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London bombings are not a movie sequel

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 29 July 2005

Everyone has their theory about the London bombings, which killed over 50 people and injured some 700. We’ve all read them: it’s Al-Qaeda, home-grown British fanatics, revenge for British involvement in Iraq, and even those who think it is a response to London winning the 2012 Olympics. But more than anything the situation is starting to sound like a James Bond film. If Bush and Blair are to be believed, the cause of the terror is an evil genius who seeks world domination and wants to change civilised people’s way of life – whatever that means. Those responsible for the carnage in London, or in Madrid, Bali and New York, suffer from the same grandiose thinking. They think that murdering people across the globe will alter international relations and further their ideology – whatever that is. But the problem with both these views is they draw us into generalised thinking that only makes things worse.

This is not a movie that will have a neat ending. The number of deaths committed in the name of justice, no matter how it is defined, has real consequences. That said, the Western media seems more concerned about the deaths of British or American civilians than Iraqi or Afghan civilians killed by allied troops. But bombing commuters or killing civilians in illegally occupied countries are both wrong. One is not morally superior to the other. Both are abhorrent. Revenge as a solution only works in the movies. The enemy will not be beaten into submission in a swashbuckling finale, and no one is going to live happily ever after. Thinking that a global war can defeat terror or, conversely, that global terror can win the day, will only intensify the problem. One-dimensional views are everywhere. Some commentators want us to believe that poverty is the sole cause of acts of terror and the US is the root of all that is bad. Western politicians want us to think the driving force behind the bombers is ideologically vacuous and pure evil. Others argue that withdrawing troops from Iraq, as much as I am for that, will make it all go away. But the situation is more nuanced than that. There is no military solution to this problem. There is no simple answer.

Let us pull back from our grand theories and stop pontificating. Those who kill indiscriminately must be brought to justice, but we need to understand what is going on here. If the perpetrators of the London bombings are found to be Al-Qaeda fundamentalists, what is needed is knowledge from those that can fully articulate the root causes of what we are seeing. This can only come through closer alliances with Muslim countries and communities. But how is this possible if Muslim countries are not even invited to the G8 talks? How can we understand different perspectives if everyone is continually emphasising difference rather than commonality between cultures? It is not going to be possible to have an informed debate about causes and prevention as long as all sides engage in the polemic of good and evil. Now is not the time to hand over more power to the military and secret services – the same people who apparently miscalculated regarding Saddam’s weapons cache. Insights and guidance from those closest to the heart of the problem must be sought. It is the diplomats and those who can open the channels of communication and listen to one another that are needed, not more soldiers.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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