Sunday, July 17, 2005

As a result of certain recent events, I happen to have been strategically placed to witness the United Kingdom's reaction to the recent bombings of the London transport system. A few observations:

  • The reputation of the BBC notwithstanding, I found the political bias of British television news to be comparable to that of American network news--and hence, quite possibly more in line with its intended audience's views, given the generally more left-leaning British body politic. Of course, the bombing itself may have shifted the tenor of the reporting I saw--it was for the most part resolutely unsparing in its portrayal of the act and its perpetrators as evil and horrible, and only occasionally drifted into soft-on-Islamist-extremism hand-wringing.

  • It has often been noted that British journalists are much less deferential to their interview subjects than their American counterparts. And it's true that their questions are often delivered in an antagonistic, skeptical tone, casting doubt on each premise that the interviewee has been summoned to defend. In fact, though, the confrontational displays I saw were all just a cleverly disguised version of the American softball style: the interviewer mimicked a caricature of the interviewee's opponents, threw out a few lame challenges in that voice, and let the interviewee demolish them. This format naturally pleases everyone involved: the interviewer ends up looking tough, the interviewee looks clever and articulate, and the gullible audience imagines it's just seen a lively debate.

  • An illustration of the difference between American and European attitudes towards authority: I saw a discussion of civil liberties in the wake of 7/7 (as they call the bombing there) in which an outspoken civil liberties advocate suggested that perhaps the proposed budget for a national ID card system might be better spent on more police. How many American civil liberties activists have ever advocated such a thing, even right after 9/11?

  • One of the oddest aspects of the coverage was the enormous attention devoted to the supposedly terrifying possibility, later confirmed, that the bombings were the work of "suicide bombers". At first, I thought the prospect highly unlikely. After all, the use of suicide bombers makes a certain amount of sense when attacking targets that are well-defended against more conventional tactics--say, when the only way to breach the security around a Marine base is to drive a truck into it and detonate it immediately, or when a highly alert population will recognize and flee any package that's not in anyone's immediate possession. The London train and bus bombings, on the other hand, hit soft targets that would have been equally vulnerable to timed or remotely-triggered package bombs. I can personally vouch for the fact that many crowded trains in the UK have luggage racks where large bags sit far away from their owners--possibly miles away, for all anybody can tell. Of course, all that may soon change. But I suspect that any terrorist campaign that results in the British being as vigilant and preoccupied with security as Israelis already are, would be judged a resounding victory for the terrorists.

    The suicide bombing tactic, on the other hand, has many disadvantages. For one, extra effort has to be made to cultivate and indoctrinate operatives until they can be relied upon to "push the button" when the time comes. They must also be trained to appear completely normal, to avoid suspicion, for some substantial time interval immediately prior to blowing themselves to smithereens. Moreover, soon after their training and indoctrination have been completed, they are quite emphatically eliminated in a manner that renders them categorically unavailable for use in future operations. In the process, their bodies become rich sources of information for investigators--indeed, several of the London bombers were apparently identified by documents they still carried in their pockets when they attacked. Obviously, the sooner the perpetrators are identified, the sooner their activities can be traced, and their colleagues and mentors investigated.

    Presumably, the reason for opting for suicide bombers in this case was their predicted psychological impact, and judging by the recent reporting, this strategy has been quite effective so far. However, I expect that its shock value will wear off fairly quickly, as it becomes clear that impressionable fanatics willing to die at their leader's request are simply not all that hard to find. After all, so far, more citizens of Western countries have killed themselves because an odd-looking elderly man told them they would thereby meet an alien spaceship associated with a comet, than have done so because someone told them they would thereby enjoy 72 virgins in paradise.
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