Monday 18 July 2005

Minutes of silence.

So I'm back.

Shopping in Stuttgart, an announcement comes over the store PA telling us to observe the internationally coordinated two minutes' silence for the London victims. Something about it really pissed me off. It took me a little while to figure out what, exactly.

There's the obvious point that I was surrounded by people who are almost universally opposed to any effective action being taken against the perpetrators. The German people — not just their government — are against declaring war on the terrorists, are against action being taken against states which harbour terrorists, are against Guantanamo, are against using the military to kill terrorists instead of using the police to make pitiful attempts to prosecute them. Those two minutes of silence are the most the Germans are willing to do: they'll pity the victims, but they'll do everything in their (thankfully little) power to ensure that further victims will be created, not that they see it that way. But, annoying though that is, that's not it.

Then there's the cheapness of silences these days. One minute's silence every year for every single British soldier killed in both World Wars. It's not much, but its very rarity makes it all the more poignant. These days, just be in the wrong place at the wrong time and you get a silence all of your own, right across the world. I feel pity for the victims and sorrow for their friends, but it doesn't insult their memories to say that they don't deserve this. Unlike the men and women who have traditionally been the objects of our silences, they didn't die for us. But that wasn't it either.

There's the total lack of even a second's silence for the IRA's numerous victims down the years, the sheer nastiness of implicitly declaring that these people's deaths were somehow more important because they were Londoners. If Al Qaeda had blown up a busload of Northern Irish Protestants visiting London, would there be any silent memorial? Somehow, I doubt it. But that's not it either.

A day later, I realised what the real problem was, what was really sticking in my craw. It's the message. The silence sends a simple message to the terrorists: We are devastated. We are traumatised. Our entire nation is distraught. You have succeeded. Even if that were true, it would be wrong to give the bastards the satisfaction of telling them. Even if. But it's not. It's bollocks.

This attack, as far as I can see, shows just how well the War on Terror is going. We've been expecting this for a long time; we know that they've been trying to attack London since 9/11: interrogation has revealed that a cell were due to pull the same stunt at Heathrow that day but were stymied by the worldwide grounding of aircraft. So it's taken them nearly four years to manage one attack. Pathetic. And, in the end, what was that attack like? Big? Hardly. Mark Steyn is badly wrong for once:

Thursday was an appalling act of savagery: the final death toll, in the high dozens, would have been regarded as a spectacular body count in the heyday of the IRA terror campaign; hundreds more will bear the scars of that morning for as long as they live; and thousands of other Britons — the families and friends of the dead — have had a huge gaping hole blown in their lives. Had this happened in 1975 or 1985, it would have been an act of murder that reverberated through British political life for weeks and months.

It's right to compare this attack to the IRA's, but to conclude that the increased death toll is some reflection of Al Qaeda's logistic superiority is ridiculous. Al Qaeda's death toll is higher than the IRA's for two simple reasons: they never give warnings, and they kill their own operatives. The IRA may be murderous bastards, but they're not suicidal, and they're astute enough to know that they're fighting a propaganda war and that too much murderousness would backfire; sometimes they don't give warnings, but they usually do. Looking at what they've achieved politically, one has to concede that they calibrated their murderousness about right. Al Qaeda don't give a damn about such considerations: they want to kill as many infidels as possible, so they target civilians and never give warnings. And that's a relatively easy game to play, terrorism-wise. I could, right now, with no help, no training, and no organisation, go out and kill three or four people before I was stopped. If I were willing to die in the process, I could easily take out far more. If you want to measure Al Qaeda's efficacy against the IRA's, the question you need to ask is: could the IRA have bombed three tubes and one bus at the same time? The answer is that they could have done it in their sleep, they would have hit three buses, and the blasts would have been bigger — and everyone knows it. Al Qaeda are short of explosives and short of manpower, at least in London. Which is why the correct response to their attack is not a self-pitying silence, but one simple word: Feh.

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