The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 10th, 2005

The blitz spirit versus common sense

Terrorists will not change the British way of life, the Queen said on Friday. But they have. We will not be intimidated, we will not be terrorised, the prime minister said on Thursday. But we have been. When terrorists seek to change our way of life, he continued, we will not be changed.

But they are both wrong. We have suddenly been changed and still, in the aftermath, are continuing to be changed — “changed, changed utterly” as WB Yeats wrote in his famous poem about the Easter 1916 republican uprising in Dublin, which many at the time regarded as an atrocity and which was the precursor of more than a century of murder, terror and grief.

Terror works. I am thinking particularly of what it does to young people, to children old enough to be beyond simple comfort and to young adults. My children and their friends are teenagers or young adults and I suspect they have suffered a sudden, irreparable change for the worse in their outlook.

There is some sort of unspoken convention that at times of disaster one should speak only in the spirit of the blitz. Certainly some people are obliged to; the Queen and the prime minister have a duty to encourage us and set us an example of hope and stoicism as best they can. But I am not sure how heavily this duty weighs on journalists.

In the war on terror, as George Bush calls it, truth has all too often been a casualty — for instance, the reporting of the atrocities in London has been done through a haze of skilful propaganda with a shocking hint of sentimentality — so perhaps it is permissible for journalists to say things that are less positive, even at such a time as this.

Intelligent young adults, who have grown out of their teenage indifference to news or who have been forced out of it by last week’s bombs, are quicker to sense insincerity than older people and normally they have more tender feelings — they will have been more shocked and distressed than the middle-aged by pictures of injury and mutilation, or of people wandering about in a confusion of grief looking for missing relations or lovers. These images hit younger people harder. And — which makes it all much worse — the thoughtful ones are often more critical in the best sense of the word.

Imagine how it looks to young people, especially Londoners. They are confronted with something terrifyingly disorienting, but they are fed platitudes. They are told constantly that we are fighting the war on terror with all our might and means. Our values will fight their values, they are told, and ours will win. But this is nonsense.

In particular this demagogic clarity is nonsense. The whole thing is miserably complex and imponderable. It’s not possible to fight a war against an enemy one can hardly identify (as now) and whose values — coherent or incoherent — one must be uncertain about; besides, there is no law of life that ensures one set of values must defeat another. What matters in war is power and terrorism has immense power, whether or not it has any coherent purpose. One can be defeated by chaos and it did seem on Thursday that chaos is come again.

Besides, while waging war proper is difficult (as in Iraq) terrorism is easy, no matter how hard rich countries try — perhaps with considerable success — to forestall it, as Thursday’s almost casual, small-scale attacks have proved. I could easily go down to the Tube at any moment with something lethal in my bag.

In any case, and most tragically, young people here know that our government and the US government deliberately lied about the reasons for taking the war against terror, so-called, to Iraq. The motive was something else and it is still unclear what it was; the exposure of the lies has failed to expose the real motive.

I have talked to a couple of young people who look with deep cynicism at the way George Galloway MP was denounced and insulted last week for saying what many people believe. I am no fan of Galloway and he may well be wrong in believing last week’s bombs were an inevitable consequence of the invasion of Iraq, but his freedom to say so, as an elected politician, is surely one of the finest of those of our (sic) western values that are supposed to defeat “theirs”, whoever “they” are — something we don’t know yet.

The hypocritical inconsistency is glaring and is not lost on the young. There is something stronger and better, surely, about facing terrible things with as much openness and truthfulness as anyone can bring to bear, yet what we are offered on television is heart-warming motivational cliché and far too much heart-chilling sensational detail.

One of the many evil effects of the bombings will be a new level of uncertainty and distrust among young people about our rulers and our opinion formers. That is tragic because they face uncertainty on every side. They have grown up to see most of the certainties of their parents’ generation fade away and for many of them Thursday must have been a terrible coming of age, a loss of almost all certainty.

Even without terrorism, their safety on the streets has been uncertain for some time, with new and rising levels of violent street crime. Their homes are unsafe in inner cities too, for similar reasons, and they know the police can or will do little to protect them. The value of their exams and university degrees are increasingly uncertain. So, too, are their job prospects; the only certainty in employment is that they cannot hope for job security or even a long-term contract, and as for a pension they know now that the subject is covered in a shroud of anxious uncertainty and that their parents may become dependent on them.

Their safety in hospitals is newly uncertain, their chances of making a long-term marriage or relationship are increasingly uncertain. Their feeling that the West might do something constructive about Africa and the Third World is quickly fading into cynical uncertainty. And their generous belief in a multi-ethnic society and the great British values of tolerance is being exposed to ever greater uncertainty.

I hope I am not exaggerating. But I do think that something has changed utterly. If young people are not to retreat from uncertainty into disaffection and despair — like the terrorists themselves — what they need is less lying, less sentimentality and more truth.