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Monsters nevertheless

Too much of the left has looked for excuses for 11 September, writes Pete Smith.

I was at home on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 September. I felt a bit odd earlier in the day and so I delayed eating just in case. As I finished off a late lunch, flicking through the cable channels to avoid starting the work I had to do, work which I did not start, never mind complete on that day. I came across CNN and saw the picture of one of the twin towers in flames. I had been to the World Trade Center and I had stood on the observation deck, with some trepidation since I am not a heights person. Voice-overs were speculating about whether it was a failure in navigation systems when the second plane hove into view hitting the other tower.

I have never seen anything like it on live TV. I was watching people being torn apart, crushed to death or turned to ashes before my eyes. Needless to say, I set my sandwich aside. There was worse to come as people jumped to certain death rather than face the fate of being burnt alive. At least two leapt to their doom holding hands. Maybe that gave them the strength to leap into oblivion (or perhaps to paradise), rather than be cooked alive by blazing aviation fuel.

Then the towers started to collapse. When I was a kid I had a building kit (with real miniature bricks) that allowed you to build structures using a mortar which was a water-soluble paste. When I got bored with what I had built (mainly castles, forts and block houses for my toy soldiers), I just put them into water in the sink and the building crumbled and dissolved into its component parts. That is what I saw.

Only later in the evening did the story become clearer. The crushed fire tenders and the ambulances without crews. In the era of mobile telephones the last words of so many on the planes or in the buildings were recorded. Nobody had a cellphone on the way into the gas chamber and maybe we should be grateful for that.

Whole ladders of firefighters dead. Because the New York Fire Department and the Police Department are family, in more ways than one, the destruction of human life was not random: brothers and fathers and sons dead. On the lists, so many Irish and Italian names among the firefighters. Lots of blacks, Latinos as well as Irish and Italians among the cops. To borrow a phrase from John Lennon, a working class hero is something to be. And we saw plenty of them on that Tuesday. I cannot imagine that I will ever forget 11 September 2001.I knew how I had to respond. I helped organise the three minutes silence at myplace of work. I am not an American apologist. Whether in south-east Asia, in the Middle East or over the new missile defence, I have always been in the right, that is on the left.

Tony Parsons in The Mirror, summed up the problem for those who have always been sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people. '"Did you see the yuppies flying out of the windows of the Trade Center?" laughed a young man outside a mosque in North London. "That was so funny.'" And I can't tell that young man how angry he makes me feel. And I can't tell him how wrong he is and I can't explain that there are many of us who have been sickened by the slaughter of Palestinian children, who will probably now care a little less about the injustices of the Middle East now that we have an injustice of our own, now that we know that young man would be amused if our own loved ones were burned alive, buried in rubble, torn to bits.'

The scandal on the left is that inveterate anti-Americanism, confused pacifism and unwillingness to face up to hard choices has led some to opt for excuses for what happened. Scratch the surface and there might be some grim satisfaction. The Yanks have finally got their comeuppance.

Let us parade the usual suspects. In its editorial, the New Statesman, a journal which will swallow any enormity committed by 'New' Labour on the domestic front, let the cat out of the bag on 17 September: 'American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well yes and no: yes, because large-scale carnage is beyond justification, since it can never distinguish between innocent and the guilty; no, because Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries at least have the privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favour of a different order. If the United States often seems a greedy and overweening power that is partly because its people have willed it. They preferred George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader.'

Vote the wrong way and you get turned into dust in a landfill on Staten Island! The moral bankruptcy of this is one thing, but worst is the ignorance. More people who voted in November 2000 voted for Gore than Bush. America is a democracy (if not a perfect one) and that is the reason why America must and will take action against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's networks. American public officials cannot shrug off the events of 11 September any more than they could compromise over Pearl Harbor. The people could not and would not let them. Implacability is actually one of the prices we pay for democracy. Gore or Nader would be in the same fix as Bush and would end up taking roughly the same action. As the Romans used to say (sometimes) the voice of the people is the voice of God.

Writing in the New Statesman of 8 October, Mark Thomas, a humourist I admire, manages the easy escape. With one mighty bound our hero was free. Seven thousand or more people dead (once we include undocumented workers who have just disappeared without trace). But let us shift the terms of debate. America has behaved badly in Colombia, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Bin Laden is America's creature: their Frankenstein's monster. All this is true. It reminds me of the story (most likely apocryphal) of the visit by fellow-travelling railway engineers to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Over a long period they are shown track, engine sheds and stations, but at one point one of the party asks the guide: 'Why have we not seen any locomotives on the tracks?' To which the guide replies, 'Yes, but what about the oppression of the negro in the United States?'

Not everyone on the left has gone down this line. Salman Rushdie has made the point: 'to excuse the atrocity by blaming US government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their own actions.'

In contrast, Noam Chomsky who is, mistakenly, often understood as a figure on the left, bleats 'again we understand, or refuse to do so, contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies ahead'. Of course, the same person spoke out against action against Serbia, which was being bullied by the West. Ironic, of course, that mass murderer Milosevic claimed that his genocidal policy was right because Osama bin Laden was being protected by the Bosnian government. Square that circle. Chomsky is so hostile to his own country that he cannot bring himself to admit that America might be right under any circumstances. George Orwell identified this tendency amongst the left in the 1930s: a refusal to recognise that witch-hunts are justifiable when there are real witches.

I do not often turn to The Spectator, or to the works of Mark Steyn for guidance, but on this occasion he got it right. 'Faced with the enormity of 11 September the pacifist left has done what it always does - smother the issues in generalities and abstractions - though never on such an epic scale. On that sunny Tuesday morning, at least seven thousand people died - real, living men and women and children with families and street addresses and telephone numbers. But the language of the pacifists - for all its ostensible compassion - dehumanises these individuals. They're no longer flight attendants and firemen and waitresses and bond dealers, but only an abstract blur in some theatrical equation - not yet "collateral damage" (the phrase they love to mock the militarists for) but certainly collateral.'

In contrast, some of the left have been prepared to speak up. The New Statesman may have proved a disgrace, but Tribune has done its best to provide differing points of view. Steve Platt wrote: 'There was a rush to comment, before the dust of the twin towers had even begun to settle on Manhattan, that made me cringe at the conduct of some of my comrades.'

Christopher Hitchens has expressed it well, and he cannot be described as right wing in any realistic way, writing in The Spectator, labelling the 'anti-war left' in these terms: 'I have no hesitation in describing this mentality, carefully and without heat, as soft on crime and soft on fascism. No political coalition is possible with such people and, I'm thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think.'

In Tribune, Paul Anderson commented: 'The mainstream left response to the September 11 attacks in Britain, as elsewhere, was one of horror at the inhumanity of the terrorists and sympathy for the victims. A handful of cretino Leninists and anti-globalisation activists - and to its eternal shame the New Statesman - celebrated imperialist Amerika getting its comeuppance at the hands of the oppressed, but these were marginal voices, as they deserve to remain.'

Of course it is the case that Bin Laden is a product of the Cold War, the unthinking and unreflective willingness of those in the West to use any stone to break their enemy's head. The creature has now arisen from the slab of the good Doctor Frankenstein and is wreaking the havoc that we know from the old story. The monsters may be our monsters (in one way or another), but they are monsters nevertheless. We must break them or they will break us.


November/December 2001