Muslim grievances, popular royalty and why I was wrong about 9/11
By Peter Wilby
Osama Bin Laden was a fool and a failure, and he was lucky that George W Bush, an even bigger fool, made him, for a while, into more than that. Muslims had legitimate grievances. For decades, western countries, led by the US, treated the Muslim world with imperialist contempt, regarding it mainly as a collection of oil wells to be raided at will. Seedy, corrupt dictators were propped up across the Middle East. Muslim dislike of the west's glitzy consumerism and sex-obsessed culture was patronised as medieval backwardness.
Muslims needed a charismatic and visionary leader to give them self-respect and lead a fightback, which was bound to involve violence - as the US and its allies never hesitated to use great violence in their own interests - and some inevitable instances of what Americans call collateral damage. Given his Messiah-like looks, Bin Laden might even have become a third world hero like Nelson Mandela who, we should recall, also led an armed resistance movement and was once denounced as a terrorist.
Bin Laden was too stupid to see the opportunities. He preferred an obscure, mystical, death-obsessed nihilism, which could engage the support of only a tiny minority of Muslims. Al-Qaeda killed Muslims and non-Muslims, rich and poor, black, brown and white, indiscriminately. There was little apparent attempt to select targets of real strategic importance. The twin towers may have been the perfect symbol of American power and arrogance. Westerners intent on violence at least pretend to care about civilian casualties even if, in practice, they often don't.
Many terrorist movements issue warnings of attacks; they are still denounced as bloody murderers but retain at least tacit support from many people on whose behalf they are supposedly fighting, as the Provisional IRA did among Catholics in Northern Ireland. Al-Qaeda appeared deliberately to prioritise collateral damage, allowing western leaders to claim that it would more happily kill 300,000 New Yorkers than 3,000.
It is said that Bin Laden's death will give him the status of martyrdom and inspire Muslims to new heights (or lows) of resistance and revenge. I doubt it. In our parochial, ahistorical way, we talk about how the 11 September 2001 attacks changed the world for ever and suggest that this month's events in Abbottabad mark another watershed.
But Bin Laden will most probably end up as an unpleasant historical curiosity. In a few months, the brave, largely unarmed rebels of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen - who seem barely to have heard of Bin Laden - have inspired more people than he did in a lifetime. I think, and I hope, that they will prove of far greater historical importance.
A footnote to the above. When I edited the NS issue immediately after 11 September 2001, I misjudged the nature and significance of what had happened, an error that was partially reflected in what became a notorious (though, in some quarters of the world, much-celebrated) leader. I wanted the cover line to say, over an image of the burning twin towers, "The Uprising". Colleagues dissuaded me. Rather belatedly, it occurs to me that I should thank them.
Never mind the ballots
When working people go on strike, they are usually denounced on all sides, by Labour as well as Tory politicians, left-wing newspapers as well as right-wing. Laws are proposed to make it more difficult for them to withdraw their labour. But when capitalists go on strike, it's a different matter. British Gas threatens to shut down its offshore drilling in Morecambe Bay, in protest against the government's decision to impose a windfall tax on the profits, and it gets a sympathetic hearing even from the Guardian. Note that neither British Gas nor the oil companies argue that the tax will wipe out the profits, only that the profits won't be high enough. Words and phrases such as greed, blackmail, holding the country to ransom, punishing innocent children and risking old folks' lives come to mind.
Perhaps our rulers, having made it as hard as possible for unions to organise strikes, could now apply similar principles to big companies and require shareholder ballots before they suspend operations.
The dear hunter
Feminists and Labour MPs - not categories that usually overlap all that much - are accused of being politically correct when they object to David Cameron telling the opposition's Angela Eagle to "calm down, dear". Yet the same people who criticise the left's concern for good manners are sticklers for correct behaviour. Cherie Blair declined to curtsey to the Queen and, according to some commentators, that would explain the lack of a wedding invitation to her and her husband. Would Cameron address the Queen or Lady Thatcher as "dear" and would we ever hear the last of it if he did?
As for that wedding, one was unable to ignore it without facing "thought crime" charges of being joyless and unpatriotic. As the Queen now appears more popular than ever and the Duke of Camberwick Green (or whatever he's now called) a less crustily reactionary figure than his father, a bleak future of jubilees, weddings and royal births stretches ahead to the end of time.
Prince Charles was once the great republican hope. But anyone who lives long enough in Britain becomes a "national treasure", even the Duke of Edinburgh. Given his mother's genes for longevity, Charles will certainly have achieved that status when it is time for him to ascend the throne.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005