In the grim days since last week's bombing of London, the bulk of Britain's political class and media has distinguished itself by a wilful and dangerous refusal to face up to reality. Just as it was branded unpatriotic in the US after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington to talk about the link with American policy in the Middle East, so those who have raised the evident connection between the London atrocities and Britain's role in Iraq and Afghanistan have been denounced as traitors. And anyone who has questioned Tony Blair's echo of George Bush's fateful words on September 11 that this was an assault on freedom and our way of life has been treated as an apologist for terror.
But while some allowance could be made in the American case for the shock of the attacks, the London bombings were one of the most heavily trailed events in modern British history. We have been told repeatedly since the prime minister signed up to Bush's war on terror that an attack on Britain was a certainty - and have had every opportunity to work out why that might be. Throughout the Afghan and Iraq wars, there has been a string of authoritative warnings about the certain boost it would give to al-Qaida-style terror groups. The only surprise was that the attacks were so long coming.
But when the newly elected Respect MP George Galloway - who might be thought to have some locus on the subject, having overturned a substantial New Labour majority over Iraq in a London constituency with a large Muslim population - declared that Londoners had paid the price of a "despicable act" for the government's failure to heed those warnings, he was accused by defense minister Adam Ingram of "dipping his poisonous tongue in a pool of blood". Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy was in the dock for a far more tentative attempt to question this suffocating consensus. Even Ken Livingstone, who had himself warned of the danger posed to London by an invasion of Iraq, has now claimed the bombings were nothing to do with the war - something he clearly does not believe.
A week on from the London outrage, this official otherworldliness is once again in full flood, as ministers and commentators express astonishment that cricket-playing British-born Muslims from suburbia could have become suicide bombers, while Blair blames an "evil ideology". The truth is that no amount of condemnation of evil and self-righteous resoluteness will stop terror attacks in the future. Respect for the victims of such atrocities is supposed to preclude open discussion of their causes in the aftermath - but that is precisely when honest debate is most needed.
The wall of silence in the US after the much greater carnage of 9/11 allowed the Bush administration to set a course that has been a global disaster. And there is little sense in London that the official attitude reflects the more uncertain mood on the streets. There is every need for the kind of public mourning that will take place in London today, along with concerted action to halt the backlash against Muslim Britons that claimed its first life in Nottingham at the weekend. But it is an insult to the dead to mislead people about the crucial factors fueling this deadly rage in Muslim communities across the world.
The first piece of disinformation long peddled by champions of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is that al-Qaida and its supporters have no demands that could possibly be met or negotiated over; that they are really motivated by a hatred of western freedoms and way of life; and that their Islamist ideology aims at global domination. The reality was neatly summed up this week in a radio exchange between the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, and its security correspondent, Frank Gardner, who was left disabled by an al-Qaida attack in Saudi Arabia last year. Was it the "very diversity, that melting pot aspect of London" that Islamist extremists found so offensive that they wanted to kill innocent civilians in Britain's capital, Marr wondered. "No, it's not that," replied Gardner briskly, who is better acquainted with al-Qaida thinking than most. "What they find offensive are the policies of western governments and specifically the presence of western troops in Muslim lands, notably Iraq and Afghanistan."
The central goal of the al-Qaida-inspired campaign, as its statements have regularly spelled out, is the withdrawal of US and other western forces from the Arab and Muslim world, an end to support for Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and a halt to support for oil-lubricated despots throughout the region. Those are also goals that unite an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere and give al-Qaida and its allies the chance to recruit and operate - in a way that their extreme religious conservatism or dreams of restoring the medieval caliphate never would. As even Osama bin Laden asked in his US election-timed video: if it was western freedom al-Qaida hated, "Why do we not strike Sweden?"
The second disinformation line peddled by government supporters since last week's bombings is that the London attacks had nothing to do with Iraq. The Labour MP Tony Wright insisted that such an idea was "not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense". Blair has argued that, since the 9/11 attacks predated the Iraq war, outrage at the aggression could not have been the trigger. It's perfectly true that Muslim anger over Palestine, western-backed dictatorships and the aftermath of the 1991 war against Iraq - US troops in Arabia and a murderous sanctions regime against Iraq - was already intense before 2001 and fueled al-Qaida's campaign in the 1990s. But that was aimed at the US, not Britain, which only became a target when Blair backed Bush's war on terror. Afghanistan made a terror attack on Britain a likelihood; Iraq made it a certainty.
We can't of course be sure of the exact balance of motivations that drove four young suicide bombers to strike last Thursday, but we can be certain that the bloodbath unleashed by Bush and Blair in Iraq - where a 7/7 takes place every day - was at the very least one of them. What they did was not "home grown", but driven by a worldwide anger at US-led domination and occupation of Muslim countries.
The London bombers were to blame for attacks on civilians that are neither morally nor politically defensible. But the prime minister - who was warned by British intelligence of the risks in the run-up to the war - is also responsible for knowingly putting his own people at risk in the service of a foreign power. The security crackdowns and campaign to uproot an "evil ideology" the government announced yesterday will not extinguish the threat. Only a British commitment to end its role in the bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to do that.
Seumas Milne is editor of the comment section in the Guardian.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited