Sound and fury

Even among those of us who supported the war, optimism is scarce: not because we were wrong, but because of the catastrophic damage to the British psyche
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The Independent Online

So here we are again, united in rage and impotence, sharing the unshareable grief of people we do not know. "Tears shall drown the wind," Macbeth says, imagining pity in the future tense, but the pity of it is that while we may drown the wind, we cannot drown the deed. There is starting to be a terrible familiarity about all this. September 11, Bali, Baghdad when we saw the first pictures of Iraqis weeping for their vanished children, Istanbul, and now Madrid. Some of it our doing, much of it not. Though there are many among us who would say we are the architects of everything that befalls us now.

So here we are again, united in rage and impotence, sharing the unshareable grief of people we do not know. "Tears shall drown the wind," Macbeth says, imagining pity in the future tense, but the pity of it is that while we may drown the wind, we cannot drown the deed. There is starting to be a terrible familiarity about all this. September 11, Bali, Baghdad when we saw the first pictures of Iraqis weeping for their vanished children, Istanbul, and now Madrid. Some of it our doing, much of it not. Though there are many among us who would say we are the architects of everything that befalls us now.

Is it really a year since we invaded Iraq? Without the dates in front of me, I'd have guessed less: say, eight months since the first bombs fell on Baghdad, seven months since we pulled down the statue of the dictator, and about six weeks since we found the man himself in a rat-hole and opened his mouth for the world to look into. Whether these are calendar estimates - one's usual reluctance to admit the passage of time - or whether they reflect a feeling of dissatisfaction with what's been achieved, I'm not sure. But it's always nice, after a year of anything, to be able to crown the anniversary with palpable success, and I doubt we can do that. It's not for me to adjudicate, never having been to Iraq, between those who would argue that we have made a dog's dinner of our intervention (as they always knew we would), and those who feel more sanguine about the country post-Saddam Hussein (as they always knew they would). But I am certain of one thing - that over the last year we have made a dog's dinner of ourselves.

We are a more horrible country to live in than we were. Since by that I mean more horrible intellectually and spiritually, and even socially, I accept that I am open to the charge of mere velveteen pessimism. If you want to see horrible, try walking through Baghdad after a suicide bomb has just gone off. But there is no point pretending all is well with us because we are not - or not yet - a battlefield. That our time will surely come, I know nobody who doubts, whatever the irresponsible words of people who would have us believe that terror is just a mote in the eye of Tony Blair. How do you "exaggerate" the threat of terror? Because only hundreds and not thousands died in Madrid, does that mean we have been fretting unnecessarily? Will it console their families to be told that the environment poses an even greater threat?

But there are other injuries you can suffer anyway, other scars you can bear, and emotionally we are the walking wounded - more intolerant of one another as a result of Iraq, more self-righteous, quicker to sneer, less mannerly in our political and media discourse, more watchful of what we can and cannot say around a dinner table, more fatalistic, less convivial. If I have to hear one more person tell me we must understand the underlying causes of terror... But there you are, my friends think I have grown callous. While I think they have regressed to moral infancy.

If you ask whether I was one of those who welcomed war in Iraq, I can only tell you that I thought the arguments for - which never to my mind included the imminent deployment of weapons of mass destruction - outweighed the arguments against. When you are not entirely sure whether it should be peace or war, the default position is peace. I accept that. But September 11 had happened, and better to be safe than sorry. Cut off future supplies, sever putative alliances, stop up the ingresses and egresses of terror. Nothing else mattered. And yes, of course, there is always the danger you will make things worse. But what is plan B?

The anti-war demonstrations were largely a disgrace. I do not doubt the sincerity of many of those who went on them, but I believed then, and believe now, that they should have thought twice about the associated causes they were sponsoring whenever they marched. I mean the unthinking anti-Americanism, the kneejerk anti-globalism, the sentimental Third World-ism, the adolescent relativism - Blair equals Bush equals Saddam Hussein - and of course the anti-Zionism, which took * * no account of history and consequences and reasons why. I say "associated" causes not because they were inextricable in truth, but because that was how they were presented.

