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If Osama bin Laden did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. For the past four years, his name has been invoked whenever a US president has sought to increase the defence budget or wriggle out of arms control treaties. He has been used to justify even President Bush’s missile defence programme, though neither he nor his associates are known to possess anything approaching ballistic missile technology. Now he has become the personification of evil required to launch a crusade for good; the face behind the faceless terror.
The closer you look, the weaker the case against bin Laden becomes. While the terrorists who inflicted Tuesday’s dreadful wound in the world may have been inspired by him, there is, as yet, no evidence that they were instructed by him. Bin Laden’s presumed guilt rests on the supposition that he is the sort of man who would have done it. But his culpability is irrelevant: his usefulness to western governments lies in his power to terrify. When billions of pounds of military spending are at stake, rogue states and terrorist warlords become assets precisely because they are liabilities.
By using bin Laden as an excuse for demanding new military spending, weapons manufacturers in America and Britain have enhanced his iconic status among the disgruntled. His influence, in other words, has been nurtured by the very industry which claims to possess the means of stamping him out. This is not the only way in which the new terrorism crisis has been exacerbated by corporate power.
The lax airport security which enabled the hijackers to smuggle weapons onto the planes was the result of corporate lobbying against the stricter controls the government had proposed. Some reports suggest that so many died in the south tower of the World Trade Centre partly because some of the companies there instructed their employees to return to work after the north tower had been hit.
Now Tuesday’s horror is being used by corporations to establish the preconditions for an even deadlier brand of terror. This week, while the world’s collective back is turned, Tony Blair intends to allow the mixed oxide plant at Sellafield to start operating. The decision would have been front page news at any other time. Now it’s likely to be all but invisible. The plant’s operation, long demanded by the nuclear industry and resisted by almost everyone else, will lead to a massive proliferation of plutonium, and a near certainty that some of it will find its way into the hands of terrorists. Like Ariel Sharon, in other words, Blair is using the reeling world’s shock to pursue policies which would be unacceptable at any other time.
For these reasons and many others, radical opposition has seldom been more necessary. But it has seldom been more vulnerable. The right is seizing the political space which has opened up where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre once stood.
Civil liberties are suddenly negotiable. The US seems prepared to lift its ban on extra-judicial executions carried out abroad by its own agents. The CIA might be permitted to employ human rights abusers once more, which will doubtless mean training and funding a whole new generation of bin Ladens. The British government is considering the introduction of identity cards. Radical dissenters in Britain have already been identified as terrorists by the Terrorism Act 2000. Now we’re likely to be treated as such.
One of the peculiar problems we radicals face is that the targets of Tuesday’s terror represented more clearly than any others the powers we have long opposed. For those of us who have campaigned against the predatory behaviour of the financial sector and the defence industry, the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon had come to symbolise all that was rotten in the state of the world. So, though ours is a movement built on peace, it has not been hard for our opponents to equate our dissidence with terror.
The authoritarianism which has long been lurking in advanced capitalism has started to surface. In the Guardian yesterday, William Shawcross — Rupert Murdoch’s courteous biographer — articulated the new orthodoxy: America is, he maintained, “a beacon of hope for the world’s poor and dispossessed and for all those who believe in freedom of thought and deed”. These believers would presumably include the families of the Iraqis killed by the sanctions Britain and the US have imposed; the peasants murdered by Bush’s proxy war in Colombia; and the tens of millions living under despotic regimes in the Middle East, sustained and sponsored by the United States.
William Shawcross concluded by suggesting that “we are all Americans now”, a terrifying echo of Pinochet’s maxim that “we are all Chileans now”: by which he meant that no cultural distinctions would be tolerated, and no indigenous land rights recognised. Shawcross appeared to suggest that those who question American power are now the enemies of democracy. It’s a different way of formulating the warning voiced by members of the Bush administration: “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”.
The Daily Telegraph has set aside part of its leader column for a directory of “useful idiots”, by which it means those who oppose major military intervention. Doubtless I will find my name on the roll of honour there tomorrow. So, perhaps, will the families of some of the victims, who seem to be rather more capable of restraint and forgiveness than the leader writers of the rightwing press. Mark Newton-Carter, whose brother appears to have died in the terrorist outrage, told one of the Sunday newspapers, “I think Bush should be caged at the moment. He is a loose cannon. He is building up his forces getting ready for a military strike. That is not the answer. Gandhi said: ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’ and never a truer word was spoken.” But when the right is on the rampage, victims as well as perpetrators are trampled.
Mark Twain once observed that “there are some natures which never grow large enough to speak out and say a bad act is a bad act, until they have inquired into the politics or the nationality of the man who did it.” The radical left is able to state categorically that Tuesday’s terrorism was a dreadful act, irrespective of provenance. But the right can’t bring itself to make the same statement about Israel’s new invasions of Palestine, or the sanctions in Iraq, or the US-backed terror in East Timor, or the carpet bombing of Cambodia. Its critical faculties have long been suspended and now, it demands, we must suspend ours too.
Retaining the ability to discriminate between good acts and bad acts will become ever harder over the next few months, as new conflicts and paradoxes challenge our preconceptions. It may be that a convincing case against bin Laden is assembled, whereupon his forced extradition would, I feel, be justified. But, unless we wish to help George Bush use barbarism to defend the “civilisation” he claims to represent, we on the left must distinguish between extradition and extermination.
Tuesday’s terror may have signalled the beginning of the end of globalisation. The recession it has doubtless helped to precipitate, coupled with a new and understandable fear among many Americans of engagement with the outside world, could lead to a reactionary protectionism in the United States, which is likely to provoke similar responses on this side of the Atlantic. We will, in these circumstances, have to be careful not to celebrate the demise of corporate globalisation, if it merely gives way to something even worse.
The governments of Britain and America are using the disaster in New York to reinforce the very policies which have helped to cause the problem: building up the power of the defence industry, preparing to launch campaigns of the kind which inevitably kill civilians, licensing covert action. Corporations are securing new resources to invest in instability. Racists are attacking Arabs and Muslims and blaming liberal asylum policies for terrorism. As a result of the horror on Tuesday, the right in all its forms is flourishing, and we are shrinking. But we must not be cowed. Dissent is most necessary just when it is hardest to voice.
(Originally published in the Guardian 18th September 2001. Reprinted with permission from the author.)
George Monbiot’s book Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain is now published in paperback.