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Dispatches

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ENGLAND

MARIA MARGARONIS

About the Author

Ana Uzelac
Ana Uzelac is a Moscow-based journalist who writes for the Moscow Times and other English- and Polish-language...
Ahmed Rashid
Ahmed Rashid, the Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is the...
Mark Gevisser
Mark Gevisser is an Open Society Fellow. His latest book is A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the...
Graham Usher
Graham Usher is a writer and journalist who has written extensively about the Arab world and South Asia.
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...
Praful Bidwai
Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian...

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London

At times since September 11, Manhattan has seemed almost as closely moored to London as it is to the United States. The world's financial capitals are linked by the community of traders who zapped irreverent jokes across the globe within minutes of previous disasters; by culture; by friendships; by shopping. Every day the papers carry more photographs of Britons lost in the attacks, more literary accounts of the terror by novelists on both sides of the ocean. In the first hours after the planes hit, when grown-ups longed for a father figure to help contain their horror, Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped gravely out of his front door to play the part so badly muffed by Bush. Across Europe, governments have fallen in line with varying degrees of hesitation. Polls claim that 79 percent of people in Britain support a military response, 73 percent in France, 66 percent in Italy, 53 percent in pacifist Germany. But the "shoulder to shoulder" alliance promised by America's keenest ambassador--amid many reminders to his own people that the United States has so far acted with restraint--is already showing signs of stress. Fear of terrorism is now inextricable from fear of what the United States may set in motion if it rages blindly across the Middle East. Europeans have little stomach for a "crusade." If the Rumsfeld axis wins out in Washington, Blair's effort to bestride the Atlantic will become a dodgy tightrope walk.

Meanwhile, the war at home is well advanced. In spite of the government's care to distinguish terrorists from Muslims, the old reflexes of British racism are enjoying a minor renaissance. A cartoon in last week's Daily Mail showed turbaned figures demonstrating for "Death to America and Britain" at the foot of Big Ben; the caption read "Parasite: (Chambers English Dictionary) A creature which obtains food and physical protection from a host which never benefits from its presence." Tabloids point fingers at the "enemy within"--the handful of Muslim clerics in Britain who buy into Al Qaeda's spurious notion of jihad. The effects are pervasive and insidious: A Muslim mother at my daughter's school tells me that people are shutting her out of conversations about what happened; that strangers give her dirty looks on the street. A Pakistani community leader in North London feels compelled to reiterate his condemnation of the terrorist attacks at several points in his thoughtful discussion of the historical reasons why many in Pakistan resent the United States, as if his religion and his political views might put his humanity in doubt. As in America, there have been physical assaults on individuals and mosques, and not only in areas where racial tensions previously ran high.

Before September 11 the big story here was British attempts to make the French close Sangatte, a Red Cross shelter for refugees near the mouth of the Channel Tunnel that some have used as a base for illegal entry to Britain. A tabloid reporter sounding out Sangatte residents' opinions of the atrocities in America (almost entirely negative) could not resist the portentous purple phrase: "As the Western world embarks on its frantic search for the dreaded 'sleepers' of Islamic fanaticism, here at Sangatte is a place where the sleeper may slumber undisturbed." So far the war on terrorism has been a gift to those who would close Britain's doors to asylum seekers--the plurality of whom currently come from Afghanistan. Some of the antiterrorist legislation now being considered by government ministers--though Parliament is not in session and has not been recalled except for a day of mourning and condemnation--would in practice have as its primary function the control of illegal immigration. (Legal channels into Britain for asylum seekers are almost nonexistent.) Through measures like e-mail monitoring and the introduction of identity cards, it would also curtail civil rights and facilitate the containment of dissent. At the moment, most people seem willing to give up rights in return for the illusion of safety, though perhaps not, as military historian John Keegan put it with odd relish on BBC radio, to live "in World War II for ever and ever." The British know that governments rarely restore lost liberties: The "temporary" Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1974 is still on the books, enhanced by periodic extensions, though it has failed to prevent Al Qaeda operatives from basing themselves in Britain.

The editors of the conservative Daily Telegraph amuse themselves by publishing the names of "useful idiots"--that is, anyone who dares to criticize the United States or question the wisdom of going to war. For the European left, the situation is more challenging. No one would shed a tear for the Taliban; pretty much everyone agrees that Al Qaeda should be disarmed and those leaders who can be found brought to justice. But the United States has no credibility as judge or honest policeman, and Bush's loud declarations of war promise more suffering and instability in an already devastated region. At the same time, the trusty framework of vulgar anti-Americanism has been (or should have been) badly dented. One did not have to be a warden of "emotional correctness" to wince at the New Statesman's sermon on September 17: "American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no." Reviewing the United States' dismal record across the Middle East is necessary but not sufficient in this case: Religious fundamentalists from Osama bin Laden to Jerry Falwell also loathe America because they see it as brashly secular and multicultural, and they are not interested in reason or proportion. The snowball of hatred that took decades to grow will not be melted overnight, even by radical changes in US foreign policy. The fledgling European antiwar movement has so far brought 5,000 onto the streets in London, 10,000 in Rome, 1,000 in Brussels and several thousand across Germany. Like everybody else, it is struggling to take the measure of what changed on September 11. To influence the future, it will have to acknowledge the present danger while making a passionate case for long-term security based on global equity and justice. In the meantime, Europe waits to see what Washington will do.

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