Things that might look the same, however, are often not the same at all. Many a good cause founders because it lets itself be looped into the daisy chain of ideology, and peace a year ago was one of them. It didn't lose everybody. I know people who abominated the hijacking of the Iraq issue by agitators who saw a chance to propagandise against America and Israel and whoever else was on the menu of the wicked, yet who marched and looked away. But it lost me. Not in their name the war; not in my name the daisy chain.

Of the 50 columns a year I write for this newspaper, only a handful addressed Iraq. But that handful generated more mail than all my other columns put together. And of that mail a frightening percentage was vituperative. Not begging to differ, but abusive and sometimes even menacing. The professional view is that we shrug these things off. Unsolicited mail is unsolicited mail - ie, predictably deranged. But there is something to be gained, I think, by noticing the form derangement takes. And without doubt a new note was being struck. I am not going to say it was anti-Semitic because I am wary of that term, even though it's hard to know how else to describe a world view that sees the Jews as simultaneously running and undermining everything, but conviction of right was running at a pitch I had not seen before, and with it a conviction of the utter wrongness, even unto damnation, of the opposite point of view. Apocalypse now, with the four horsemen installed in the White House, all of them Jews.

Had this been confined to the madhouse letters that we who write for newspapers must receive with grace, I might have thought no more about it. But every time I turned on Question Time or the like, there were my correspondents, stamping and jeering the moment anyone so much as glanced at the argument for war. Whereas let a speaker dip no deeper into his rhetorical bag of tricks than to call Blair a liar, and you would have thought Demosthenes had stood up and spoken.

At the best of times, I disapprove of opinion-spouting programmes. Opinions are the least worthy part of us, and why we should applaud a person merely for holding an opinion identical to our own I have never understood. Mainly, though, it is of no account: they shout their shout and we move on to something else. But Iraq had the whole country by its ears and suddenly the discourse of intolerance, in which you were blind unless you saw as you were meant to see, had turned universal. Ironical, of course, that this seeing as you were meant to see was being passed off as dissent. In fact I have never seen this country so obedient as it became, and has remained, since we first started to debate the Iraq war. True, it is not Tony Blair we obey. But if you're slaves you're slaves, no matter who your master is.

There was a time, too, since we are now remembering a golden age before Iraq made laughing stocks of us all, when accusing politicians of lying and spying was something we grew out of in fourth form. Of course politicians lie and spy. The business of governing is not always clean, the business of international relations less clean still, and often the left hand is better not knowing what the right hand is up to. And frankly, the more obdurately innocent the electorate - now in thrall to legality, as though legality were not the imperfect work of man; now in thrall to the United Nations, as though our imperfections might somehow be obviated by the fact of numbers, no matter from where they're drawn - the more sophistical our politicians are bound to be. Grow up. Whoever would be spoken to as a grown-up must think as one. Whether we made the decision, as a nation, not to grow up long before the Iraq war, I can't say. But we had certainly begun to immerse ourselves in children's literature. It would be interesting to know if we've been reading even more of it in the year just gone. Without doubt, anyway, there is a correlation between what passes as political opinion at the moment and the contents of children's books. Good versus evil. Nice people against bad. Our hearts on our sleeves. And nothing we can't understand.

In Dr David Kelly we found a hero to match our children's-literature expectations. An unworldly, boffinish, avuncular fellow. A sweeter Mr Darling, pitched against dark machinations that were the undoing of him. When it became evident that is wasn't quite the true story, we stopped reading. Indeed, rather than accept a version of events contrary to the fairy tale we'd constructed, we tossed another fanciful character, that once nice but now nasty Judge Hutton, into the flames ourselves. A low moment in our history, the near unanimous cry of "whitewash!" A nation with its mind set like a trap. "Whitewash, whitewash! Bliar, Bliar!" Tell us the story we want to hear, or tell us nothing.

