Sunday, July 10, 2005

"Perseverance Is More Prevailing Than Violence"

Its not often I have the occasion to quote Plutarch (title, above) and I apologies if my memory of his exact words are a little rusty, but you get the idea. A great deal has been written in recent days about the stoicism of British and Londoners in general and I would be a liar if my sadness since Thursday hasn't been accompanied with a little vicarious chest-puffing, knowing that I was raised in a tradition that dictates that quiet defiance is the default response to a challenge. The various British and foreign reports from "The Smoke" (my guilty favorite is partly reproduced and also linked to below) on the behavior of that city's residents in the face of terrorist attack have offset the chest twisting anger and agony I have been wrestling with as manifestations of a temporary loss of perspective and empathy for humankind in general. I have always had a fairly strong antipathy for the allegorical work of J.R.R. Tolkein (and his fellow Christian conservatives like C.S. Lewis) but as I have grown older his version of the everyday British fellow, the hobbits, seem to ring ever more true as the years go by. The British, like the hobbits, love their comforts, their privacy, and their fairly sedentary lifestyle; a factor of life of a small island I think rather than bloodlines or ethnicity as Britain is a polygot place and every generation of immigrants seems to adopt hobbitlike characteristics, by and large. But when challenged, when faced with danger and assault, and when asked to shoulder a burden at first too large for them my hobbit-like compatriots cannot do anything but press on with grim determination. Jolly good, I say, and I can only aspire to measure up should I ever be tested personally.

Truth be told though, the old Second World War phrase "London can take it" that is being resurrected in various forms this week really should be "humanity can take it." Time and time again, whatever the conflict and whatever the cause victims of terrorism across the globe refuse to take the "terror" part of the equation seriously. The real threat and aim of terrorism seems to be the creation of "others". Terrorists hope that through their actions they can capitalize on humanity's tendency to generalize. Therefore, all muslims and South Asians of whatever creed become suspect, all Israelis misappropriate land, all Americans want to kill muslims and steal oil, and so on. It is our common responsiblity, if we want to take an active role in defending our way of life (beyond shopping and traveling as suggested by the President) to educate ourselves as to the true nature of those who seek to make us cower under our beds and what distingushes the enemy from those who share certain physical characteristics with them. Otherwise we will have nothing but a series of Guantanamo Bays, arrests on suspicion, misdirected aerial bombings and checkpoint shootings, and all the while we'll be beating the recruiter's drum for those who seek to drive us into a hole.

Refusing to bow to fear is all well and good but true victory over terrorism will only come when we recognize the common bonds that bind us as people regardless of national borders; that decent treatment is not a privilege of the wealthy or the free but of the have-nots and oppressed also. Contrast the euphoric determination to do someting good engendered by the Live 8 concerts (and even the promising start towards an equitable solution for our fellow humans in the poorer part of the globe who suffer so needlessly undertaken by the G8) to the airheaded warblings of "a war of civillisations" and the reflexive belligerence towards the so-called "freedom haters" (do terrorists on the Atkins diet hate "freedom fries" as especially bad carbs?) that followed Thursday's attacks. To think and to use empathy are not signs of weakness; they are a prerequisite for victory. "Know your enemy" is a maxim as old as war itself; considering their position is the key that will unlock our most effective weapons system- our minds. If the bombings in London teach us anything, I hope with all my heart that it is that we begin to understand that we need to be more reflective and less reflexive.

As to the future, let me close with one of Winston Churchill's lesser known sayings: "I am an optimist. It doesn't seem too much use being anything else."

(Now for that chest puffery). "London Has Seen Worse"
Andrew Roberts in London, National Post (Canada)
Friday, July 08, 2005
'I can tell you now that you will fail in your long-term objectives to destroy our free society. In the days that follow, look at our airports and seaports, and even after your cowardly attacks, you will still see people from around the world coming here to achieve their dreams. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.'

The defiant words of Winston Churchill to Adolf Hitler during the London Blitz? Or of Rudy Giuliani after 9/11? Yesterday they were spoken by Ken Livingstone, the left-wing Mayor of London, no ally of Tony Blair in the war against terror, but someone clearly capable of Churchillian oratory when a great and terrible moment comes.

The best mood to describe London now is "disgusted resignation"; we have been here so many times before over the 20th century, and that historical knowledge gives us comfort. What is totally lacking is any vestigial sense of wishing to appease the people responsible for these outrages. At the back of every Londoners' mind is pride in the bloody-minded way previous generations have viewed every attempt to coerce them by force. Defiance is the default position of this city, and has been for generations.

On Tuesday evening at the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy in London's Piccadilly, I happened to spot a tiny memorial of the night that German zeppelins had bombed the St. James's area of central London in September, 1917, part of a series of devastating air-raids during the First World War. The Nazi's Blitz against London during the Second World War killed over 20,000 of the city's inhabitants and wounded 72,750. Irish nationalist terrorists killed Londoners in the 1880s, in 1938-39, and on a regular basis over 30 years after 1970. Ordinary Londoners treated each threat with the same kind of "disgusted resignation" that they have treated this one.

For us, nothing has changed, and nothing will change so long as London is a truly great world-historical city. To live under the threat of terrorist attacks is simply part of being a Londoner. If London were a geographical backwater, or merely the tourist-site of a long-passed world power, we would not have to face these horrors. Instead it is one of the great symbols and entrepots of the English-speaking peoples, who have retained global hegemony for over a century, and as such it will always be a target.

"Here is Britain now burning with fear and terror," boasts the group most probably responsible for yesterday's attacks, the "Secret Group of al-Qaeda's Jihad in Europe." A much more honest assessment comes from an American tourist friend who could not believe the calm and stoicism of ordinary Britons during the attacks. "They were well informed about what to do and no-one panicked," she said about the people near her. "I was warned about secondary devices and told to stay behind solid buildings and away from glass. They seemed to take it all in their stride." Read on...

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