In this excerpt
from the latest ECFR policy
on Syria, the authors argue
that a rare moment of opportunity has emerged following the US-Russian
agreement to launch peace initiative, Geneva II. Europe and the west should
prioritise ratcheting down violence and the threat of regional spill over.
As the death toll has
risen and the Assad government has become more entrenched, so too have the
calls for a more muscular western policy towards Syria. The debate has revolved
around two models for managed military escalation: establishing no-fly zones or
arming the rebels. Neither involves “boots on the ground”, which is why they
can best be characterised as
“intervention-lite.” Supporters of these
policies argue that they will make Assad more likely to step down, empower the
so-called moderates among the opposition, and bring the war to a speedier
conclusion. However, there is considerable evidence for such approaches being
more likely to lead to a full-scale military intervention by the west, while
making a political solution even more difficult to grasp.
The dangers of “managed escalation”: the no-fly-zones option
Western governments have
long faced calls to undertake air strikes to knock out the regime’s aerial
firepower and to establish safe zones within Syria. Supporters of these
policies have multiple goals, including tipping the balance in the military
conflict in favour of the opposition, providing rebels with space to mobilise
and organise, and creating safe havens for refugees in Syria, partially to
relieve the strain placed on neighbouring countries.
However, it is unclear
how much killing would be prevented. According to General
chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, only 10 percent of opposition
casualties result from air strikes.
safe zones could cement the collapse of the central state, and, given existing
intra-rebel fighting, competing groups are likely to seek local control through
violent means. As demonstrated by developments in some
in parts of northern Syria, this could render them anything but safe for the civilian
population. As noted by António
the UN high commissioner for refugees: “Bitter experience has shown that it is
rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas.”
accelerated by the establishment of safe zones would also pose a danger to the
territorial unity of neighbouring states, fuelling, for instance, existing
tendencies towards militia-run zones in Lebanon and Iraq, and thereby potentially
feeding a series of regional civil wars. Additionally, the act of establishing
safe zones would be an act of war against Syria, with the obvious dangers of
escalation and mission creep.
At the moment, leaders
in Washington, London, Paris, and elsewhere explicitly reject this approach,
but it continues to be supported by figures such as US senators John McCain and
Lindsey Graham, as well as by vocal commentators in the press. In fact, a
better option for dealing with the refugee and IDP crisis will be a political
process that is predicated on de-escalation and maintaining Syria’s territorial
integrity, among other things.
Arming the opposition
The second model, of
arming the opposition, has stronger support in western capitals. British and
French officials are currently suggesting that arming rebels represents the
best means of getting the opposition (and their regional allies) to come to the
table. Supporters of this approach argue that it should strengthen moderates
within the opposition, increase their leverage over the regime, and therefore
help a negotiated settlement. The emphasis since the 7 May announcement has
been on integrating the logic of arming with the logic of the peace conference.
Given the difficulties that the west has had persuading rebel forces to take
part in a political process, this quest for leverage is understandable, but it
is ill advised.
First, it is unrealistic
to expect that weapons can be guaranteed to end up in the hands of pro-western
actors. The US and its allies were unable to achieve the micro-management of
weapons control in Iraq and Afghanistan, even with a massive physical presence
there, so it is unlikely that they will fare better doing this with a light
footprint. The apparent western conduit, the Supreme Military
Council under General Salim Idris, has a limited remit over battlefield groups. This will be particularly challenging given that
Jubhat al- Nusra – an organisation with declared ideological links to al-Qaeda
– is now considered the strongest and most effective rebel fighting force.
Within Syria, more arms
will also further entrench the political economy of war, already breeding warlordism,
war profiteering, criminalisation, and intimidation as a way of life. There is
a real danger that these weapons could find their way into sectarian tensions
in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, supplying oxygen for the
outbreak of an arc of sectarian conflict across the Levant. The other
neighbouring countries – Jordan, Turkey, and Israel – are all also feeling the
ripple effects in different ways. The weapons and those who carry them tend not
to respect borders. Worryingly for western politicians, there is also the
danger that they could even find themselves being used against civilian targets
in the west. There is also the danger
posed by a stream of radicalised Europeans travelling to Syria to join armed
opposition groups and fears that they could eventually bring the fight back to
Europe. According to the German
as many as 700 Europeans are already fighting the Assad regime.
