Guest Article – How We’ve Lost the War on Terror
In December 1994 I was a student with a Saturday job at Liberty – the department store on Regent Street. On the last Saturday before Christmas, one of the biggest shopping days in the West-End’s calendar, the IRA rang their secret telephone number with their secret code and told the Police that they had put a bomb somewhere on either Oxford Street or Regent Street. The Police mobilised immediately and within minutes all the shoppers on those streets, and all the staff, were evacuated from the shops and thrown out into the cold.
And it was cold. We were all in shirtsleeves because we were not given any time to collect coats. All the shops on Oxford Street and Regent Street were closed so the only way my colleagues and I could keep warm was by wandering in and out of the shops on the only street in the area that was open – Carnaby Street. Me and three of four others did that for maybe half an hour before finding a cafe just off Carnaby Street to settle.
Shortly after ordering my cappuccino (this was 1994 – lattes and flat whites hadn’t been invented yet) there was a roar of sirens, military-style vehicles and barked authoritative orders. It turned out that there was a bomb but it wasn’t on Oxford Street or Regent Street, it was on Carnaby Street. The phone call was deliberately designed to herd the public into the bomb’s vicinity and thereby ensure maximum civilian casualties. I had been in the very Carnaby Street shop at the same time that a live bomb was in the changing rooms. I remember shaking convulsively when we were told.
The bomb scare that caused my near-death experience was never widely publicised but that was not an isolated incident. Two years previous the IRA had pulled off a similar stunt with more success. Again, in the run-up to Christmas, on 17 December 1992, they detonated a small bomb on the third floor of John Lewis on Oxford Street. The store had an evacuation procedure that the IRA must have known about because 15 minutes later they detonated a second bomb at the rear of the store near the exit where staff and customers were exiting the building.
Perhaps some of you don’t know what the IRA is. Before the Islamists secured their monopoly on terrorism their brand of Irish Catholic terrorism reigned supreme. By my crude reckoning, in the years between 1970 and 1997 the IRA killed 36 people, seven horses and injured and maimed hundreds more in London alone. In that sense, the IRA was the Al Qaeda of its age. Looking back, what I find quite interesting is how the British public at the time treated Catholics and the Irish as a whole during this period that Irish Catholic terrorists were doing their best to kill as many of us as they could. I compare the way that the Irish community was treated in the 1980s to the way that the Muslim community is treated today and I see very little symmetry.
During those years in the 1970s through to the end of the 1990s I lived in London. Not only did I live in London during that period of intense IRA activity, I also lived in a community made up almost exclusively of Irish Catholics. I attended Catholic West London Schools and Catholic Churches. I even spent a year studying at a Catholic University. I saw up close how the British public reacted to these atrocities and how the British public treated my Irish Catholic friends. And did I see hostility, intolerance and hatred? No. I saw a British public accept that those terrorists were not representative of the wider, and much loved, Irish community. There was certainly no suggestion that Catholicism, having nurtured these terrorists, was a dangerous religion that should be driven out.
Over the last week or so there’s been a lot in the papers about John Downey, the man accused of being behind the IRA’s Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings. You have to look very hard to find any reference to Downey’s religion in any of those stories. Contrast that to the murder of Lee Rigby and look at how often words “Muslim” and “Islam” appear in any discussion about his death.
It may surprise you to hear that this is not a rant against Catholicism or Christianity. The point that I’m trying to make, no doubt badly whilst alienating significant proportions of the people reading this, is that until relatively recently the British public was, on the whole, sensible enough to understand that atrocities carried out by people who happen to be of a certain religion or nationality should not reflect on everyone in that religion or nationality. Is that the case today when Catholic Republican terrorism has been usurped by Islamist terrorism? No it is not. Something has changed in our national psyche and it’s my firm belief that what has changed between the 1990s and now is that Osama Bin Laden has won the war on terror.
I have strong memories of the 9/11 atrocity. One of my strong memories is a thought and conversation that I had shortly after it dawned on me that those pictures were not a hoax: what could anyone possibly gain from this? That’s what I asked. It seemed inevitable that America would react and who would be able to withstand an angry, vengeful onslaught from the mighty US war machine? Why wage a war on a nation that cannot be won?
Almost 13 years later you have to accept that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have out-thought the Western powers every step of the way. In retrospect the invasion of Afghanistan was an inevitable consequence of 9/11 but as it turns out, a US victory was very, very far from inevitable. Did Al Qaeda anticipate the invasion of Iraq too? Possibly not. That might have been a piece of good fortune that Blair and Bush dropped into their lap. What seems obvious now is that when they planned 9/11 Bin Laden and Al Qaeda knew that:
- the Western powers would be forced into a face-saving military invasion;
- any conflict in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Middle East would be drawn out over many years;
- it was in the nature of the Afghan people that they would never tolerate a “liberation” by any foreign culture, let alone one as alien as that of the Americans;
- the Western powers long, expensive and unpopular invasion would invigorate what had, until then, been an unsuccessful and largely apathetic jihadi movement;
- the invasion would result in an Islamic diaspora that the Western powers, being ostensibly democratic and liberal, would have to accept onto their shores;
- the inevitable influx of Islamic refugees would be feared by the natives in their new homes;
- the dispossessed refugees would harbour little goodwill towards their Western liberators; and
- this mutual resentment would provoke conflict all over the world.
So 9/11 set in train a sequence of events that has led, as it was always going to, to the world that we live in today where we, like all Western nations, and with some justification, live in constant fear of an attacks not from an invading army, but from terrorist agents that live amongst us. Meanwhile, we, the British, have been encouraged by our politicians and media to abandon our characteristic fairness and tolerance towards other cultures, and replace it with a primitive fear and hatred of foreigners.
In the years that have followed 9/11 the greatest harm that the West has suffered has been self-inflicted. We have let the terrorists win the battle for our “hearts and minds” and we have become increasingly fearful of the mere word “Islam”. Islam, like Catholicism, is not a violent religion and Muslims in 2014, like the Irish in the 1980s, are not hateful people. However, in order to further their warped agenda the Islamic terrorists need the West to fear Islam and they need the West to isolate and vilify Muslims. In that environment their ideas will flourish and the West appears to be doing everything it can to help them achieve this goal.
Crimes like 9/11, the murder of Lee Rigby, Anders Brevik’s slaughter of innocents in Norway and the IRA’s Christmas bombing campaigns, are all horrific. However, isolated acts of violence will always happen. The fact that these crimes were committed is not hard evidence that Muslims, Scandinavian Protestants or Irish Catholics are all all to be feared.Try as we can, we cannot remove from society forever the random acts of madmen and we shouldn’t live in fear that random acts of violence from madmen will befall us. What we can and should be scared of is the public’s reaction to violence. We must not react to violence with demands for yet more bloodshed, we must not seek recrimination against entire segments of our community or demand that the government dispense with the usual principles of justice, democracy and free speech in order to prevent the unpreventable or, worse, to satisfy our need for vengeance. If we allow these things to happen our society will break down and the war on terror will be irretreviably lost.
The Taliban regime that we once thought so abhorrent relies on tribal allegiance, a brutal pack mentality and arbitrary justice. If you read the Daily Mail, scan chat pages or eavesdrop pub conversations you will hear the British public advocating precisely those ideals in response to a perceived fear of terrorism. If those ideas gain currency then it will be Bin Laden and Al Quaeda’s greatest victory. That is what I live in fear of and that, I think, is the greatest threat to our way of life.