Time we talked about our culpability in the matter of terror? I put that interrogatively for fear readers might rather we talked about something else. I share the reluctance, but, as the blamers tell us, we cannot understand the motives of those we call terrorist unless we acknowledge our contribution to their state of mind, and the last thing we ever want to turn our backs on in this column, reader, is understanding.
Let me say, then, from the outset, that I get it. I understand. Many of those acts we call terror are committed because the perpetrators believe it’s their duty to take vengeance on the West for its invasion of Muslim lands, the “war on terror”, the Israeli occupation, the mass incarceration and destruction of innocent Muslims, the murderous sanctions against Iraq and now Iran, the routine killing of Afghan civilians by British troops, the lax morals of Western women, the publication of The Satanic Verses, and other military incursions and cultural abuses too numerous to name. That they believe this we know because they tell us. And when an assassin speaks, it’s provident to listen.
I say to listen, not necessarily to trust. In any circumstances it’s unwise to believe what people say about their motives. If Sophocles, Shakespeare and Freud didn’t teach us that, they didn’t teach us anything. And even to talk of “motives” is crude when it comes to the unseen and often unguessed-at impulses that drive us. But the reasons people give for why they act as they do at least paint a picture of what they think is inside their heads, if nowhere else, and that tells us something. It tells us who they’ve been listening to, for example, and what they’ve been reading. It sheds light on the culture of those we call terrorists – see how careful I’m being – if not their psychology. That it cannot be taken to reflect an impersonal or verifiable truth – any more than it is verifiably true that our rivals are monsters and our lovers paragons – needs no protesting.
So there you are. I get it. This is how it feels, this is what it looks like, this is the cultural terrain, inside the head of someone who plants a bomb or tries to bring down an aircraft, or walks the streets with a machete. I understand. Can I go now?
To be clear: the grievances listed above contain buried quotations, not from terrorists themselves but from Western commentators who feel some kinship with their views if not their deeds. Let’s give them a single name, say Culpability Brown, since they all think we’re to blame, borrow ideas freely from the same branch of Handmedown Bank, and are similarly careless in their condemnations – as, for example, in accusing British troops of killing Afghan civilians “routinely”, where “routinely” is a rhetorical device, planted to derange even further those whose minds are full of scorpions.
Cometh the atrocity, cometh Culpability Brown. Does he wait like a spider suspended in the darkness, the opportunity to blame you and me again, reader, the reward for his infinitely banal persistence? Out into the light he crawls, anyway, in the immediate aftermath of every killing, to agree the crime is terrible, unspeakable, yes, but – ah, the callousness of that “but” – we had it coming.
In what other context, these days, do we allow people to tell us we have it coming? This one goes about with her handbag open, that one with his wallet protruding like a free gift from the back pocket of his jeans, complains the poor pickpocket. “I was provoked, your honour.” How the girls in their short summer dresses, flirty, drunken, free with their kisses, arouse the hapless rapist. “Aren’t they, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in every meaning of the phrase, asking for it?”
This is not an argument against precaution. Though no provocation justifies a rape, it’s still sensible, given who we know is out there, to be on our guard. A sad reflection on the times, though one that has no bearing on the heinousness of the crime of rape itself.
So what precautions should we take – accepting that they have no bearing on the crime of murder – when it comes to terror? What should we change? Our foreign policy, plainly. The things we do that upset jihadists, though the concept of jihad – much argued over as it is – predates Bush, Blair, Salman Rushdie and the Israeli occupation. I’d be surprised if there are many who think the wars the West has fought since 9/11 have in all cases been well considered in conception or execution. Cruel and terrible mistakes have been made. But the mass murderer Saddam has gone. The Taliban, destroyers of other cultures, killers of women and children, haters of the light, might not have been routed but they are not – not yet, anyway – what they were.
No such offsetting gains against losses, however, when Culpability Brown describes the world. Only our undiluted villainousness. So let me ask a question: if we are to blame for those we call terrorists, if we create the culture in which it looks right to them to kill, aren’t those commentators who excite that culture into an even greater ferment of boiling hate – who speak, for example, of British soldiers killing Afghan civilians “routinely” (once a day? twice a day?), who collapse history until there are no two sides to any conflict – aren’t they, the butters and the blamers of the press, more culpable than anyone? Our security services film potential terrorists travelling to places where they will be inflamed, as though indoctrination can’t be achieved as effectively over here, by nothing more sinister than newsprint.
If you are looking for whose hands beyond the murderers are bloody, look here. At those who, to further their own ideological ends, agitate the already unstable with lurid untruths.