When we reached the Underground, we found a surge
of people moving away from the entrance. We were told that the station
was being evacuated because of some emergency elsewhere in the system,
possibly an electrical explosion.
With little prospect for finding a cab and unclear
how widespread the problem was, we began trudging off – luggage in hand
– toward the next stop on the line, at Barons Court. Many Londoners were
doing the same, some in their business suits with cell phones to their
ears trying to glean the latest detail of what was happening.
The sorry parade had the feel of a disaster film in
which people are suddenly denied the transportation that they so
casually rely on.
When we finally reached Barons Court, guards barred
the door to that station, too, informing us that multiple explosions had
forced the closing of the entire London Underground. It was becoming
clear that this incident wasn’t just the result of a malfunctioning
At the advice of one security guard, we
double-backed about a quarter mile and found a store-front office of a
“mini-cab” company. We secured the services of its last available car,
which for the price of 40 pounds took us – and an elderly chap on his
way to Belfast – to Heathrow Airport.
By the time we boarded our flight and departed for
Washington early in the afternoon, news reports were describing how four
bombs – three on subway cars and a fourth on a double-decker bus – had
killed an undetermined number of people in London. Suspicions were
already focused on an al-Qaeda connection.
Back in the USA
Several hours later, after we landed at Dulles
Airport, we climbed into a cab for the last leg of our trip back to
The cab driver was listening to a right-wing radio
station that was already drawing lessons from the London bombings.
George W. Bush’s wisdom and resolve were vindicated again, the radio
voices told us, while American liberals were cowards and traitors for
wanting to coddle terrorists.
We were back in the USA.
But what are the real lessons of the London
bombings – and what do those lessons mean for the Iraq War, the War on
Terror, and the shaky future of American democracy?
First, there is the forensic evidence, the
relatively crude nature of the four bombs.
That could be viewed as a negative or a positive.
On the one hand, assuming that these bombs indeed were the work of a
militant Islamic group, their simplicity could suggest a declining
terrorist capability. On the other hand, the bombs indicate that even
amateurish terrorist cells can disrupt the functioning of a
sophisticated city like London and kill scores of people.
The London bombings suggest, too, that al-Qaeda may
be evolving into a diffused movement, more an inspiration to disaffected
Muslim youth on how to wage war against the West than a centralized
organization that hatches complex plots and dispatches operatives to
carry out the attacks.
Bush’s Illogical Claims
Second, again assuming that there is some tie-in to
Islamic terrorism, the London bombings undercut one of Bush’s primary
arguments for continuing the war in Iraq – that fighting the
“terrorists” there somehow prevents them for attacking elsewhere.
As Bush said in his June 18 radio address,
“Our troops are fighting these terrorists in
Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home.”
This argument has
always flown in the face of both logic and U.S. intelligence analyses,
which have concluded that hatreds stirred up by the invasion of Iraq
have been a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda, strengthening Islamic
extremism, not weakening it.
Plus, it made no sense
to think that fighting extremists in Iraq precluded other extremists
from launching attacks in Europe or the United States. Rather, the
opposite would almost certainly be true, that hardened veterans of the
Iraq conflict – or sympathetic Muslims already living in the West – were
more likely to avenge the deaths of Iraqi civilians by killing civilians
in countries that have sent troops to Iraq, such as Great Britain.
But Bush’s case for the
Iraq War was never strong on logic. It’s always been about pushing
America’s “hot buttons” – whether exaggerating threats from Saddam
Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction or juxtaposing references
to Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks despite the lack of evidence linking
The use of “hot
buttons” – rather than reason –
has been a conscious policy of Washington’s neoconservatives since the
early 1980s when this CIA-style practice, known internally as
“perception management,” was employed to control how Americans perceived
the bloody conflicts in Central America. [For details, see Robert
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq
or his earlier book,
Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Baiting War Critics
found that these P.R. tactics from the 1980s worked even better after
the horrors of the hijacked-plane attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon. As Bush and his allies consolidated political power after
Sept. 11, 2001, the strategy –
especially during the run-up to the war in Iraq
– was to
bait opponents, not debate them. [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Baiting,
Just last month, facing deepening criticism over
his Iraq War policies, Bush returned to this approach, unleashing his
deputy chief of staff Karl Rove to mock “liberals” for supposedly
demonstrating a cowardly naivety in the face of the Sept. 11 terrorism.
“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the
attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11
attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and
understanding for our attackers,” Rove said in a speech to the
Conservative Party of New York State on June 22.
“I don’t know about you, but moderation and
restraint is not what I felt when I watched the Twin Towers crumble to
the ground, a side of the Pentagon destroyed, and almost 3,000 of our
fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble,” Rove said.
Although Bush spoke
after the London bombings about the need for an “ideology of hope,” he
has shown little willingness to rethink a counter-terrorism strategy
based on the prospects of endless war.
Indeed, a chilling
subtext of Rove’s speech is the demonization of anyone who suggests that
conventional warfare may be a clumsy and even counter-productive tool to
employ against terrorism. To recommend scaling back the level of
violence – away from war toward a police operation or, in Rove’s
scoffing words, “to prepare indictments” – is deemed proof of weakness.
Typical of Bush’s
backers, radio talk show host Kevin McCullough used the London bombings
as another opportunity to denounce American liberals as cowards whose
very existence endangers the nation.
“What none of the Left
in America understand is that this life can’t be lived by sheer moral
relativism,” McCullough said, according to a text of his comments
distributed by the Christian Wire Service. “They are afraid of this
because they don’t wish to be forced to curb their own behavior to
actually become moral people.
“But their fears aside,
the unwillingness to look at the face of Satan and call it what it is
jeopardizes all of us. These people can not be trusted with national
security because they have no sense of the difference between good and
advocated what he termed “the only moral way to deal with” terrorists:
“Track them down. Kill as many of them as we can in the field of battle.
Those we capture put on trial. Those who are found guilty, put to
Yet, while sentiments
about exterminating terrorists may be satisfying on an emotional level,
vengeance is not a realistic solution to the broader problem of Islamic
anger against what vast numbers of Middle Easterners see as Western
exploitation and occupation of their lands.
According to polls,
many Muslims – as well as many non-Muslims – see Bush as a greater
threat to the world than Osama bin Laden. So simply lashing out at real
or suspected “bad guys” is only likely to perpetuate the cycles of
violence and retaliation, not lead to some end game to the conflict.
A third lesson from the
London bombings appears to be that the world does face a growing risk
that the tit-for-tat violence between the warring sides will spread
geographically, worsening fears and deepening hatreds.
Further, a simplistic
black-and-white view of the enemy is not helpful in winning this kind of
conflict. As counter-insurgency experts have taught for decades,
effective strategies to quell rebellions require multilayered responses
aimed at winning hearts and minds, not just killing all possible
These military experts
note that success requires identifying legitimate grievances, taking
concrete steps to address these problems, and then isolating the
Along these lines in
the 1980s, conservative counter-insurgency experts advocated a theory
called “low-intensity conflict.” Their thinking was that conflict
existed on a broad spectrum of violence from nuclear warfare at one end
to political clashes on the other, with conventional war and guerrilla
fighting in between.
The goal was to shift
conflicts toward the lower end of the violence spectrum where eventually
they could be handled by police, courts and the political system.
In effect, Bush’s
approach to the War on Terror and the Iraq War has been a repudiation of
these “low-intensity” theories, which were promoted by conservatives,
such as retired Special Forces Major F. Andy Messing Jr., founder of the
National Defense Council, a private group that worked closely with
Ronald Reagan’s White House.
By contrast, Bush has
advocated escalating the violence up the spectrum, especially with his
conventional military invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Meanwhile, at
home, his advisers skillfully exploited Bush’s image as a “war
president” to achieve the Right’s long-sought consolidation of political
power across all three branches of the U.S. government.
Though Bush’s approach
has proven politically advantageous domestically, it has led to the
deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the loss of more than 1,700 U.S.
soldiers and a worsening international cycle of violence.
With this violence
seemingly spinning out of control, Bush’s strategy also has had the
negative consequence of enhancing bin Laden’s reputation among Muslims,
rather than pushing him to the political margins.
A fourth lesson that
can be drawn from the London bombings is that the route out of the
current mess may come from letting cooler heads prevail – as Londoners
have done after the July 7 atrocities.
traditional stiff-upper-lip philosophy, Londoners may have gained some
wisdom from their previous experience with terrorism – the bitter
conflict with the Irish Republican Army.
After years of bloody
attacks, the back-and-forth terrorism between the IRA and Protestant
militants was brought under control as new leaders, ironically including
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, edged back from the hard lines,
addressed the reasonable demands of the warring sides, and isolated the
Yet, given how deeply
Bush has dug himself in to his “with-us-or-with-the-terrorists”
strategies, it is difficult to envision how the United States might
clamber out of the hole, especially the one in Iraq, in the near future.
But the restoration of
rational – and even respectful – discourse about realistic options might
be a good place to start.