We have already
by John Le Carre*, October 13, 2001
Originally Published in the Globe
The Bombing Begins! screams today's headline of
the normally restrained Guardian. Battle joined, echoes the equally
cautious International 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 Johnny
Cochran to defend him? The fees won't be a problem, that's for
Or how about with Osama 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
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 Osama bin Laden and his awful men, we have no choice, must
be hunted down.
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 this 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 this 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 theatre,"
a soft-spoken Palestinian firebrand told me in Beirut in 1982.
He was talking about the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich
Olympics 10 years before, but he might as well have been talking
about the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The late Mikhail 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 Mr. Bakunin in his grave and Mr. 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 liberties on hold and
curtail press freedom, impose news blackouts 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
colour 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 - was an obstruction to closer relations with NATO and
the United States. There were even voices - mine was one - that
suggested Mr. Putin join Slobodan Milosevic on trial in The Hague:
Let's do them both together. Well, goodbye to all that. In the
making of the great new coalition, Mr. Putin looks a saint by
comparison with some of his bedfellows.
Does anyone remember any more the outcry against
the perceived economic colonialism of the G8? Against the plundering
of the Third World by uncontrollable multinational companies?
Seattle, Prague 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.
Drag up Kyoto these days; you risk the charge of
being "anti-American." It's as if we have entered a
new Orwellian world where our personal reliability as comrades
in the struggle is measured by the degree to which we invoke the
past to explain the present. Suggesting there is a historical
context for the recent atrocities is, by implication, to make
excuses for them: Anyone who is with us doesn't do that; anyone
who does, is against us.
Ten years ago, I was making an idealistic bore
of myself by telling anyone who would listen, that with the Cold
War behind us, we were missing a never-to-be repeated chance to
transform the global community.
Where was the Marshall Plan? I pleaded. Why weren't
young men and women from the U.S. Peace Corps, Britain's Voluntary
Service overseas and their continental European equivalents pouring
into the former Soviet Union by the thousands?
Where was the world-class statesman and the man
of the hour, with the voice and vision to define for us the real,
if unglamorous, enemies of mankind: poverty, famine, slavery,
tyranny, drugs, bush-fire wars (racial and religious), intolerance,
Now thanks to Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants,
all our leaders are world-class statements, proclaiming distant
their voices and visions in distant airports while they feather
their electoral nests.
There has been unfortunate talk - and not only
from Silvio Berlusconi - of a "crusade." Crusade, of
course, implies a delicious ignorance of history. Was Mr. Berlusconi
really proposing to set free the holy places of Christendom and
smite the heathen? Was George W. Bush? And am I out of order in
recalling that we (Christians) actually lost the Crusades? But
all is well: Signor Berlusconi was misquoted and the presidential
reference is no longer operative.
Meanwhile, Mr. Blair's new role as America's fearless
spokesman continues apace. Mr. Blair speaks well because Mr. Bush
speaks badly. Seen from abroad, Mr. Blair in this partnership
is the inspired elder statesman with an unassailable domestic
power base, whereas Mr. Bush - dare one say it these days? - was
barely elected at all.
But what exactly does Mr. Blair, the elder statesman,
represent? Both he and the U.S. President at this moment are riding
high in their respective approval ratings, but both are aware,
if they know their history books, that riding high on Day One
of a perilous overseas military operation doesn't guarantee you
victory come election day.
How many American body bags can Mr. Bush sustain
without losing popular support? After the horrors of the Twin
Towers and the Pentagon, the American people may want revenge,
but they're on a very short fuse about shedding more American
Mr. Blair - with the whole Western world to tell
him so, except for a few sour voices back home - is America's
eloquent white knight, the fearless, trusty champion of that ever-delicate
child of the mid-Atlantic, the "Special Relationship."
Whether that will win Mr. Blair favour with his
electorate is another matter because the Prime Minister was elected
to save the country from decay, and not from Osama bin Laden.
The Britain he is leading to war is a monument to 60 years of
administrative incompetence. Our health, education and transport
systems are on the rocks. The fashionable phrase these days describes
them as "Third World," but there are places in the Third
World that are far better off than Britain.
The country Mr. Blair governs is blighted by institutionalized
racism, white male dominance, chaotically administered police
forces, a constipated judicial system, obscene private wealth
and shameful and unnecessary public poverty. At the time of his
re-election, which was characterized by a dismal turnout, Mr.
Blair acknowledged these ills and humbly admitted that he was
on notice to put them right.
So when you catch the noble throb in his voice
as he leads us reluctantly to war, and your heart lifts to his
undoubted flourishes of rhetoric, it's worth remembering that
he may also be warning you, sotto voce, that his mission to mankind
is so important that you will have to wait another year for your
urgent medical operation and a lot longer before you can ride
in a safe and punctual train. I am not sure that this is the stuff
of electoral victory three years from now. Watching Tony Blair,
and listening to him, I can't resist the impression that he is
in a bit of a dream, walking his own dangerous plank.
Did I say "war"? Has either Mr. Blair
or Mr. Bush, I wonder, ever seen a child blown to bits, or witnessed
the effect of a single cluster bomb dropped on an unprotected
refugee camp? It isn't necessarily a qualification for generalship
to have seen such dread things- and I don't wish either of them
the experience - but it scares me all the: same when I'll watch
uncut, political faces shining with the light of combat, and hear
preppy political vices steeling my heart for battle.
And please, Mr. Bush - on my knees, Mr. Blair -
keep God out of this. To imagine God fights wars is to credit
Him with the worst follies of mankind. God, if we know anything
about Him, which I don't profess to, prefers effective food drops,
dedicated medical teams, comfort and good tents for the homeless
and bereaved, and without strings, a decent acceptance of our
past sins and a readiness to put hem right. He prefers us less
greedy, less arrogant, less evangelical, and less dismissive of
It's not a new world order, not yet, and is not
God's war. It's a horrible, necessary, humiliating police action
to redress the failure of our intelligence services and our blind
political stupidity in arming and exploiting fanatics to fight
the Soviet invader, then abandoning them to a devastated, leaderless
country. As a result, it's our miserable duty to seek out and
punish a bunch of modern medieval religious zealots who will gain
mythic stature from the very death we propose to dish out to hem.
And when it's over, it won't be over. The shadowy
bin Laden armies, in the emotional aftermath of his destruction,
will gather numbers rather than wither away. So will the hinterland
of silent sympathizers who provide them with logistical support.
Cautiously, between the lines, we are being invited
to believe that the conscience of the West has been reawakened
to the dilemma of the poor and homeless of the Earth.
And possibly, out of fear, necessity and rhetoric,
a new sort of political morality has, indeed, been born. But when
the shooting dies and a seeming peace is thieved, will the
United States and its allies stay at their posts or, as happened
at the end of the Cold War, hang up their boots and go home to
their own back yards? Even if those back yards will never again
be the safe havens they once were.
*John Le Carre is the author of 18 novels, including
his most recent, The Constant Gardener.