Terror Strikes Again

"And the contrast couldn’t be clearer," quoth Dubya, "between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill – those who have got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks."

Well, not exactly.

Leave aside the minor detail that these world leaders were demonstrating their compassion by vowing to take money by force from productive people and distribute it either to those in poor countries who might be useful to them, or to projects that might make them feel good. Their "compassion" at G8 is based on the willingness to undertake forced exactions – theft – from people who are just trying to make it. They exercise their compassion with other peoples’ money, never their own. So spare us the self-righteousness on that score.

More pertinently, every national leader at Gleneagles has blood on his hands. More than likely none of them, with the possible exception of Putin, has actually personally killed somebody with his bare hands, or even shot somebody dead. But they have all instituted policies that have led to many more deaths of "innocent folks" than all the non-state terrorists currently operating.

Who Has Killed More?

George W. Bush is probably more responsible for more innocent deaths than any of the others, although Putin, with the brutal suppression of the Chechen insurgency, might be a bit ahead. As a direct result of Bush’s orders, preceded by intransigent and uninformed stubbornness, thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed. It is unclear exactly how many of them were killed directly by American troops, but there is no question that quite a few – probably in the thousands – fall into that category.

"Collateral damage" say the military euphemists, but those people were living, breathing human beings who were precious in the eyes of God. They are just as dead as if they had been killed by a car bomb. If George W. Bush has the human decency to have lost any sleep over the deaths of these innocents, the news has not penetrated into the world beyond the White House.

The notion that murder and killing can be sanitized and made not just moral but admirable if it is done in the name of the State – or that maybe it shouldn’t really weigh on your conscience if it is done by the sons and daughters of people who weren’t born as fortunate ones – is one of the more pernicious falsehoods of our time. Those who order wars, especially wars of choice rather than wars of necessity (as all concerned, including most war supporters, acknowledge the war on Iraq was) have no business trumpeting their moral superiority, even to terrorists. This is not an apology for terrorists at all, simply an attempt to make it clear that they are not the only ones responsible for killing innocent people who had done nothing but try to get on with their lives.

Blair Rings False

British Prime Minister Tony Blair rang false in his own way, with all his talk about rallying around the precious values the British people hold so dear. He seems to have been hanging around Dubya too long.

The British are generally admirable in adversity and persistent when they need to be. Part of the reason is that they tend to be realists. Most Brits know full well that they have not suffered terrorist attacks over the years, most recently from the Irish Republican Army, because of deep-seated opposition to or rejection of British values. They have been attacked (with the possible exception of bombing by Hitler’s regime in World War II, and even then there were gray areas) because of the policies of the British government.

They have persevered and muddled through in most instances because by and large they figured their society, even on those occasions when the government was pursuing policies that didn’t seem especially wise, was worth defending, or they were willing to take the bad with the good. But I suspect they don’t like having politicians try to hornswoggle them with vaporous talk about values. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

More Questions Than Answers

And so to the awful and lamentable event itself. I talked to Sir Eldon Griffith, a former British MP and president of the World Affairs Council who lives in Orange County and is an old friend. He called with some first impressions.

"Yesterday, with London winning the [2012] Olympics, Wimbledon just finished and the G8 meeting starting, London was on top of the world," Sir Eldon told me. "Now, 24 hours later, the atmosphere has changed, as from noon to midnight. Britons will adjust and return to defiant normality, but the mood today is decidedly somber."

But beyond the shock, beyond the horror and anger and mourning, the most salient aspect of the bombings is the multitude of unanswered questions.

No doubt many of the answers will become apparent in the days and weeks to come. But it should be clear first of all that the information sources upon which Western governments rely are startlingly and perhaps dangerously thin. Western intelligence services – and by most accounts the British are the best of the lot – know so little about jihadists and their intentions and plans that you would be forgiven if you thought the vaunted "war on terror" was simply a charade, that those in authority weren’t the least bit serious about fighting it.

The United States, for example, chose to invade Iraq instead of getting serious about going after actual terrorists. In the process, it has undoubtedly created additional terrorists.

But London’s Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner Brian Paddick told reporters, according to the Associated Press, "that British officials received no prior warning nor did they have any advance intelligence that the attacks would occur."

No Real Safety

We do know – or have been reminded, to our sorrow – that relatively open societies, even with beefed-up security and heightened vigilance, contain thousands of "soft targets" that determined terrorists can attack or blow up. One hundred percent safety is an illusion, and we would hate to live in the kind of rigidly controlled society that would ensue if we tried.

We are reasonably sure that this was an "al-Qaeda-style" attack, probably perpetrated by Islamist or jihadist fanatics to coincide with the G8 meeting of presidents of economically developed nations underway this week in Gleneagles, Scotland, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in charge of the agenda.

We do not know, however, whether this attack was the work of foreign terrorists who came into Great Britain recently or a "homegrown" group drawn from the large Muslim immigrant community in the UK. We don’t know whether this was a single incident or the precursor of a wave of future attacks.


I talked with Tom Sanderson, deputy director for transnational threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, by telephone from Paris. He said that while it’s too early to be sure, he suspects the bombings were done "by a group that has been in the UK from South Asia for a while, might have been inspired by 9/11 to do something similar, and managed to operate beyond the purview of an excellent British intelligence and security system."

A small group of six to 12 militants, living and perhaps even working in one of London’s Muslim neighborhoods, could meet regularly, do reconnaissance, and probably even gather weapons or materiel without the authorities being any the wiser.

Mr. Sanderson would not be surprised if one or more members of the group spent some time in Iraq and brought back bomb-making and urban warfare skills, and possibly stolen explosives. "We know next to nothing about the foreign fighters in Iraq," he told us. Terrorism experts actively worry about militants who live in European countries traveling to Iraq, gaining invaluable experience and returning determined to wreak havoc.

It is worth considering the possibility that attacks like this – I would be surprised if it didn’t turn out to be a small "homegrown" group inspired by dreams of jihad rather than foreign operatives who pulled it off – will turn out to be more a European problem than an American one. Most European countries have large Muslim populations, originally brought in to do low-level grunt work, segregated into sometimes abysmal neighborhoods, discriminated against and despised, and for various reasons never integrated into the larger societies or made to feel they had a stake in the given country. It only takes tiny percentages of the disgruntled in these populations to create substantial dangers of terrorist activities.

Even so, Americans will need to step up their vigilance and dispense with the notion that the government is doing much of anything effective to protect them. This attack has made it clear that despite the best counterterrorism measures imaginable (and ours are light years short of that), an open society is vulnerable to a small and determined group that can operate under official radar.

The threat of terrorism cannot be defeated by military and intelligence efforts alone. More attention must be paid to political, diplomatic, and old-fashioned shoe-leather law enforcement efforts. A comprehensive approach, according to Mr. Sanderson, would include a review of U.S. policies, especially the support of dictators in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan, which tends to make the U.S. seem hypocritical and motivates potential recruits to terrorist causes.

I would go considerably further than that to suggest that the war on Iraq has increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism and is due for reconsideration, followed by deep debate about our policy of massive intervention and trying to play the regional hegemon in the Middle East. This will surely not be a popular idea for a while after the attack, when the general sentiment is for showing toughness and declaring that you will never retreat from any commitment (however unwise and self-defeating and harmful to the country’s core interests) in the face of terror. But eventually it will have to be considered. More attacks and more deaths in Iraq, leading eventually to a more chaotic and embarrassing withdrawal, seems the only likely alternative.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).