In any event, the west
is ill-equipped to win a race to arm proxies, if its support for rebels prompts
Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to increase their military backing of the regime.
The procedures of western states are more transparent, cumbersome, restricted
by regulations, prone to diplomatic opposition (from allies such as Israel), or
domestic political fall-out than those of countries backing Assad.
foreign support to predominantly Sunni rebels feeds Assad’s longstanding claim
that Syria faces a foreign-backed Islamist plot, enabling him to further
mobilise his domestic and international support base. Pro-opposition escalation
is therefore likely to be
met with escalation by the regime. Despite his military losses, Assad has not
yet unleashed the full might of his military firepower and can still mobilise
significant domestic support as demonstrated by the growing capacity of
his popular militias,
al-shabi. With all the devastation already inflicted it is
worth bearing in mind that neither side has yet “done its worst”. Further
militarisation is likely to feed the “fight or die” narrative of existential communal
fears that has become the driving DNA for much of this conflict. The sad truth
is that escalations and interventions could still take the death toll from the
tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands.
Above all, there is a
real question about how far arming rebels and advancing diplomatic
de-escalation really can proceed hand-in-hand. Rebels currently unwilling to
engage in negotiations with the regime (distinct from accepting the regime’s political
surrender, which they are prepared to do) are even less likely to do so once
they receive western armed support. Some in Europe have argued that levelling
the playing field will give the rebels the confidence they need to accept a
negotiated settlement. However, the reality is that the opposition strategy has
long been to secure western military intervention on their behalf as the key
means of dislodging Assad – sometimes referred to as “getting Western skin in
Armed support from the west
is therefore likely to embolden their ambitions of total victory – making them
less likely to accept a power-sharing deal. It also mitigates against reaching
a point of mutual exhaustion, a key potential asset in the search for a deal-
making space. Given the choice, both sides will always try to convince external
backers that their predicament is either sufficiently desperate or promising,
so that more weapons and support remain the permanent imperative of the hour.
When the lighter forms of intervention fail, as they are likely to do, they
will increase the likelihood of a full-scale and prolonged intervention by the
west – including a physical presence. This risks drawing the West into a
much-expanded conflagration, as well as making the west responsible for
reconstructing Syria for many years to come.
A strategy for de-escalation
While many analysts and
diplomats acknowledge that military options are unlikely to succeed, diplomatic
initiatives are often viewed as even more naive. An understandable sense of
resignation pervades most discussions of Syria after the failures of the last
two years. However, the 7 May Moscow announcement provides a real opportunity
to shape an alternative diplomatic and political approach aimed at
de-escalation. It is one that Europe should fully embrace.
The goal should be to
set in motion a new dynamic in which external backers are nudging the two sides
in the direction of politics rather than away from them. Given both the regime
and opposition’s dependence on external support, this approach is more likely
to eventually soften the zero-sum ambitions of the players in Syria. And the
political overlay and context in which the fighting is taking place will matter
The Moscow statement by
Kerry and Lavrov signalled a return to the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012 as a
framework for progress. Under the circumstances, to have a text ostensibly
agreed upon by key parties is a precious commodity. Following the initial
Geneva agreement, the French and British foreign ministers quickly asserted
that Assad would go as part of the agreed transitional government. But this
time there should be no attempt to interpret Geneva as placing pre-conditions
on talks or excluding parties from
Insisting on Assad’s
removal and a full transfer of power may represent a morally appealing position
for the main trans-Atlantic protagonists but it amounts to dictating terms of
surrender and is antithetical to pursuing a diplomatic track with the Syrian
regime or its backers. History appeared to be repeating itself when on 8 May in
Rome, one day after ruling out pre-conditions in the breakthrough Moscow
meetings, Kerry appeared to re-introduce them by saying that Assad could not be
part of the transition, a position subsequently repeated by US President Barack
Obama. Though understandable as a way to keep allies (including a suspicious
Syrian opposition) on board, this is not a practical plan for
building a wider international consensus. Building sufficient international
consensus will also have to be predicated on taking a more inclusive approach
that involves all the regional actors. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran was
invited to the Geneva gathering in June 2012. This should be corrected this
In order to succeed, a
strategy for de-escalation will need three key elements: a set of guiding
principles, a wide enough coalition committed to de-escalation, and a
diplomatic strategy to get Geneva II off the ground.
