Making A New Martyr?

War: The deadly cycle of hate and revenge didn't begin with the Sept. 11 attacks - and it won't end with our violent response.

November 11, 2001|BY JOHN LE CARRE

October 8

"The bombing begins," screams today's headline of the normally restrained Guardian. "Battle Joined" echoes the equally cautious Herald Tribune, quoting George W. Bush. But with whom is it joined? And how will it end? How about with Osama bin Laden in chains, looking more serene and Christ-like than ever, arranged before a tribune of his vanquishers with Johnnie Cochran to defend him? The fees won't be a problem, that's for sure.

Or how about with a bin Laden blown to smithereens by one of those clever bombs we keep reading about that kill terrorists in caves but don't break the crockery? Or is there a solution I haven't thought of that will prevent us from turning our archenemy into an arch-martyr in the eyes of those for whom he is already semi-divine?

Yet we must punish him. We must bring him to justice. Like any sane person, I see no other way. Send in the food and medicines, provide the aid, sweep up the starving refugees, maimed orphans and body parts - sorry, "collateral damage" - but bin Laden and his awful men, we have no choice, must be hunted down.

But unfortunately what America longs for at this moment, even above retribution, is more friends and fewer enemies. And what America is storing up for herself, and so are we Brits, is yet more enemies; because after all the bribes, threats and promises that have patched together the rickety coalition, we cannot prevent another suicide bomber being born each time a misdirected missile wipes out an innocent village, and nobody can tell us how to dodge this devil's cycle of despair, hatred and - yet again - revenge.

The stylized television footage and photographs of bin Laden suggest a man of homoerotic narcissism, and maybe we can draw a grain of hope from that. Posing with a Kalashnikov, attending a wedding or consulting a sacred text, he radiates with every self-adoring gesture an actor's awareness of the lens. He has height, beauty, grace, intelligence and magnetism, all great attributes unless you're the world's hottest fugitive and on the run, in which case they're liabilities hard to disguise. But greater than all of them, to my jaded eye, is his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight. And just possibly this trait will be his downfall, seducing him into a final dramatic act of self-destruction, produced, directed, scripted and acted to death by Osama bin Laden himself.

By the accepted rules of terrorist engagement, of course, the war is long lost. By us. What victory can we possibly achieve that matches the defeats we have already suffered, let alone the defeats that lie ahead? Terror is theater, a soft-spoken Palestinian firebrand told me in Beirut in 1982. He was talking about the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, but he might as well have been talking about the twin towers and the Pentagon. The late Michael Bakunin, evangelist of anarchism, liked to speak of the propaganda of the Act. It's hard to imagine more theatrical, more potent acts of propaganda than these.

Now Bakunin in his grave and bin Laden in his cave must be rubbing their hands in glee as we embark on the very process that terrorists of their stamp so relish: as we hastily double up our police and intelligence forces and award them greater powers, as we put basic civil rights on hold and curtail press freedom, impose news blackpoints and secret censorship, spy on ourselves and, at our worst, violate mosques and hound luckless citizens in our streets because we are afraid of the color of their skin.

All the fears that we share - "Dare I fly?" "Ought I to tell the police about the weird couple upstairs?" "Would it be safer not to drive down Whitehall this morning?" "Is my child safely back from school?" "Have my life's savings plummeted?" - are precisely the fears our attackers want us to have.

Until Sept. 11, the United States was only too happy to plug away at Vladimir Putin about his butchery in Chechnya. Russia's abuse of human rights in the North Caucasus, he was told - we are speaking of wholesale torture, and murder amounting to genocide, it was generally agreed - was an obstruction to closer relations with NATO and the United States. There were even voices - mine was one - that suggested Putin join Milosevic in The Hague; let's do them both together. Well, goodbye to all that. In the making of the great new coalition, Putin will look a saint by comparison with some of his bedfellows.

Does anyone remember anymore the outcry against the perceived economic colonialism of the G8? Against the plundering of the Third World by uncontrollable multinational companies? Prague, Seattle and Genoa presented us with disturbing scenes of broken heads, broken glass, mob violence and police brutality. Tony Blair was deeply shocked. Yet the debate was a valid one, until it was drowned in a wave of patriotic sentiment, deftly exploited by corporate America.

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