I was up early in the morning and saw and heard the television reports as it happened. I was shocked but not surprised. Later, I’d be horrified to learn how they took over the planes, but this just confirmed that, contrary to what we’ve been told ever since, it wasn’t an irrational act. It was horribly rational. Nor was it an attack on freedom as such. It was an attack on American policy in the Middle East, a payback for every American veto in the United Nations Security Council of every attempt to restrain Israel, for the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982—which the American media never called either irrational or horrifying—and much else besides from the same source: for the massacre on the Ba’asra Road at the end of the Gulf War, when thousands of defenseless people in full retreat were straved for no good military reason, for the children who’ve starved in Iraq ever since.
Christopher Hitchens immediately sought to enhance his standing with the Republican Party by insisting that Islamic fundamentalism would have become intolerable whatever America’s policy toward Israel, but I thought this pure sophistry. Within days of the atrocities the British foreign secretary was under attack by the Israelis for daring to say the word Palestine, but bin Laden would soon confirm that Palestine is at the center of the question. It seems unlikely that this degree of fanaticism could develop and be sustained were it not for the intransigence of America and its regional client on every substantive issue having to do with the rights of the indigenous population. Twenty years ago fundamentalism was not an issue. Then the Israelis secretly patronized Hamas as a way of undermining the (secular) PLO, and the Americans followed suit and funded the Mujaheddin in order to destabilize the Russians in Afghanistan, and in doing so gave rise to forces they not only couldn’t control but which are not open to negotiation. It has been sickening to see Americans eager to hand over their civil liberties to an attorney general who believes in the Confederacy, and no one as far as I know has compared Jerry Falwell’s outpouring of passionate, fundamentalist phobias in the wake of the event with bin Laden’s rantings, but I suspect the comparison would be helpful if demonstrated.
When the events of September 11 happened, I hoped that at a minimum they might give Americans pause when it came to bombing people, and encourage some discussion of American policy in the Middle East. But initially at least, absolute denial was the order of the day, with only young people prepared to address the causes rather than the symptoms. Everybody concerned will have to do better than this, and not only because the chances of actually catching bin Laden seem remote (and those of permanently crushing terrorism more so); think of the example set by the IRA, a movement restricted to a small country and a few British and American cities, as opposed to about a quarter of the globe.
One fears what Bush might do if failure to bomb enough to please the voters in the heartland endangers the Republicans’ chances in next year’s midterm election. Only the Palestinians want to negotiate on the main issues. Fundamentalists on both sides, as remarked, won’t do it. Within a day of the atrocities I was being told that one doesn’t negotiate with terrorists but it seems to me that one does. Israel exists because a delegation from the US Congress made it clear to the British government that it would be bankrupted if it didn’t negotiate with the Zionist terrorists who assassinated the United Nations High Commissioner appointed to review the situation in the region, among other acts that don’t seem to have gone down in history as irrational and cowardly. What fragile peace there is in Northern Ireland follows from negotiation as much as conventional counterterrorism, and I think the same can be said of the Basque region. Fine with me if we end up ridding the world of the Taliban, but I also recall the shopkeeper in Kabul who recently said, “Let the Americans bomb all they like, I’ve lost half my life to the sound of bombs and artillery.” I had hoped without hope that a way of removing the Taliban could be found that didn’t add to the hopelessness that has caused all this. Fat chance.
Without hope I also hope that Israelis will think about their future, specifically about what their grandchildren will do if and when America can’t do for them what it doss now. There were people immigrating to British colonies in Africa in the ’50s, secure in the belief that the Commonwealth would remain white-dominated. By 1964 they were all either independent or well on their way, not least because Britain couldn’t afford the empire any more. But I don’t think Israelis or those who love Israel will think about that. Sharon had the impertinence to welcome Bush’s entirely unexpected endorsement of a Palestinian state with a comparison between Israel and Czechoslovakia in 1938, but the analogy was infelicitous, leading the European press to ask, Who were the Czechs, and who, therefore, was Hitler? Israel, whose founders refused to consider the original arrangements a final settlement, has always refused to compromise on the grounds that the other side can’t be relied upon to mean it when they say they’re willing to compromise. A week or so before the atrocities America and Israel walked out of the UN conference on racism in Durban, and now I fear there will be a campaign to simply suppress those who don’t like America’s foreign policies, by force abroad and subtler intimidation closer to home. Bush’s inner circle wants to extend the war to include Iraq, and perhaps Syria and Lebanon. Nor should those who look to Tony Blair to restrain Bush be sanguine in this regard. Now as in the ’40s the British Labour Party is split between pro- and anti-Zionists, with Blair firmly in the Zionist camp. His personal advisor on the Middle East is Lord Levy, who has a house in Israel and whose son worked for Barak. If Bush manages to start a civil war in Pakistan and accompanies that with an expansion of the conflict to the countries just mentioned, then it’s quite possible that America’s allies will go along, and almost certain that Britain would, because regardless of Blair’s inclinations, there as here people generally feel that something must be done, which it obviously must. I can therefore see no satisfactory end to what has now been set in train, which Steve Prina has correctly described as “America’s arrival in mid-narrative.” I don’t believe people commit murderous suicide because they’re opposed to the social mores of Americans. I think they do it because they are without hope, and to the extent that they have now introduced us all to a regime of hopelessness they have gone some way to achieving what they presumably want to achieve. I fear that we shall do little but add to the hopelessness of those who hate us, denial deferring what eventually will have to be resolved through negotiation. If not in my lifetime or yours, then eventually.