Linking 7/7 and Iraq: a peculiar consensus

When everyone seems to agree with George Galloway, you know that something strange is going on.

Brendan O'Neill
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The idea that the 7/7 attacks on London were some kind of payback for Iraq was first raised by remnants of the old left. But it has since been embraced by the chattering classes and even won the sanction of sections of officialdom.

George Galloway, former Labour firebrand turned RESPECT MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, got in there first. After the attacks he said that London had ‘paid the price’ for Blair’s wars. Defence minister Adam Ingram accused him of ‘dipping his poisonous tongue in a pool of blood’ (1). Well, many more tongues have been dipped in since. Some of Ingram’s fellow Labour MPs have made the link, as have newspaper leader-writers. It has been hinted at on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, a must-listen for Middle England. The prestigious Royal Institute for International Affairs (RIIA) published a report earlier this week, written by Paul Wilkinson, a right-wing academic not previously known for his pacifist tendencies, which said that by ‘riding pillion with a powerful ally’ (America), Britain had put itself at greater risk of terrorism (2).

We even had the peculiar situation, as pointed out in the ‘Just fancy that!’ section of Private Eye, where the same 8 July issue of the Daily Mail both attacked ‘the twisted logic of Galloway’ who blamed Blair for the London bombs and ran a column by Max Hastings (an old friend of Thatcher’s known in some circles as ‘Hitler Hastings’), which argued that ‘the price for being America’s foremost ally, for joining President Bush’s Iraq adventure, was always likely to be paid in London, in innocent blood’ (3).

In the space of two weeks, blaming Blair for the 7/7 attacks has gone from being the apparently ‘poisonous’ uttering of an old left MP to a dinner-party cliché in Islington, Canary Wharf and beyond. I took part in a BBC Radio debate with a representative of the RIIA and was struck by the number of callers to the show who said, ‘Yeah, Blair is to blame’. Call me a contrarian, but when a consensus is so wide that it takes in the Socialist Worker, radical weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers’ Party (headline: ‘This is about Iraq, Mr Blair’), and Max Hastings (crunch line: ‘We knew it was coming’), then it deserves to be picked apart. Even the far-right British National Party has got in on the act, issuing a leaflet that made two, in its view related, demands: ‘1) Bring our troops back from Iraq; 2) Stop any further immigration.’ (4)

This simplistic joining of the dots between Iraq and the London bombs is about something more than the attacks themselves. We have no further clues today than we did on 7/7 as to why these four young men from Leeds and Huddersfield (not Mosul or Basra) killed themselves and over 50 civilians. The attack may have been interconnected with the war in Iraq, it may not have been: who knows? But we should distinguish between the motivations of the bombers (whatever they were) and the post-bombing rush to Blame Blair. That rush is the byproduct of an unholy marriage between radical posturing and middle-class disgruntlement with Blair: it is less about understanding contemporary war and terrorism, than about having a pop at politicians. And it makes being anti-war all about self-interest and self-preservation rather than building international solidarity.

Many of the link-makers are trying to force the events of 7/7 into political categories where they simply do not fit. They use words and phrases such as ‘fightback’, ‘bringing the war home’ and ‘anger about Iraq’, as if they somehow know that the rucksack bombings in London were (‘without doubt’, in the words of Tariq Ali) motivated by some kind of anti-imperialist intent, however misdirected it may have been. (Some have hinted that the bombers should have directed their ire at warmongering politicians instead of innocent workers.) (5) Here, critics reference the political patterns of the past in a desperate bid to make sense of things that, to me, seem new and peculiar.

They overlook one important thing, however: today, even the ‘resistance’ in Iraq, which carries out increasingly savage attacks on Iraqi civilians, coalition troops and Iraqi police, cannot be understood in traditional anti-imperialist terms as a strictly political fight against Western military occupation. So how could the scrappy terrorist acts of four Brits on 7/7 be slotted into that convenient category?

If there is a link between the resistance in Iraq and the apparent fightback in London on 7/7, it is that both are deeply nihilistic. Neither seems to be part of a broader campaign to achieve discernible political aims; instead suicide bombers inflict fatalities and casualties and then do not even claim clear responsibility (much less say why they did it) afterwards. The insurgents in Iraq have for some months been perplexing US officials and military experts: who are these faceless, nameless attackers whose missions have become more and more barbarous? As a headline in the New York Times put it, reporting on US officials’ handwringing over Iraq and their failure to ‘penetrate the insurgency’: ‘Iraq insurgency displaying little rhyme or reason.’ (6)

The NYT argues that while US forces have been accused of failing to apply the hard lessons of Vietnam in Iraq, ‘no one has shrugged off the lessons of history more decisively than the insurgents themselves’: ‘The insurgents in Iraq are showing little interest in winning hearts and minds among the majority of Iraqis, in building international legitimacy or in articulating a governing programme or even a unified ideology or cause beyond expelling the Americans. They have put forward no single charismatic leader, developed no alternative government or political wing, displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern now.’ It says that ‘counterinsurgency experts are baffled’. One has even stooped to labelling the insurgents ‘losers’, that all-American putdown (7).

