For classical historians nothing could be said to have happened unless someone took the time to narrate it. To modern semiologists, however, an event could only be regarded as having really taken place when somebody interprets it.
Last week’s terrorist attack in London qualifies as a real event by both definitions. It has been narrated in countless newspaper, radio and television reports. Those whose lives have been shattered by the event are also certain to retell the story for a long time to come.
There has also been no dearth of interpretations, which are what interest us at this point, as one aim of the terrorist is to force people, friend and foe alike, to define themselves vis-à-vis his actions. Broadly speaking, the interpretations offered so far can be categorized into two kinds: stoic and confused.
The stoic interpretation has come in the form of the determination with which Londoners (and most Britons) decided to take the whole experience in their stride and not allow the attack to derail normal life. A lot of reference has been made to the “spirit of the blitz”, a reminder of how Londoners stood fast against Hitler’s bombing of their city during the Battle of Britain at the start of the Second World War.
There are, of course, some similarities between the two cases. Hitler dreamed of conquering Britain and much of the world for his Aryan “master race”. The current terrorists, for their part, wish to rule the world in the name of “the only true faith”, that is to say their perverted version of Islam.
There are, however, big differences. At the time of the blitz, Britain was facing an identifiable enemy in the context of a conventional and symmetrical war. That allowed Britain, and other democracies that later became its allies, to take the war to the enemy”s grounds and destroy the physical structures that sustained his war machine.
The current enemy, on the other hand, has no easily identifiable territorial base and fights an asymmetrical war. It is possible that the terrorists were born and bred in Britain, and it is likely that the attack was planned and its logistical means put together within the United Kingdom itself. If that is the case, one must assume that the terrorists enjoy a broader support inside Britain than Hitler ever did in 1940 with Oswald Mosley’s small Fascist Party.
There is another big difference. As the clouds of war gathered over Europe in 1939 Britain started to prepare itself to fight morally and intellectually.
Today, however, there is no sign of such moral and intellectual preparation. To be sure, Britain is playing a key role in both Afghanistan and Iraq, however popular support for that role was never as high as it was for the fight against Hitler, and has been increasingly falling over the past year. This does not mean that the British are going to abandon their allies to gain credit from the terrorists, as the Spanish did just over a year ago however, it is equally clear that no war could be fought effectively unless it enjoys concrete and widespread popular support.
This brings us to the second reaction, that is to say the confused one.
This comes from people who, although often atheists, are hooked to the concept of the original sin.
Whenever Britain or any other Western democracy is attacked, they recall the real or imagined wrongs committed by the West as a justification for whatever wrongs others commit in return. These are the same type of people who will immediately justify the murders of bank clerks by a bank robber, asserting that he had an unhappy childhood marked by poverty.
To these people it is enough to claim some grievance and pose as a victim to be able to impose the worst kind of tyranny on others that is the tyranny of the underdog. When the killers come from well-to-do families and countries, as is the case with these Islamic terrorists, our apologist plays another tune: the murderers must be admired because they abandoned a life of luxury in order to fight for a cause that, in practice, means destroying the lives of innocent people.
As T.S Eliot expresses, "Blood of children must be spilt to atone for the fathers’ guilt".
The British daily newspaper, ”The Independent”, which opposed the wars to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq, reminded its readers the day after the London attack of what Osama bin Laden had said a year ago, that ”If you bomb our cities, we shall bomb yours.” The writer added, "There you go"!
Was the confused writer referring to Afghanistan and Iraq? If yes, did he not know that Bin Laden could under no circumstances, claim ownership of either Afghanistan or Iraq? No one in either Afghanistan or Iraq, including those Afghans and Iraqis who might hate the West for whatever reason, would regard the fugitive as a compatriot let alone as a representative.
To pretend that the terrorists represent the Muslim world is like claiming that the British National Party, a small fascist group, is the sole legitimate expression of the Western democracies.
Twenty-four hours later, Ayatolllah Imami Kashani used ”The Independent” article in his Friday prayer sermon in Tehran to support the claim that the British deserved to die in large numbers.
Even more scandalous was the claim by a maverick member of the British parliament that the terrorists represent the feelings of the global Muslim community. Muslims may, and in some cases, certainly do have real or imaginary grievances against the West and against one another, but few would regard Bin Laden and his emulates as fellow-believers let alone leaders.
Afghanistan and Iraq now have elected leaders who can, and do, speak on behalf of their peoples with authority. In both Kabul and Baghdad, the attack in London has been condemned clearly, yet would ”The Independent” quote Presidents Hamid Karzai and Jalal Talabani rather than Bin Laden? Not a chance.
While the stoic response may be the right one in the short term, it could lull Britain into believing that this is one brief storm that may soon blow over. Well, it is not. This is an existential threat by a force that cannot be stopped except by stronger moral, political and physical forces.
The comparison with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is both foolish and dangerous. The IRA resembled a man who sporadically comes to the neighborhood to break a few windows, increase fear and then establish contact to demand concessions. In time, the IRA became satisfied with jobs for its political front men and a free hand from the British police for its clandestine cells to continue whatever racketeering they engaged in.
The Islamist terrorists, however, want to wipe out the existing society so that they can create their "Utopia" in its place. They are not content with breaking a few windows or even murdering a son or daughter on their way to school or work, and would not be content with ministerial jobs and official limousines.
Acknowledging that an event has really happened is only the first step. What matters in the end is the way in which we understand it.