Myself, I spent the first days after the publication of the Hutton report barely able to breathe. Misanthropy I have known before, but this time I did not simply hate the species to which I belonged; I couldn't recognise it. Who were they? Who were these people who believed that an inquiry was meant to be the expression of their own views, who thought a finding was something already found, who cried foul the moment their conclusions were not concluded? It was like a bad dream. I would wake and discover it hadn't happened. But I woke to hear it being opined that Andrew Gilligan had sort of, in a manner of speaking, to all intents and purposes got it more or less, give or take, approximately right. As though contemptuously careless approximation had not been the nub of the thing from the start! That the event didn't make a terrorist of Lord Hutton proves that there is more than one response to ill-treatment.

The question is perhaps premature, and to answer it might require the skills of someone versed in a school of social psychology not yet invented, but I wonder if the Iraq war will one day be seen as a watershed in the history of the British mind - the moment we turned our id into our superego, confused waywardness with conscience, believed we had right on our side by virtue simply of defying authority, and in the process concluded that it was time, emotionally, to ditch our parents (for whom read Bush and Blair) and leave home, for which read America and the West. I don't doubt there was courage and altruism in it. After centuries of the British believing that rectitude resided with us alone, here we were finding it exclusively somewhere else. At a stroke, there was no horrid deed unless we did it, and the only villain of the piece was us - or at least us as embodied in our rejected father, Tony, since the other us, demonstrating under the banner "Not In Our Name!" - a slogan with which any psychologist of family would have a field day - had seen the light and been born again. Hence the consciousness of revelation that radiated from our faces as we marched to peace, shoulder to shoulder with those who would "smash Israel", those who would save the planet with lemon drizzle cake and lentils, and the schoolkids who couldn't spell their names or tell you who Churchill was but who were suddenly historical know-alls.

We could argue about the chronology of such changes to our metaphysic and date this refocusing of our consciences to September 11, which was when the Iraq war really started. It was immediately after September 11, anyway, that the theory that whoever-hates-you-must-be-right, which still governs how half the world thinks, began to be adumbrated in earnest. In a nutshell, this theory upholds the primacy of grievance, making any victim of such grievance, always provided it is a Western or Western-friendly power, the author of its own misfortune. Going to war in Iraq, whether it was the right thing to do or not, would only inflame these grievances, and therefore increase America's culpability for anything it suffered. As it indeed it would increase ours. Or Spain's.

According to the Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge, the faculty you employ to navigate the subtleties of this theory of victim culpability - the theory that if you are hit, it is because you deserve to be - is "empathy". Through "empathy" you learn to elide grievance and whatever course the aggrieved party decides to follow. Thus, the apotheosis of the suicide bomber, hammered in the forge of his, or her, affliction, no matter that the forge happens to be in Hounslow. For my part, I'd have thought it self-evident that however much despair we make, nobody makes a suicide bomber. Suicide bombing is an act of politics and a politician makes himself. But we are as children in our sympathies now, and "empathy" has come to mean mere moral ignorance.

A year on, or two and a half years on, depending on when we started counting, there is little to be cheered by. That things will get worse before they get better, I do not doubt. Iraq will bedevil the American alliance for years to come, and there is no shortage of commentators who will take pleasure in that. Bring it on! Bring on doomsday! And in the meantime, whatever the authorities do to make life safer for us here will be read as incursions into our civil liberties.

Forgive me if I laugh at the phrase "civil liberties", for what is liberty of any sort worth once a bomber has done his work? To me, the human rights arguments have never looked more threadbare. The concept of human rights assumes we know what humanity is, and share it. This much only do we share - that we number among us some who will randomly damage the innocent in reparation for the damage suffered (or imagined to be suffered) by themselves, and others who not only find that twisted logic seductive, but even, through the publicity given to their "empathy", encourage it. Which means, since no man is an island, that we are not, as a species, entitled to the liberties we claim. We have reneged on the deal, and, as to our entitlements, gone backwards. Protection; that is all we have a right to ask for now. And if that means protection at any price, I for one will pay it. So, yes, that's where we are one year on: we are one year less civilised than we were.

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