Ahead of the proposed
peace conference, the US and Russia should elaborate on the Moscow
understanding by translating that original Geneva
into five guiding principles for the proposed Geneva II peace conference:
1. “All parties
must recommit to a sustained cessation of armed violence” (Article 5a of the
original Geneva Communiqué). This might include reconstituting the United
Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) as and when conditions
allow. If it is possible to
create rolling and expanding pockets in which ceasefires hold, the case for re-
introducing UNSMIS should be given greater priority. It should be understood
that the commitment to this principle comes first; its implementation, similar
to other clauses here, will take time.
2. “Action Group
members are opposed to any further militarization of the conflict” (Article 12b).
Implementation of this clause would require that all sides agree to stem rather
than increase the flow of weapons to Syria’s warring parties.
sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab
Republic must be respected” (Article 11a). There is a huge difference between a new
political effort to which all sides have agreed, a key provision of which is
that the territorial integrity of Syria will remain intact, versus a continued
conflict in which Syria’s very existence is a point of contestation. A
political process that clarifies this common goal is already important progress
and a selling point for some of the regional players that will need to be
brought on board for this diplomatic effort.
establishment of a transitional governing body that can establish a neutral
environment in which the transition can take place, with the transitional
governing body exercising full executive powers. It could include members of
the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed
on the basis of mutual consent” (Article 9a). Transition to a different order in
Syria is key, though there can be no pre- conditions on what that new Syria
will look like. It will have to be shaped by Syrians at the negotiating table.
The central questions to be addressed will include: To whom and on what basis
to transfer power? What is the role and timing of constitutional reform and
elections? What type of elections should be held? What will Assad’s role be,
including in any presidential vote? No agreed outcome can produce a return to
the status quo ante of the pre-uprising Damascus government; any political
process by its nature will favour change and reform.
Government must allow immediate and full humanitarian access by humanitarian
organizations to all areas affected by the fighting” (Article 5d).
Humanitarian aid is critically needed. As soon as there is a political opening,
one of the first priorities should be to support greater access for
humanitarian relief. A number of European Union member states as well as Norway
have already taken the lead in humanitarian aid funding, with the top five EU donors being the UK, Germany,
Holland, France, and Sweden.
Charismatic opposition leader Aleksey Navalny is on trial in the provincial capital of Kirov, 900km from Moscow. He is controversially accused of stealing timber worth 16 million roubles in 2009; if found guilty, he will spend his next few years behind bars. Local journalist Ekaterina Loushnikova met some of his supporters and opponents.
Dictates of the heart
‘Putin — thief!’
As deafening as the first thunder in May, the simple chant carries from a crowd gathered by the old courthouse. Back in the 19th century, this was the residence of the Kirov governors, and Tsar Alexander II stayed here. Now the building is the venue for the controversial trial of Aleksey Navalny, who very recently announced his intention of becoming president of Russia.
Kirov has for the last few weeks witnessed an unfamiliar parade, with journalists from across the whole world — 200 TV, radio, internet and print media companies — descending on the city. To get into the court on the first day, they had to start queuing the night before, writing their number in the queue on scraps of paper or their own palms. The court has only 60 places, so it was the fortunate few that actually managed to get in, using their bodies, tripods and TV camera equipment to push their way through to the door.
The rest had to content themselves with interviewing supporters and opponents of the accused. The demonstrators had set up a noisy, brightly coloured camp along both sides of Spasskaya street, the banners of the opposing groups making it look like two armies about to go into battle. Everyone, indeed, was ‘armed’ with whatever he/she could find – posters, placards and other kinds of propaganda. Opponents of Navalny from the little known organization ‘Right Track’ even brought a log and a saw, a colourful demonstration of the supposed Kirovles carve-up.
