Published on Thursday, March 18, 2004 by the Guardian/UK
Welcome to the Titanic
The West is Falling Apart After Europe's 9/11, Just as it did After America's
by Timothy Garton Ash
So when London is bombed by al-Qaida will you blame Tony Blair? If we're to stay free, in a dangerous world, we need to think straighter than that. A week, to the day, after the Madrid bombings, and a year, to the day, after Blair made his passionate case to the House of Commons for participating in the American-led war on Iraq, we have to recognize that two things can both be true: 1) Blair was wrong to take us to war on Iraq, which has not helped us defeat al-Qaida; 2) Blair is right to warn us that we are all threatened by an Islamist terrorism which predates the Iraq war, which would target us even if we were not in Iraq, and which will be encouraged by the promised Spanish retreat from Iraq. And al-Qaida associates will chalk that up as a triumph for their attack on Madrid.
Not just Britain but all other European countries, and the United States, are floundering in the confusion between these two things. This has been a terrible week for what remains of the west. After a few moments of moving solidarity - the great demonstrations in Spain, the three minutes' silence observed right across Europe - we have again tumbled into bitter disarray. That happened within months of America's 9/11, as Europeans and Americans disagreed on how to respond to the assault launched by Osama bin Laden. Now it's happened within days of Europe's 9/11.
Rightwing American commentators charge Spanish voters with "appeasement". This is crass. More than three-quarters of the Spanish electorate turned out for a massive defense of democracy in the face of terror. Every single Spanish voter was a soldier in the "war on terror". They voted different ways for all sorts of reasons. Historically, high turn-outs have favored the left. Some of the former communist electorate voted tactically for the socialists. Many swing voters punished the conservative government of José María Aznar for initially attributing the attacks to the Basque terrorist organization Eta. And, yes, some emotionally blamed him for having made Spain a more likely terrorist target by supporting Bush's war on Iraq. But to say that this vote adds up to "appeasement" is a stupid slur.
So far as the Spanish voters' intentions are concerned, the election result was not subjectively a victory for al-Qaida. But it is, as Marxists used to say, an objective victory for al-Qaida. The Madrid bombings look likely to do exactly what a message posted on a radical Islamist website months ago said they should do: exploit the election moment to knock Spain out of the "Crusader-Zionist" coalition in Iraq. Conclusion: terror works.
The problem has been compounded by a disastrous first press conference by Spain's new socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who is long on names but short on experience. It would, of course, have been quite wrong for him to renege on his election promises: including one to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless a full UN mandate radically changes the character of the occupation. However, the vehement tone in which he repeated his criticism of Anglo-American policy in Iraq, talking of a war based on "lies" and calling for "self-criticism" by Blair and Bush, was suited to a pre-bombing election rally but not to a statesman assuming the leadership of a nation now in the frontline of an international defense of freedom against Islamist terror. "You can't just go and bomb people," said Mr Zapatero. The bombs he was referring to were not the al-Qaida bombs that had just massacred his own people but American bombs dropped on Iraq a year ago. It was almost as if Bush and Blair had planted the bomb at the Atocha station.
As a result, Americans are again denouncing lily-livered Europeans, France is quietly celebrating the return of Spain to "old Europe", and everybody is squabbling about Bush and Iraq instead of confronting, together, today's threats to our freedoms. Like the Bourbons, we have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.
Here are a few of the things we should be talking about, instead. One of the men who is alleged to be behind the Madrid bombing, Jamal Zougam, was living in Spain under investigation by the police or intelligence services of at least three nations - Spain, France and Morocco. Why didn't they work out what he was up to? How can we improve police and intelligence cooperation across Europe and across the Atlantic? What changes should we all accept? I think, for example, that we should now have identity cards, to be carried at all times. And what kind of limitations to civil liberties should we never accept? Answer: Guantánamo, or any European equivalents.
How can we make Muslims feel more at home in Europe, thus draining the swamp in which terrorist mosquitoes breed? We have at least 12 million Muslims in the European Union already. The vast majority of them are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, horrified by such acts, but a significant minority are also impoverished, unemployed, alienated. To meet them, you have only to hang around one of the small squares in the Lavapies neighborhood of Madrid, which was a haunt of Jamal Zougam. I remember talking there to a 20-year old, unemployed, illegal Moroccan immigrant, who told me that "the Jews" were probably responsible for the attack on the twin towers in New York. He admitted frankly to earning his living by petty crime, since, he said, he could not get the papers required to work.
How do we integrate such Muslim immigrants into our societies? By telling their daughters they can't wear headscarves at school? A group calling itself the Servants of Allah has just sent an open letter to the French prime minister, denouncing the veil ban as "a declaration of war to the Muslim world". Yet to retreat in the face of such threats is bad, too.
Then there's the whole agenda of reform in the wider Middle East, from Morocco to Iran. Yes, we should have started with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida, rather than Iraq. Nothing much will happen on this front until after the American presidential elections, but on November 5 Europe should be on the telephone to the president-elect - whether he's called Kerry or Bush - saying with one voice: that's what you have to do next.
A year after we invaded Iraq, we may wish we had not. Even if a sober analysis suggests that the Bush administration would probably have done it anyway, we may blame Blair for so enthusiastically going along. But now we're there, it would be criminal, self-lacerating folly for anyone to wish that the democratic reconstruction of Iraq should fail. We Europeans have an even more vital interest in that than the Americans do.
These are just a few of the things we should be talking about. But we're not. They say the band carried on playing as the Titanic went down. Well, we're not holed yet; we've just been brushed by a small iceberg. But the look-outs and the crew are all staring at the bridge, where the Spanish first lieutenant is having a stand-up row with his British mate, the Italian cook is badmouthing the American engineer, and the French midshipman is admiring himself in the mirror, while much larger icebergs loom ahead.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004