FOR the thinking student of history, in all its ugly ramifications, the forty days since the tragedy of September 11 have provided much food for thought, and worse: sustenance for old and unfashionable theories.
Not for the first time, the Americans have become the victims of their own cruel complacency, and they are now a deeply disturbed -- and, beneath the surface, divided -- nation.
Ordinary Americans are quietly uneasy about what their hillbilly President is letting them in for. Is it going to be Vietnam or Mogadishu all over again? The U.S. forces, which on a conventional battlefield are among the finest in the world, face an unequal enemy, one who unaccountably refuses to follow the game-rules that the Americans have ordained. The Americans wanted to play Monopoly, and their unknown and faceless enemy is playing gangland chess.
This has led to the spectacle of a President, who certainly never expected to be confronting a challenge of this intellectual magnitude when he finagled his way into the White House last November, thoughtlessly committing a series of normally unthinkable but historic solecisms:
he has declared a war without obtaining the formal consent of the Congress, itself an impeachable offence in U.S. law; he has attacked a foreign country singled out seemingly at random -- because to have a real war you have to have a tangible enemy, and the killers of the Twin Towers never left their calling card; he has put a price on the head of a leading foreigner, although the assassination of foreigners is an action already framed as illegal by the fiat of one of his most recent predecessors, and violates every one of the tenets which great American jurists like Robert H Jackson fought to establish in the courts at Nuremberg; he has ignored, too, that if ever there was a task for the United Nations to tackle, rather than for the aggrieved party that the United States now is, it is this war on global terrorism. While President George W Bush's air forces are expensively bombing yet another primitive country back into the Stone Age, he himself is pegging back the cause of international law to an epoch before the birth of Nazi Germany.
WE have been keeping our own website's unremitting glare turned on the events in the skies above Shanksville on September 11, as being symptomatic of this administration's honesty with its own people, and its steadfastness of purpose.
On this and other issues, we must ask however, where are the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalists of the North American press? Why are they not asking these and other awkward questions? Not for the first time, they have snuggled up to a president's feet and morphed into his poodles.
In one toe-curling moment, TV "anchorman" Tom Brocaw even enthused about the presidential oratory before Congress, and predicted that the speech would be seen as one of the greatest of the century.
I saw one British journalist ask Defence Minister Geoff Hoon the uncomfortable question: "What was the cost of yesterday's operations to the British economy?" (Hoon shifted uncomfortably, and easily glided on to something else). None of these journalists dares to ask an impertinent question -- let alone The Real History Question: "Why?" -- or to step out of their own self-imposed line.
We appreciate that in a real war, all the forces and estates of government must unite behind their country's leadership; but this is not a real war, it is a phony war declared on a fraudulent pretext against an impoverished country against whom President Bush has not volunteered even the most the flimsiest of proofs.
President Bush has accused the Muslim cleric, Osama bin Laden, of masterminding the entire campaign which has humiliated the great United States. It is on the face of it unlikely that this is one man's war. That fanatical gentleman has however, while not coming anywhere near to confessing to his part in the bombings, suggested three reasons why those nineteen men did what they did: all of them were evidently Muslims, and most of them Saudis (and none of them Afghanis).
Afghanistan, quite rightly in our view, declared its readiness to hand over, i.e. to extradite, Bin Laden to an international court of justice, but only if presented with prima facie proof of his guilt. It is what any magistrate's court in pre-Blairite Britain would also demand.
It should not have been so difficult: Bush has ostensibly entrusted such proof to his blandest ally, Tony Blair in London (but not to his own U.S. population, which is what entitles us, and Kabul for that matter, to harbour suspicions).
Osama bin Laden spiked that soup for the White House. He arranged for a video piиce justificative to be broadcast on CNN a few hours after the U.S. attack began. It was ironic that no sooner had CNN broadcast this and allowed Bin Laden his propaganda coup, than the Bush regime, challenging the very freedom which all Americans most cherish, prevailed upon the main news channels never again to show such "enemy" videos (on the very dubious pretext that the Arabic text, even when translated into mediocre English, might contain some hidden-language instructions to more terror-agents on US soil).
