks as if the only times American intervention has actually made a positive difference was during the two World Wars - and on both occasions they were somewhat reluctant participants.

Then there's the rampant hypocracy of the US stating their current aim is to promote democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously having the absolutist monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the military dictatorship of Pakistan as two of their closest allies. Everyone seems to have forgotten that "President" Musharraf seized power in a military coup five years ago. No one in the American high command seems to remember that Saddam himself was also once a "friendly dictator", or to see the irony.

This has ended up fairly rambling, but considering the majority of visitors to this blog seem to be American I am genuinely intrigued to find out what you lot think about the potential for US-EU co-operation and friendship. In Britain we are often presented with a binary choice by the eurosceptic press - either become the 51st state (not sure what Puerto Rico would have to say about that, but still...) or join forces with a bunch of countries we've spent most of the last millennium at war with. It seems to be a different story in mainland Europe, where America plays little part in the calculations.

But how does the US really see the EU? As a friend or as competition?

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Constitutional conundrums

Looks like the European Constitution debates are going to continue to hot up. The upcoming Labour conference could see a clash between the pro and anti camps within the party come into the open.

This could be a good thing, as raising the profile of the debate over the constitution could well finally see some of the benefits highlighted, but let's not forget the problems that European divisions caused for the Tories back in the 90s.

In a week which has already seen announcements that Blair nearly quit, and after a fortnight of press speculation about the significance of Alan Milburn's return to government for the Labour election manifesto, can the party really afford to seem even more divided? It was the lack of unity of John Major's government - especially over Europe - which did in for the Tories in 1997 nearly as much as the irritation of 18 years with the same party in charge and the allegations of sleaze. Labour is rapidly appearing to be putting itself in the same situation.

It's the same story in France, where everything seems to be going tits up. After the chaos of the last French Presidential elections, which saw the fascist Jean Marie Le Pen shock much of Europe by getting through to the final ballot, the French political situation is precarious to say the least.

Sooner or later, the pro-Europe camp is really going to have to pull its finger out. Unfortunately, if the Yes campaign continues to appear to be little more than a partisan grouping, and fails to build cross-party support with high-profile supporters (and by this I don't mean the likes of Eddie Izzard, as amusing and committed to the cause as he may be), then the better-organised No campaign (with the BNP, UKIP, Tories and majority of the British press on its side) is going to wipe the floor with them. End result? Britain ends up isolated and powerless, and will be forced to suck up to America even more than we do already in a desperate attempt to get by in the world.

Isn't politics fun?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Talking with terrorists 20 years on

Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA's political wing Sinn Féin, writes in the Guardian about his hopes and doubts for the new Northen Irish peace talks due to take place later this week, nearly twenty years after the IRA nearly succeeded in wiping out the entire British Cabinet. What he says is, as can only be expected from a man who has spent the majority of his life talking in doublespeak, a combination of sensible-sounding insanity and attempts to do down his opponents. His words need not be paid attention to too much - that is not the point.

What this article does do is demonstrate how opening up a political dialogue with terrorists can work. After all, when was the last IRA bomb in mainland Britain? . Not all the problems have been sorted out, and wreckers from both the "loyalist" and republican sides have doen their utmost to destroy any chance of the Good Friday Agreement working, but the violence has calmed down, and both sides have, on occasion, felt that they are actually being listened to. Britain has learned from her mistakes. Gone are the days when Gerry Adams' voice could not be heard on British television or radio. Gone are the days of IRA attacks.

In Spain, as the superb documentary Basque Ball makes abundantly clear, the old Anzar government closed all lines of communication with ETA, even outlawing their political wing. They have yet to learn from Britain's mistakes.

In Russia, as we have learned these last couple of weeks, attacks by Chechen rebels are met with extreme force, calls for revenge, press censorship, illegal detentions, and ever-increasing central control. They have yet to learn from Britain's mistakes.

In Israel, each new suicide bombing leads to attack helicopters being sent into the Palestinian territories and the massacre of tens of supposed militants, the demolition of entire villages, the erection of "security fences", and violent rhetoric attacking any Palestinian with whom the Israelis may stand a chance of opening a dialogue. They have not learned from Britain's mistakes.

In America, we all know what happens after a terrorist attack - the most disproportionate response imaginable (full text here). They have not learned from Britain's mistakes.

The list goes on. And for those who argue that Britain's case is the exception, or that Islamic fundamentalists are impossible to reason with - read up on the Irish situation. Twenty years ago the idea that the British government would find itself sitting at the same table as the terrorists, who were about to launch an attack on its very heart, would have prompted derision from both sides. (Speaking of which, there's an interesting interview here with the Brighton bomber.)

The IRA were fanatics. It has taken time to talk them around to a more civilised way of working out their grievances, but come around they (just about) have. There remain a few hardcore psychopaths in the so-called "Real IRA" who continue to cause trouble, but the majority have - at least for now - packed away their guns and their bombs. It will take time to talk around al-Qaida, the Chechen rebels, the Palestinian freedom fighters, the Basque Seperatists, and all of these lot as well. Simply saying "they're fanatics - they can't be reasoned with" is rubbish until this has actually been tried and perservered at. Sadly it appears that very few countries in the world have the patience of Britain when it comes to tackling terrorists.

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