Thursday, 23 March 2017

On Westminster Bridge...

"The world has not anything to shew more fair," wrote William Wordsworth after returning to his London lodgings from Westminster Bridge.

What the poet saw on that early September morning in 1803 is warmly described in the remaining thirteen lines of his sonnet.

His poem came to mind after I watched the television news about the killings and injuries inflicted on Westminster Bridge and inside the grounds of the Palace of Westminster by Khalid Masood, a follower of IS. Islamic State reportedly called him "a soldier of Islam". And that's maybe how he saw himself as he drove the car towards his target, justifying to his conscience what he intended to do.

IS and all the other jihadist righteous brothers bent on annihilating infidels make a great deal out of putting the love of god beyond all other considerations. Their interpretation of struggle embraces self-sacrifice and murder; the taking of life is their ticket to paradise.

I have remarked before on the absolving attraction of fatalism for those who find modern life fearful, complicated and demanding. Removing all responsibility from yourself, and hence culpability for what you do, is not simply the behaviour of the religious fanatic of a particular kind: throughout history it has been the mark of every zealot.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper gave a name to this kind of depersonalised idealism: historicism. Only he had in mind not Muslims of a certain stripe, but Marxists, at least those who worshipped the trinity of Marx-Engels and Lenin, for whom the grand march of history, irrespective of human cost, over-ruled every other consideration. "One death is a tragedy: a millions deaths is a statistic," said that great 20th Century cynic Joseph Stalin.

Stalin was many other things as well, but he best fits Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: One who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

That could be applied to the bearded leaders of IS, the Taliban and other jihadist movements, though one has to say, if paradise is as desirable as they claim why don't they offer themselves as suicide foot-soldiers? In the various forms of Christianity a martyr gives his own life to save the life of others, not take it. The embodiment of this belief, as reality and symbol, is Jesus Christ.

Whether or not the people in the vicinity of Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon were practicing Christians doesn't matter. In the confusion and terror of the moment it is what those people did that counts. I saw the television-footage of people running towards those who lay on the bridge; I heard the same exclamations that I heard when the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center imploded on the morning of September 11, 2001: "Oh my god, oh my god, my god, Jesus Christ."

Today I was deeply touched by some of the sentiments expressed both inside and outside the House of Commons. All the big talk about liberty, democracy, tolerance belonged to yesterday in the ambiguous aftermath of ill-reported events. Realistically, you wouldn't expect anything else. Today I didn't hear many big words. Instead the talk was of ordinary people getting on with life, staying together, helping each other. Practicing curmudgeon that I am, my heart said yes to that although my mind remains on alert for the usual excuse that such attacks are a reaction to Islamophobia. I have been hearing that since the burning of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses in Bradford in 1989.

I could have taken the entirely cynical view that what happened in Westminister was a beneficial crisis as a result of which all manner of restrictions and curtailments of personal freedom would be justified by the authorities as a necessary part of the continuing war on terror.

This, by the way, was the very theme of three BBC film documentaries made in 2004 that I watched yesterday and the day before. The Power of Nightmares contended that ever since the United States aided the Mujahideen insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a symbiotic relationship has developed between neoconservatist and liberal values in the West and Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The power and influence of both relied on creating and maintaining a climate of fear.

It was asserted, for example, that the idea of an international network of Islamic terrorists called Al Qaeda, ready and willing to rise up and strike the West at the behest of Osama Bin Laden and others was a phantasy deliberately connived and perpetuated by politicians in Washington and London.

In the blood-light of the bombings, shootings, car-kills and stabbings all over the world after 2004, including those in London in July 2005 and May 2013, that thesis sounds specious.    

More convincing to me was Antonia Bird's 2004 film The Hamburg Cell, a dramatisation of the recruitment of the 9/11 jihadists in Germany and their subsequent undercover training as pilots in the United States. Reportedly made after two years of research, the film showed that an extensive network of jihadists did indeed exist. This network supplied money, equipment, ideological support and auxiliary backup. The men chosen to fly the planes were all encouraged to believe fervantly that they were heading for paradise. The American Airlines jet planes would be their firey angels, their chariots of fire, carrying them to everlasting bliss.

The Power of Nightmares ends with a summary statement to the effect that fear of a phantiom enemy is all that politicians have left to assert their power and influence. A society that believes in nothing is more liable to be frightened of people who believe ardently in something.

Up to a point Lord Copper. A year ago today a dear friend of mind died. Lesley and I were on our way to London on the morning of his death at home, a place we had come to love. This man, John Pashley, always professed to be an atheist. But in terms of his behaviour in the lives of others he was a practitioner of the values of the Sermon on the Mount. From what I saw and heard on television, I would say the same applies to the people on and around Westminster Bridge yesterday.

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