So what was the explicit message that Bin Laden presented, in his tortuous and unctuous language? He offered three answers to the question Why. He stated the same reasons for the assault of September 11 that any highschool boy, properly munitioned with the truth, could immediately have spelt out, even before the blazing Twin Towers had collapsed:
Muslims are angered by the illegal American and British ten-year blockade of Iraq, which has led to the deaths of half a million innocent children; Muslims are frustrated with the blind American support and arming of the bullying Nazi regime in Israel and its terrorising of the long-suffering Palestinian people; Muslims are enraged by the American "infidel's" military and commercial presence in Saudi Arabia, home of their holiest shrines. Until these three basic causes of Muslim anger are confronted, there will be no peace for the Americans, and they will drag much of the rest of the civilized world into a slough of misery. But none of the American people is being provided with a complete set of facts to ponder on. The media seem to be joined in a silent conspiracy to avoid asking the W-Question.
Why did the nineteen intelligent and virile young Muslims, with everything to live for, choose to die a violent death instead and tear thousands of innocent strangers into that Moloch along with them? Whatever we may think of the evilness and immorality of the corporate structures that infested the Twin Towers, and indeed, some corridors of the Pentagon, there can be no doubt of the individual innocence of the thousands who died --- just as those who were burned alive in Dresden, Wuppertal, and Pforzheim were innocent, or those incinerated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or blitzed in London and Coventry.
IT is eternally the Why that powers the What, the happening. Why did Adolf Hitler invade Poland in 1939? Why did the Japanese turn against the United States and British Empire? Why did the Estonians and Latvians and Lithuanians, and the S.S. and their cohorts, line up the Jews on the edge of tank ditches in the Baltic States in 1941 and shoot them to death? Why why, why! To look for an explanation is not the same as seeking a justification. A crime is always fundamentally explicable, even when it is not justifiable.
That brings us back to Lower Manhattan, to the unforgettable lifetime-spectacle of the collapsing Twin Towers, and the faces pressed against the windows of the upper floors -- the floors above the inferno, the floors from which there could be no escape (although I still wonder why, in the ninety minutes that the drama lasted, no attempts were made with helicopters to lift people off the viewing platforms on the flat roofs: That too is a Why question, but a Why bound up within a much larger Why: Why did they do it, those nineteen young men?)
Nobody seems willing to ask, in case explanation is mistaken for justification.
Part of the answer is obvious, as is evident from the guilty speed with which Mayor Rudi Giuliani flung back the ten-million dollar cheque at the Saudi prince who wrote it to benefit the city's victims, before having the audacity to suggest his own answer: U.S. foreign policy was to blame. So the prince tactfully put it. Yes indeed. The Emperor had no clothes. That was it all along. But that was an explanation that stuck in the much-lauded mayor's craw, even at a price tag of ten million dollars for the needy orphans and widows, and he returned the cheque. He knows where his votes come from.
WHEN I heard of that episode, I ceased to muse on cause and effect, and I began to think about pride, prejudice, and price. How much, what figure, would the Saudi prince have had to write on that cheque to make it irresistible to the City of New York? How many zeroes would have entitled him to suggest that U.S. foreign policy lay behind the crime of September 11, and to force Rudi to swallow it?
Everybody's pride, I mused, even Rudi Giuliani's, even New York City's, has a price -- a figure on that cheque which would have caused even His Holiness the Mayor to gulp and say, Well, on balance I guess we're going to have to allow His Royal Highness to make his comment on the reason Why.
Many years ago, I recalled, while staying with my late agent Max Becker in New York (may God rest his soul) I stumbled by accident across a public-access television channel, broadcasting some hours after the midnight watershed -- I think it was Channel 49. It had a programme produced by a TV personality called Ugly George, who visibly lived up to his name.
The compulsiveness, nay repulsiveness, of that programme lay in its premise that everybody has his (or in this case, her) price. He took a camera team into Fifth Avenue in the evening, as the office girls poured out of the skyscrapers, zeroed in on one of the most comely of them, and then offered her a steadily increasing sum of cash to perform a lewd act for the camera's benefit. At first of course she indignantly refused. But every girl, so it seemed to the camera anyway, had her price. Once the greenbacks had been thumbed out in a thick enough wad in front of her, she willingly enacted whatever Ugly George commanded of her: Once the price was right.
Yes, New York had an ugly side, and it still has, and most of us know what it is, and nobody dares call it by its name. The Americans prefer to take fresh terror into account, on whatever front these obviously fearless, intelligent, and flexible enemies may choose, rather than face up to the reason Why.