The insurgency seems to become bloodier, and more bloody well senseless, with every attack. Earlier this month a suicide bomber blew himself up next to a fuel tanker in front of a Shia mosque in Musayyib, south of Baghdad, killing at least 90 people. A few days before that, a suicide bomber detonated next to a US convoy that was handing sweets to Iraqi children, killing at least 26 kids and injuring 13 more (8).

And yet, again, instead of seeking to understand what is new here – instead of trying to explain, where US officials have blatantly failed to, why the war in Iraq has given rise to nihilists who do not declare their aims rather than to an uprising against military occupation – anti-war critics opt for easy, familiar tags instead. Some call it a ‘resistance’. ‘I think we [the anti-war movement] depend on the resistance to win so that other countries might not be attacked’, John Pilger has said. Win what, exactly? What is this resistance fighting for? Tariq Ali has compared the insurgents to the resistance movement in Vichy France during the Second World War, arguing: ‘The immediate tasks that face an anti-imperialist movement are support for the Iraqi resistance.’ (9)

It’s almost as if anti-war activists and writers simply cannot comprehend what is occurring today, so they stuff it into all the old categories for convenience’s sake. Perhaps they cannot get their heads around an American and British occupation of Iraq that doesn’t appear to be motivated by clear political or economic interests, and where the occupiers seem to have little stomach for continuing their mission; or an insurgency that seems uninterested in winning public support or territory or even in stating who it is and what its basic aims are; or the execution of suicidal attacks by young men born, raised and educated in the UK, who, whatever the anti-war movement might say, have no known connections with Iraq or Iraqis. In the face of what can appear as meaningless, or certainly strange and new, trends, some on the left respond by attaching the old labels. Instead of asking hard questions, they fall back on pat explanations.

Now they have adopted the same unquestioning attitude towards the 7/7 attacks on London, effectively describing them as some kind of extension of the resistance in Iraq, carried out, in the words of the Socialist Worker, by young men who ‘will have seen the pictures from Abu Ghraib…will have seen the images of some of the 100,000 Iraqis killed by the invasion and occupation…will have seen Bush grinning inanely as he declared “mission accomplished”.’ (10). The opportunity to explore what is new about violence in war zones and terrorism at home is squandered in the name of making simplistic points about how Bush and Blair have put more of us at greater risk of becoming toast. And what’s more, this radical left explanation then becomes a kneejerk response to 7/7 among everyone from government-connected think tanks to right-wing commentators.

It might all sound very radical, but it spectacularly fails to interrogate the causes of war and terrorism today. And the fact that everyone from the hard left to the far right, and various shades of opinion in between, are rushing to blame Blair suggests that this is more a bandwagon of cynical Blair-bashers than a genuine challenge to military intervention overseas. Worse, it gives rise to an anti-war sentiment that is more concerned with saving ourselves than anybody else. We’ve gone from the self-serving slogan ‘Not In My Name’ that became the cri de coeur of anti-war protesters in the run-up to Iraq, to ‘Not In My Backyard’, an opposition to war on the grounds that we don’t want those bloody mad terrorists to come over here and blow up our trains and buses.

But just as you cannot understand contemporary war and terror by falling back on the politics of the past, nor can you build an effective anti-war movement on the basis of fear, loathing and NIMBYism.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

It’s not all about Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Galloway ‘dipping his poisonous tongue in a pool of blood’, IC Birmingham, 8 July 2005

(2) Terror ‘is the price we paid for going to war’, Daily Telegraph, 18 July 2005

(3) ‘Just fancy that!’, Private Eye, 1137, 22 July 2005

(4) See It’s not all about Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) Tariq Ali on politics and the bombs, Socialist Worker, 16 July 2005

(6) Iraq insurgents displaying little rhyme, reason, New York Times, 15 May 2005

(7) Iraq insurgents displaying little rhyme, reason, New York Times, 15 May 2005

(8) Children die in Iraq suicide car bomb, Mail and Guardian, 13 July 2005

(9) See Rent-a-resistance, by Brendan O’Neill

(10) A cycle of war and despair, Socialist Worker, 13 July 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics