On this day ten years ago, 11 September 2001, we were not to know that the perpetrators of the attacks on New York and Washington had played their best card right at the start of their game. Nothing illustrates the weakness of terrorism more clearly than do the hijackings of that day: spectacular, attention-grabbing, grandly cruel – but from any kind of strategic point of view, useless. No troops followed up the attacks. No guerrilla activity was launched anywhere to drive home their advantage. Not even a single decently destructive sleeper group was mobilised to cause further anxious mayhem on America’s home front. Instead a pleased and smug Osama Bin Laden sat back and waited for America to run scared. Like many privileged people before and after him, he mistook wealth for intelligence: the Americas had been cowards before (in Beirut in 1983; in Somali under Clinton) so he knew they would be again. No one seems to have told him that history did not start only when he became an adult. New York and Washington were closer to Pearl Harbour in 1941 than anything in the Middle-East and the Horn of Africa.
Bin Laden had to acknowledge responsibility or the point of his attacks would have been lost: they were communicative not military acts and communication eventually requires talk. But in doing so he was also signing his organisation’s suicide note: once the US stood round to fight he was bound to fail. And when the counter-attack began no action on his part could ever repeat the glory of 11 September. A terrorist campaign is not like a military one, victories being ground out slowly but surely in unglamorous campaigns of fighting. After 11 September, Bin Laden had nothing left to say of sufficient significance to help realise his own self-declared goals. Sure there was an embassy bomb here, a terrible Bali attack there, the London and Madrid attacks, and much else that was awful. But they had no military purpose while also failing to ratchet up the violence in any kind of strategically coherent way. Al Qaida became the bully in the playground pushing the other kids around but not doing much of any real significance or importance to change the way the teachers behaved, an irritant (a made-made Tsunami; a human-induced earthquake) but not a history-changer.
Without the Iraqi invasion and occupation, Al Qaida would have faded sooner from our consciousness. Not even injustice in Palestine (upon which Bin Laden with increasing desperation relied) would have been enough in itself. But Bush’s ‘crusade’ to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the lifeline that kept Bin Laden centre-stage far longer than his capacities or strategic intelligence warranted.
Not for the first time an act of terrorism is more important for what it provoked than for what it was: for a little while it really did seem that the US was going to be able to turn the events on 11 September into a world-changing moment in favour of the Bush-Cheney vision of what America should be – an exceptional nation, dominant abroad and with a supra-constitutional executive branch at home, a country in which human rights, the rule of law and democratic accountability played permanent second fiddle to an endless and endlessly useful ‘war on terror.’ This Orwellian dystopia was not far away. But then came Iraq, the open pleasure taken in torture, the unembarrassed reliance on Guantanamo Bay.
Maybe we should be grateful for Bush’s strategic stupidity: a rich kid like Osama he too thought he could get what he wanted quickly and without opposition. But his actions were so extreme they alienated even his own Republican Supreme Court justices and informed American opinion as well (not to mention the rest of the world).
Liberal values have been recovering from the excesses of the Bush decade but the authoritarian roots put down in that time have been hard to eradicate completely. It is too early to tell but it may be that Bin Laden’s lasting legacy will have been to make democratic authoritarianism seem somehow normal, the burden of proof being placed on those who desire freedom rather than those who care more about what they get away with calling security.
Meanwhile if you want to reflect on somebody who really knew where violence fitted, skip all this weekend’s reflections on Osama Bin Laden and read instead about General Giap, the celebrated Vietnamese fighter, and victor over the French and Americans – still going strong at 100. Now there is the kind of guy whom you would not want to take on. I wonder what he made of Osama and George Junior?
I have not liked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair since one of my students of many years ago – a police officer who received the George Medal for bravery in confronting an IRA gang in London in 1975 – felt compelled publicly to contradict the Commissioner’s account of his (allegedly central) role during the same incident. If Sir Ian could be so casual about the truth in relation to his highly peripheral involvement in the Balcombe Street siege, what kind of an approach did he take to his day-to-day work at the Met? Now, thanks to the conviction of his force for breaches of health and safety law arising out of the shooting dead of Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July 2005, we know something of this, and what has emerged is extremely disturbing, both in terms of the Met itself (a force out of control) and at a personal level as well (a chief officer mislead by his own senior officers). There is more to come on Thursday when the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) publishes its account of the killing, an investigation which Sir Ian tried hard to stymie. Stoutly defended by those in authority, the Commissioner is nevertheless under increasing pressure to depart his office, the media criticism rising daily to a crescendo which few public servants would be able to resist.
Should Blair resign? The constitutional answer, at least pending the IPCC report, is clearly no. The purpose of the prosecution of the Metropolitan Police Service that produced last week’s conviction was to hold the organisation, not any individual within it, criminally responsible for the mistakes that in combination cost Mr de Menezes his life over two years ago. The relevant authorities had looked carefully at, and ruled out, bringing charges against particular officers. The law is clear that the appropriate accused in health and safety cases is the culpable corporate entity, not any of its senior officers. Nor should the range of mechanisms of accountability which are in place to oversee the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner be ignored simply because they do not produce the dismissal (or insistence on resignation) that the media demand: the Metropolitan Police Authority, the London mayor and the Home Secretary have a duty to interpose their own rational assessment of what is required between the public and the media on the one hand and an embattled Sir Ian on the other. This support may erode with publication of the IPCC report but the present indications are that it will add nothing radically new to what is already in the public domain. The Commissioner is technically entitled to stand his ground, saying that there is no seismic explanation for the earthquake that is threatening his position on the highest perch in British policing.
In the UK constitutional system, however, it is rarely safe to rely on technicalities. The untenability of Sir Ian’s position does not derive from the law nor from any particular action on his part (though the perception of a pattern of sharp dealings – of which the Balcombe Street false reverie was one – has not helped). Rather it is a matter of the withdrawal of public confidence, the sucking away of respect that can almost be physically heard and of which the hostile media are mere messengers. This derives in turn from a strong sense that the force’s conviction under health and safety legislation was simply not enough to capture the full sense of what was wrong about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. It seems almost insulting to treat the shooting as though it were some kind of accident at work, when in fact it was no such mishap but rather a series of shots fired into an already apprehended suspect with the intention of killing him. The relevant officers having escaped all charges for murder or even manslaughter, it was inevitable that once these facts became known the furore would grow for a greater level of accountability than has occurred here. Trapped by the decision not to prosecute the officers concerned, the Commissioner cannot say the obvious, that they stepped outlandishly out of their mandate when they acted as they did. As a result he must now take the rap for charges that were never brought.
In the absence of any murder charges, much better in this case would have been proceedings under the Human Rights Act for a breach of de Menezes’s right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Since the controversial ruling of the European Court in the Gibraltar case in 1995 (arising out of the SAS shooting of three IRA operatives on that island), it has been accepted that this provision imposes obligations on a state not to construct a counter-terrorist operation so badly that the officers on the ground end up believing that they have no option but to kill. The array of errors uncovered by the prosecution in the de Menezes case recalls the mistake-strewn run-up to those particular shootings. This would have been a better basis for a court to have probed why it was that so many officers had persuaded themselves that this innocent commuter was a dangerous terrorist who had to be stopped at all costs.
The answer might well have been found in the very language of terrorism itself. Though it emerged in the course of the criminal proceedings that the policing choices which were to lead to de Menezes’s death were not part of Operation Kratos, the then secret shoot-to-kill policy which the police had put in place to tackle suicide bombers, the quasi-military atmosphere of such deadly counter-terrorism manoeuvres hung over the whole affair. Once the police had persuaded themselves that they were facing a fanatical terrorist rather than a potential criminal, the urge to stop at all costs inevitably overwhelmed the more traditional instinct to apprehend and to charge. It is in the way that it disrupts our sense of justice and fairness and our instinct for proportionality that the language of terrorism does so much of its most damaging work, making police actions like this highly likely at times of high anxiety, and inuring us to draconian invasions of our rights that we would otherwise refuse to countenance. The pressure on Sir Ian is not an explosion of irrational wrath but rather reflects the great anxiety that is felt by many about the way in which the counter-terrorism atmosphere of our times is slowing (but inexorably?) changing the character of the society in which we live.