The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 13, 2001
We have already lost
War on Terrorism: What victory can we
possibly achieve that matches the defeats
we have already suffered, let alone the
defeats that lie ahead? asks author
John Le Carre
By John Le Carre
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 semi-divine?
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 there are 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, greed?
Now thanks to Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, all our
leaders are world-class statesmen, 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
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
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 blood.
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
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
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
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
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 them
right. He prefers us less greedy, less arrogant, less
evangelical, and less dismissive of life's losers.
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 cur
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 them.
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 witherway. So will the
hinterland of silent sympathizers who provide them with
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 backyards? Even if those backyards
will never be the safe havens they once were.
John le Carre is the author of 18 novels, including his most
recent, The Constant Gardener.