I REMEMBER travelling through Northern Ireland, indeed passing through the town of Omagh, on the national day of mourning held in Ireland in the wake of 9/11.
It was clear then, just as the attack on Omagh was the single worst act of terrorism in our history, the attack on the United States represented the single worst act of terrorism in the history of the planet.
It was hard to imagine the mentality that could fly an aeroplane into a building, deliberately seeking to secure thousands of deaths, knowing that every single one of the people you kill is an innocent casualty. There is no cause capable of justifying that kind of barbarity. People capable of doing things like have had to plumb depths of barbarity within themselves, and in the end become capable of anything. They are capable, given the resources and the know-how, of building an atomic bomb in the heart of a city — any random city — and detonating it themselves. They are capable of unleashing unspeakable diseases and pestilences on innocent people if they ever get hold of the methods of germ warfare.
We know, and we have good reason to know, that nothing justified Omagh. The bombing of that little town was the single greatest atrocity of the history of the troubles on our island. Nothing in our history, nothing about the divisions on this island, made it anything less than an unfathomable outrage. The pain and suffering caused by the bombers of Omagh was, and remains, indefensible. And I have never heard anyone try to defend it.
And yet in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 there were voices prepared to look at the other side of an atrocity that destroyed, in the most brutal fashion imaginable, a 150 times more people than died in Omagh. Of course, these voices said, we’re not defending the attack on the twin towers. But the root cause of the whole thing is American foreign policy.
And over the years since the attack, the mistakes America made gave even more ammunition to its enemies. The trumped-up basis for the invasion of Iraq, and the mismanagement of that war, inflamed opinion all over the world. Little by little, it often seemed, the original atrocity faded into memory.
The issue of American foreign policy has always been a bit of a dilemma for us in Ireland. We see the policy that America pursues (and has always pursued) towards Ireland as being enlightened, progressive, and imaginative.
But we’ve never had any difficulty in accepting that the same people who have been so wise where Ireland is concerned have been stupid, and sometimes cruel, in the Middle East. Of course there are different interests at play — Ireland has never had any oil, and our hold on the hearts and minds of American leaders has always had more to do with sentiment than strategy.
But from the moment that airplane ploughed into that building, America has had the right to demand justice. A few days after it happened, I wrote here that “I don’t think we should mince words. Justice, in this case, demands retribution and punishment. America has the right to seek out and punish those who did this thing, and those who are prepared to shelter them. We — the Irish, the English, the French, the Germans, the Indians, the Nigerians, the Japanese and all the rest of us — have an obligation to help and assist in that whatever way we can.
“As someone who has argued in the past against any involvement by Ireland in any military operation that doesn’t have a formal UN mandate, I say there can be no neutrality in the face of what is not just terrorism, but savage barbarism. It is barbarism just as Omagh was barbarism.”
I believed then that people throughout the world, including those who believe that America has a right to strike back, would want America to be as measured about it as possible, to observe international rules of law and norms of civilisation as much as possible. What nobody wanted was that the war against terrorism would become a war against Islam.
There have been times in the intervening period, of course, when it seemed that was precisely what was happening. I have neither the time nor the expertise to go into detail here, but it is surely clear that America (and Britain under Blair) plunged itself into a war whose objectives went way beyond the search for justice, or the search for Osama Bin Laden.
But now they have found, and killed, Bin Laden. And of course, probably by the time you read this, all sorts of nutcases and conspiracy theorists will be claiming a fix. The same people who aren’t prepared to accept that Barack Obama is an American citizen will probably be out in their droves now insisting that they won’t believe America has got Bin Laden until they see his body on television.
But leave that to one side — the headcases and their cynical manipulators we will always have with us. What does the death of Bin Laden really mean?
First, I think it means a huge boost for Barack Obama. There has hardly ever been an American president who hasn’t faltered in popularity in the middle of his first term, and Obama has been no exception.
There is very little sign so far that the Republicans can mount a credible campaign against him at the end of next year — or even put forward a credible candidate — have you ever in your life seen anything like Donald Trump?
And yet there has been a certain greyness about Obama’s presidency, a sense that it hasn’t lived up to the soaring promise and rhetoric of his election. There have been real and solid achievements, but so far nothing that defines America’s first black president. The fact that he finally “got” Bin Laden will change that.
And hopefully, it will help America to move on. It has been clear from the moment Obama was elected that he wanted to try to build a different relationship with the countries of the middle East and with Islam. The removal of Bin Laden is like the removal of a festering scab in that relationship. It is important now that there not be too much triumphalism, and that no one should be allowed to get the impression that America’s first choice is to kill its enemies.
Of course, there will be other Bin Ladens. Those who are expert in these matters are already saying that to all intents and purposes he no longer had any operational command of al-Qaida, and that terrorist organisation will be unaffected by his death. Be that as it may, Osama Bin Laden was a potent and powerful symbol.
His actions were those of a mass murderer. His name suggested a relationship of hate between one part of the world and the other, and his own contempt for the west was irreconcilable. Of course it would have been better had he been captured rather than killed. Of course there is still unfinished business. But the end of Osama Bin Laden is still, by any standard, a cause for celebration.
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