September 9, 2011 § 3 Comments
A recent poll by the Pew Trust showed that virtually every American can remember where they were on the morning of 11 September 2001. Most recognize the profound changes that 9/11 has wrought to the nation. But America is divided down the middle on the question of whether the USA brought the attack upon itself. Forty-three percent of those polled thought that 9/11 was caused by US ‘wrongdoing’; 45% disagreed. Perhaps no set of statistics better expresses the confusions and ambiguities that still surround 9/11, the chasm between an acknowledgement of the significance of the event and the uncertainties about what it signifies. The Pew poll figures are particularly striking given the fear and suspicion of Muslims revealed in other polls and by the furore over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’.
Such ambiguity and unclarity is perhaps inevitable given that we still live in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Tower and continue to feel the reverberations, both of the event and of the West’s response to it. But the uncertainty also derives from the way that the very nature of the narratives we weave around historical events has changed. During the Cold War, the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological. Today, as the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes in his book The Fear of Barbarians, the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. Anti-Western sentiment results from a sense of ‘humiliation, real or imaginary’ which has bred a sense of resentment, particularly within Muslim communities, towards Europe and the United States, which are ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness.’ And in the West, public attitudes and political policy have been shaped by fear of terrorism, of immigration and of the ‘other’, and resentment about the loss of power and prestige abroad, and of the supposed erosion of ‘Western’ culture at home. The result has been a series of narratives about 9/11 that have combined a yearning for certainty with a profound sense of ambiguity. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 23, 2011 § 2 Comments
July 30, 2011 § 9 Comments
Three weeks ago London marked the sixth anniversary of the 7/7 tube bombings. Now Oslo will have its own heart-wrenching day of remembrance every year. Even for those who lived through 7/7 – not to mention countless other bombings, from IRA to neo-Nazi, that London has witnessed in the past few decades – there was still something viscerally shocking about Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage through Oslo and Utoya, the mindlessness of the massacre combined with its cold-eyed homicidal brutality.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that Breivik’s attack would first be portrayed as an Islamist plot. For some, any form of terrorism is marked ‘Muslim’ and they wish to look no further. The irony, however, is not just that Breivik’s hatred of Islam should lead to a horror that many took to be Islamic, but also that nothing so resembles Breivik’s mindset as that of an Islamist jihadist. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 7, 2011 § 5 Comments
This is my debut op-ed essay for the New York Times, a reflection on 7/7, multiculturalism and Islamism, which was published today under the title ‘Assimilation’s Failure, Terrorism’s Rise’. The NYT version is (very) slightly shorter than this.
Six years ago today, on July 7, 2005, Islamic suicide bombers attacked London’s transit system. They blew up three subway trains and a bus, leaving 52 people dead and a nation groping for answers. In one sense the meaning of 7/7 is as clear to Britons as that of 9/11 is to Americans. It was a savage, brutal attack intended to sow mayhem and terror. Yet, whereas 9/11 was the work of a foreign terrorist group, 7/7 was the work of British citizens. The question that haunts London, but which Washington has so far barely had to face, is why four men, three of whom were born and all of whom were brought up in Britain, were gripped by such a fanatic zeal for an irrational, murderous, medieval dogma.
In trying to answer this question, the British authorities have expended much effort on the question of ‘radicalization’. How did the 7/7 terrorists acquire their perverted ideas? In the immediate wake of 7/7 there was much discussion of the role of extremist preachers and of radical mosques. More recently the focus has shifted to universities as recruitment agencies for terrorists.
This obsession with ‘radicalization’, however, misses the point. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 16, 2011 Comments Off
Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side, a seminal account of the CIA, extraordinary rendition and torture, has an interview in the New Yorker with Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency who is about to be tried for violating the Espionage Act by leaking to a journalist secret documents about America’s covert surveillance of its own citizens. Drake, as Mayer puts it, is effectively being charged with being ‘an enemy of the state’. But it’s a state that, as Drake argues and as Mayer fleshes out, is out of control in its desire and capacity to spy upon its citizens. What has been created, in the words of one of Mayer’s interviewees, is a ‘national surveillance state’: « Read the rest of this entry »
May 6, 2011 § 10 Comments
There is a growing debate about whether the use of torture played a critical role in allowing America to obtain information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. Stories in the New York Times, Time, Haaretz, AP and elsewhere have suggested that it may have. And this in turn has emboldened those who see the use of what is euphemistically called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as an essential tool in the war against terror. According to the AP report:
The revelation that intelligence gleaned from the CIA’s so-called black sites helped kill bin Laden was seen as vindication for many intelligence officials who have been repeatedly investigated and criticized for their involvement in a program that involved the harshest interrogation methods in U.S. history. ’We got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day,’ said Marty Martin, a retired CIA officer who for years led the hunt for bin Laden.
Or, as Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for George W Bush, has put it,
the crowning achievement of Obama’s presidency came as a direct result of the CIA interrogation program he has denigrated and shut down. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 4, 2011 § 2 Comments
Too much probably has already been written and said about Osama bin Laden’s death. Here is a fairly random roundup of some of the responses in the English-language press from the past 48 hours: