Swashbuckling nonsense about good and evil misses lethal truthsThe Guardian, Wednesday September 19, 2001
This may be war - but the enemy is profoundly unsatisfactory. Osama bin Laden does not fit the bill. Those brief film clips reveal only a somewhat ethereal villain, now hidden in distant caves in a desolate landscape. He is as incomprehensible as he is inaccessible. Pure evil says the west, while for his followers he is the embodiment of purity.
"Wanted dead or alive," in George Bush's cowpoke talk does not resonate, but the vice-president's "I want his head on a platter" was an apt reminder that the man looks like a representation of John the Baptist. Religious fanatics the world over are much the same, full of deadly purity. This Turin-shroud face is now the symbol for an invisible foe, everywhere and nowhere, lurking in world-wide hearts and minds, not in tanks and training camps. Such fanaticism is so alien that it feels like a phenomenon closer to random weather than intelligible human purpose.
Baffled and confounded by this evasive enemy, much war talk has turned to walloping good old enemies at home instead. It is business as usual among the commentklatura. Under cloak of war, out come all the old hobbyhorses that have nothing whatever to do with the frightening and knotted complexities in the east. This cataclysm confirms too many people's previous prejudices. Even more grotesque, some find in the entrails of the World Trade Centre signs of a new world order to suit their own predilections. Good will rise from the ashes, go their unlikely scenarios, while the wise fear nothing but worse to come.
So, for lack of a better enemy, right and left have set upon each other with familiar and heart-warming gusto. The right say the left is to blame for Bin Laden for years of appeasing terrorism, equivocating and glamorising international gunmen. The left ripostes that the Great Satan had this coming. As usual the second casualty of war is the liberal, moderate view somewhere in the middle: standing with the US is right, but so is a subtle and effective response.
Let's start on the far side, where the raving Paul Johnson fills two Daily Mail comment pages with "Dawn of a new Age - This week has signalled the death of liberalism...We will see a new morality being born". He says the rot began when western empires were handed back to terrorists: "Ruthless mass murderers under the pressure of liberal sentiment were recognised as leaders..." Others to blame include "American liberal intellectuals grovelling at the feet of killers like Che Guevara".
But lo, here comes his new dawn: "We will be in a new and sterner world", which will "pull down the curtain on a century of liberalism and permissiveness". This heralds the end of liberalism on sex, the media, crime, divorce, abortion, illegitimacy, "the upbringing of youth" and the future of religion. Phew! "We are perhaps standing on the threshold of a new age. If so, I welcome it with all my mind and heart. And so should you." So endeth the thoughts of mad Mullah Johnson who plainly belongs among the Taliban himself.
Melanie Phillips is close behind in the Sunday Times, though intellectually more cogent. "This is where the world divides. Are you for us or against us?" She throws down the gauntlet. It is, again, "the great battle of good and evil". Like other rightwingers, she turns at once to Ireland as if Bin Laden had been following the IRA's progress step by step. "Appeasement is the true term for the 'peace process'," she says. Appeasers "make terror much more likely as they confer legitimacy on its two-faced practitioners." Ditto in Israel - peace is all a "liberal illusion". However often she attacks "moral relativism", here she forgets that political morals are usually relative: Israeli Prime Minister Begin was a terrorist, whose atrocities included blowing up the King David hotel.
Others of the comment-klatura, for lack of anything sensible to contribute, turn on various Guardian articles for good red meat. Robert Harris in the Telegraph talks of the "sophistry of the left" of which there has certainly been some. But are the strident anti-American voices not to be heard and reckoned with by British readers and viewers? Wartime censorship already? Whatever the Telegraph may tell its readers, such voices represent what large parts of the world think. Harris, like the rest, holds to the easy, Manichean view: "In moral terms this is as black-and-white a casus belli as you could get."
Yes, the act was unequivocally wicked, but once you've said that, what then? The Times bashes the Guardian too, for want of a real enemy. The Daily Mail calls daily for a clampdown on asylum seekers, and daily assaults the BBC, its old bete noir, for the handful of anti-Americans who got out of hand on Question Time. (Never mind that BBC News and Newsnight this week surpassed other broadcasters by light years.) Other hobbyhorses include all the Euro-sceptics mendaciously traducing our "wobbly", "perfidious" neighbours, regardless of the contrary facts. Thus the same tired old games are played out upon the bodies of the 5,000 dead, conveniently silent material for homilies, sermons, lessons, warnings and gloatings by right and left.
Yet sandwiched somewhere between anti-US ranting and William Shawcross's "We are all Americans now" (as if the only moral course were to park all brains at the US embassy), there is a reasoned position. Military intervention and cruise missiles are justified - but only with a high chance of doing good. A smart bomb direct into the unknown Bin Laden cave might be dandy - but since it can't be done, what then?
However, strip away the political posturing, grand-standing and the clever conceits, and what do you find? Most of the mainstream commentators of right and left, certainly the leader columns, are in remarkable agreement in their final conclusions about what should and should not happen next. No one knows.
Even the most instinctively bellicose warily warn of making matters worse. They may trumpet for war and revenge in principle, but in practice even they draw back from the brink. The present danger is breathtaking - and everyone knows it. At risk is a Pakistani regime knocked over by pro-Taliban forces acquiring the nuclear bomb, other Arab states tumbling to fundamentalism in its wake and yet worse terrorist attacks on the west. The only place the US can impose a just peace quickly is in Israel.
Meanwhile in this eastern mine-field, the "free" west needs the support of profoundly unfree regimes - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran among them. Propping up bad regimes as my-enemy's-enemy has created half the problems in the region - but it will have to be done again for now. So this swashbuckling nonsense about absolute good and evil is far removed from the lethal political truths here. It is all very well to be willing to fight, but with the world holding its breath in fear, a just cause is not enough.