A reflection on the London attacks


I used to work in Tavistock Square, where the bomb blew the top off the double decker bus. My friends and colleagues in the Constitution Unit at University College London still do. Most of the team were there when the explosion shook the square and killed the bus’s occupants. None of the team, thankfully, were harmed but the lives of those who did not survive are no less precious for my not having known them.

Tavistock Square is leafy and quiet. Many of its buildings are occupied by the academic departments of University College, by an array of think-tanks and professional associations and by the newly built University College hospital. It is a curious place to detonate an explosive device. There is nothing in it that holds itself out as a target of worth. It’s pretty peaceful really. I ask myself why the explosion should have taken place there. No answer comes readily to mind.

Thanks to Bill Leak at the Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak at the Australian

And it’s like that more generally. There is so much we don’t know. We don’t know when or where they might attack, although hopefully our intelligence will improve over time. But more than that, we don’t know much about terrorists at all. We don’t know how they think. And that, it seems to me, is a large part of the problem.

Perhaps the most interesting opinion piece written in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was that by Melbourne lawyer Waleed Aly in The Age. Aly is a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria. His piece was remarkable because it was so honest. Having been involved intensively with the issue of terrorism, by virtue of having to comment on it constantly on behalf of his community, Aly made the same frank admission. Even as one who shares the same culture and religion as those who may have perpetrated this latest outrage, he too could barely comprehend what might have impelled them.

He advanced the conventional hypotheses. Might this be a fight against Crusader countries with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq? Might it be revenge for thousands of innocents slaughtered in Chechnya? Might it be a battle against Western godlessness, immorality and consumerism? Might it be a manifestation of a civil war within Islam, where religious executioner is pitted against religious executioner in a factional fight to the death. Having surveyed these possibilities he describes his despair:

Stunned we reach for our own responses, our minds in mayhem as we struggle to make sense of the senseless. And so we babble on. There is nothing more we can do. Thoughts and emotions circulate wildly in an incoherent cyclone, while at the core, there is nothing.

I think about this too, as I recall my friends in Tavistock Square. We can take as a given that the perpetrators wished to bring down injury, death, gridlock and fear upon a great city. But why plant the bomb there? No reason. Why plant the bombs in London? Coalition of the willing? Perhaps. G8? Probably has something to do with it. Britain as a participant in the axis of the infidel? Maybe. The real answer is that we can’t tell.

Why plant the bombs at all? If the suggestions that Waleed Aly puts forward provide him with little if any illumination, people like me, with much less familiarity with the religion, the culture and the region, can place no faith in them either.

There is a particular brand of zealotry here that I just can’t get at. Certainly it involves the wholesale, unquestioning adoption of a creed. But even though there are warrior-like elements in Islamic history and thought, at the heart of this great, complex, sometimes beautiful, theological edifice are values and beliefs that are profoundly humane. So that doesn’t get us far either.

Maybe it is a mistake to look to reason at all in understanding the terrorist phenomenon. Perhaps it is about passion, woven within a religious framework certainly, but passion nevertheless. If so, what are its physiological and psychological underpinnings? In my work I occasionally come across people who are classified as psychopathic; individuals who behave as they like, who cause harm and even death without conscience, in the total absence of any moral compass. I have come slowly to understand how such people think. But they are different from the terrorists. The latter follow a moral code and espouse a moral cause but, with breathtaking moral inconsistency, care nothing for people who get caught in the crossfire of its fundamentalist expression. I don’t get it.

I have met only one person charged with having committed offences related to terrorism. I won’t name him because the charges are still pending. As a terrorist, he was terribly disappointing. A young man, very naive, who caught fundamentalism early, went on a boy’s own adventure, and got in with the wrong crowd — the very wrong crowd. I don’t think he’s capable of harming anybody. He wouldn’t even have made a good foot-soldier, though he might have cooked for the troops. David Hicks’ defence lawyer tells the same story about him. These instances don’t advance our understanding much either.

So I, and perhaps we, have a lot of work to do in understanding what is going on here. Because if we don’t comprehend why the terrorists do what they do, we have very little possibility of stopping them.

The great problem, however, is that the theological, cultural, psychological and experiential chasm between us and them is so great, it is difficult even to conceive of a process through which it might be bridged. And even if we did obtain some reasonable measure of understanding, we of the West are probably the wrong people to reach out across that chasm anyway, being identified as the enemy. In that insight, it seems to me, there may lie the core of a solution.

The ‘war on terrorism’ may not, in the end, be won by us seeking to impose our wills through force on our designated enemy. Instead, perhaps, we should realize that the war, so called, can ultimately be won only within Islam itself. The peace will not be won by extending the West’s blitzkrieg. From every casualty inflicted that way, new recruits will come.

Instead, it is more likely to be won when the extremists are shamed in their own houses of worship, when they are exiled from their own cultures, when they are made pariahs in their own families and communities. And who better to pursue this end than those with whom these zealots reside, commune and identify? Who better to do this than their families and friends, their villages and cities, their religious and political leadership — those who know and understand them best.

In advancing a similar idea, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it this way:

It takes a village. What do I mean? I mean that the greatest restraint on human behaviour is never a policeman or a border guard. The greatest restraint on human behaviour is what a culture and a religion deem shameful. It is what the village and its religious and political elders say is wrong or not allowed. Many people said Palestinian suicide bombing was the spontaneous reaction of frustrated Palestinian youth. But when Palestinians decided that it was in their interest to have a cease-fire with Israel, those bombings stop cold. The village said enough is enough.

If this is a way forward, it has enormously important implications for the rest of us. If we recognize that there are limits to how much we can understand, then at least we can make the way easier for our friends and colleagues in the Islamic community. We can show them the tolerance that we would have their fundamentalist cells show us. We can respect them by learning more about their religion, their culture and their traditions, so that our dialogue is enlarged and enriched. We can dispense with believing that they are guilty until proven innocent. We can discourage discrimination against them. And we can provide them with the resources, intelligence, policing and law that they need to root out the terrorist cancer at the heart of their faith.

This does not mean of course that we shouldn’t seek to prevent terrorist atrocities in every way, and with every weapon at our disposal. These people are mass murderers and should be detected, treated and punished as such.

It does mean, however, that we need also to recognize the limits to that strategy. We need, perhaps, to appreciate that terror will not end in the short term at the hands of its enemies. Rather it will end, in the longer term, through victories, mosque by mosque, city by city, and creed by creed in the domains of its own culture and religion.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.