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Tuesday, July 07, 2015 

The banality of grief.

At times, it's interesting to note just what gets reported widely and what doesn't.  At the weekend, the BBC went fairly big on the release of a video from Islamic State apparently showing the execution of a group of Syrian soldiers in the ancient amphitheatre of Palmyra. The response from Syria's head on antiquities to a previous execution in the amphitheatre had been to stress how using "the Roman theatre to execute people proves that these people are against humanity".  I'll let you, dear reader, work through the various shades of irony contained in that short of a statement.

Reported to a far lesser extent was a video released by Islamic State at the end of last month.   This consisted of not one, not two, but three separate executions of men from the city of Mosul in Iraq, accused in the video of being spies for the government.  Attired in those orange jumpsuits that were originally meant to point to the injustice of the extrajudicial detention by the United States of alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, individuals from these groups of men confessed to their "crime" on camera.  The first group were led to a car in a desert wasteland and chained together inside, unable to escape.  A masked man then fired a rocket propelled grenade at his unmissable target.  The second group were chained together inside a cage, similar to the one the Jordanian pilot was burned to death in.  This time, the cage was slowly lowered by crane into a swimming pool, as cameras underneath the water filmed the men struggling desperately for life.  The third group were led into an area of similar desert to where the first execution was carried out, and told to kneel.  Explosives were then daisy-chained around their necks.  The charges detonated, all but one of the men were decapitated, their heads flying in the direction of the camera.

Recording the committing of atrocities for both propaganda and terroristic purposes is not of course new.  Islamic extremists have been doing so since the early 90s, and Mexican drug cartels took up the practice more recently; Hitler had the prolonged, agonising execution by hanging with piano wire of some of those involved in the von Stauffenberg plot filmed.  Islamic State has however taken it to a whole new level; beheadings and shots to the back of the head have been relegated in favour of asking followers on social media for ideas on how to kill those whom have fallen into their clutches.  Whether the practice is in fact counter-productive is difficult to weigh: certainly anyone who isn't a conservative Sunni knows full well what possibly awaits them should IS continue their march in both Syria and Iraq.  It might further encourage those determined to resist to do so until the very end; alternatively, as we saw in Mosul itself, many will choose instead to flee at the first sign of an attack.

Why the Mosul video wasn't as widely reported as others we can but guess at.  There are only so many depictions of man's inhumanity to man that audiences can stomach in a short period, without either switching off in disgust or becoming desensitised to it.  Reporting of conflicts other than Israel/Palestine which we ourselves have little or no apparent stake in is often fragmentary at best, especially when budgets continue to decline and insurance premiums correspondingly increase; the war in Yemen, despite being an extension of the proxy war being fought in Syria between Saudia Arabia, Qatar and others against Iran has been practically ignored.  Massacres via Saudi airstrike like yesterday's are barely remarked upon.  Alternatively, it's also the case we long stopped caring about the people of Iraq, who have suffered through 25 years of various Western interventions, to which can be added another 10 if you include the initial support given to Saddam's war against Iran.

Today we remembered the horror of 7/7.  For me, at least, what followed cannot properly be separated from that day, and some of the statements from politicians and also members of the public smack frankly of either faulty memories or outright revisionism.  Perhaps the closest to the reality came from the then 14-year-old Emma Craig, who survived the Aldgate bomb: "Quite often people say 'It didn't break us, terrorism won't break us'. The fact is, it may not have broken London, but it did break some of us."  It's certainly nearer the truth than the fantasy vision some have conjured up or want there to be of this rainbow city, together grieving in solidarity, coming out stronger, "an international crossroads of diversity and ingenuity, tolerance and respect, challenge and opportunity."

Like it or not, fear pervaded London for quite some time, as did suspicion if not outright questioning, even loathing of ordinary Muslims going about their business.  Most of that fear was real and palpable; some of it was encouraged by a media that decided an attack had been inevitable, and by politicians who were ready to respond to it in the most inflammatory way they could.  An entirely innocent man lost his life as a result not just of the fear and paranoia the attack and then subsequent failed attack engendered, but also due to the incompetence and unaccountability of the Met, defended by all sides regardless of their failings.  Tony Blair declared the rules of the game had changed, and launched straight into trying to detain "terrorist suspects" for up to three months, amongst other reforms that diluted hard-won freedoms and liberties.  Blair's worst instincts about the threat were expanded upon by the previous government, which now requires nurseries to ensure children of pre-school age are not being radicalised.  The security services that fail, as they always have and always will to prevent attacks despite having previous knowledge of the perpetrators, continue to demand ever increasing powers while insisting that the threat is as high, if not higher than ever.

The awful truth is that ever since 9/11 the wrong targets have been chosen for the response.  Rather than confront the sources of extremist Salafi Islam in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, something that would have required a complete change of mindset and allies, groups rather than the ideology was gone after.  You cannot destroy an ideology, but you can cut off its funding and affect how it is spread.  Little to no attempt was made to do so.  Al-Qaida has without doubt a been decimated, and poses little threat, but in doing so something worse has been established, thanks entirely to western intervention.  Islamic State owes its existence to the Iraq war, to the refusal to get tough with the Saudis over their double standards.  Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, if not more, have died violently since 2003.  Iraq would be little more than a country of memorials if every death as a result of terrorist attack, death squads or at the hands of the occupation forces was marked in the same way as the victims of the 7/7 attacks were commemorated.  I am not, I stress, saying there is an equivalence here.  There is not.  I do not believe, as some, that 7/7 would not have happened had it not been for the Iraq war.  Foreign policy is an excuse, not a reason.  It was however an influence, and remains one.  To not recognise our foreign policy since 9/11 has been a disaster and continues to help, rather than hinder the extremists, is at this point to be wilfully blind.

It's come to something when of all people, Bob Quick, with his suggestion of letting those who want to join Islamic State do so but effectively revoke their citizenship at the same time is the person closest to talking something approaching sense.  For all the scaremongering of recent months, of an attack being a matter of time, all highly reminiscent of what came after 7/7 and the other foiled plots, few have questioned that Islamic State's real fight at the moment is not to attack the west, although it will go after soft targets such as in Tunisia, but to build on its lightning success of last year and attract supporters.  The big fear, of those who have fought in Syria returning and carrying out attacks, is exaggerated massively.  We know this because those who return, or have returned, are thought of negatively.  The caliphate is here, it's real, and the battle is to maintain it.  Returning the world of the unbelievers is a personal failure.  By contrast, not letting those who want to go do so, even as we are baffled about why anyone would want to, runs the risk of the lone attacks now so dreaded.

Perhaps my opinion has always been shaded by how 10 years ago I didn't have any friends or past acquaintances living in London.  10 years on, I most assuredly do.  Helping to prevent terrorism is everyone's responsibility.  A decade on, it's hard to see precisely what's been achieved, whether we truly are stronger as a nation, more equipped to deal with the fallout if there was another mass casualty attack.  It certainly doesn't feel like it.  Our foreign policy makes just as little, if not less sense, than it did then.  We are it seems yet again reduced to gestures, to platitudes, to asking why when the answers are within our grasp should we choose to reach for them.  But by all means, #walktogether if it means something to you.

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