‘Do you really believe that Navalny stole the timber?’ I asked a young man with a tattoo on his left hand, a possible hint that he had recently been in prison.
‘Of course!’ said the young man without hesitation. ‘For the money he stole you could have repaired 5 km of road and built 30 hockey pitches. He didn’t only steal the timber, he betrayed his country. Navalny is an American spy, trying to impose American values on Russian people, but we are a spiritual people and for us money is not the most important thing.’
‘How much were you paid to come here, if it’s not a secret?’
‘Nothing at all! I am following the dictates of my heart!’ The young man was deeply offended by my suggestion and hurried back to his mates in ‘Right Track.’ There weren’t many more like him: a little man with a flag, a broad-shouldered lad with a poster, a fair boy lazily sawing the log and a few other unimpressive characters.
Ivan – a son of Russia
Navalny’s supporters outnumbered his opponents, and were much more active. Over 100 people had come from Moscow, Petersburg, the Urals and the Volga region to support him on the first day of his trial, though their ranks rather thinned out after that, leaving only the most devoted and hardy. I noticed an elderly man with a poster declaring ‘Kirov is not Golgotha — we won’t allow the crucifixion of mind, honour and conscience!’ He stood in the street opposite the courthouse on every day of the trial, from early morning until the evening, like a sentry on guard.
‘Ivan, a son of Russia,’ he introduced himself. ‘I’ve come from Moscow: I was born here but have lived in Moscow for many years.’
‘So Ivan, son of Russia, has come to stand up for Aleksey, son of Russia?’
‘That’s it, for our Alyosha [Rn affectionate diminutive] who is honest and incorruptible.’
‘Don’t you get tired standing here all day?’
‘I’ll stand for a month if I have to. Many people come to talk to me and I tell them that an innocent man is on trial for political reasons.’
‘Navalny — is he a writer?’
On the first day not everyone in Kirov knew who Navalny was.
‘I’m not interested in politics. I’m a student and I’m late for a lecture,’ said a young girl with pigtails, obviously taken aback by my question.
‘He’s probably a writer, perhaps a poet, but I don’t know…’ an educated man in glasses was frowning as he tried to remember. ‘What did he write? A thriller?’
‘He’s a sportsman, a boxer,’ said a young athletic-looking man confidently, his biceps and triceps bulging, ‘a world sports star.’
‘I did hear something on the TV,’ mumbled a toothless old lady with a shopping bag containing a white loaf, kefir, potatoes and a packet of toffees. ‘I think he stole some timber. If that’s so, then he’ll go to prison. I’ve been alive 80 years and never stolen anything. In our day the punishments were much stricter: a handful of grain would get you 15 years and if you were late for work, you’d get 10. The rules should be strict – Stalin was right.’
The old woman’s voice shook with admiration and indignation.
Stalin’s gone to Denmark
As it happens, I spent some time in the office of the Kirov communists with a Danish journalist. He was genuinely amazed at the local communists’ ardent love for Stalin: there was a portrait of him on the front of the Communist Party building, portraits on the wall, calendars, postcards and teeshirts.
‘How can you love Stalin so much? He did away with millions of people during the Great Terror.’
An elderly communist with a bald patch decides to answer the journalist’s question condescendingly, as if he was sharing basic truths with a child. ‘Well, for one thing that was state policy, and it was necessary so Russia could be transformed from a peasant country into an industrial power. It was to neutralise the socially dangerous elements in society – the bourgeoisie, the rich peasants, the nobility, officer class and others. And anyway it was nothing like 50 million people, that figure was simply fabricated by the corrupt liberals like Governor Belykh and his adviser Aleksey Navalny. It was only 3 million, and this is backed up by NKVD [secret police] documents.’
‘Did Navalny really steal the timber?’ asked the Danish journalist, anxious to steer the conversation into slightly calmer waters.
‘They’re all crooks,’ offered Aleksey Votinsev, a young communist leader, in support of his elderly comrade. ‘Two of Nikita Belykh’s advisers are already in prison for crimes relating to Kirovles and Arzamastsev, the head of the property department, is on the Interpol wanted list, so Navalny is the fourth adviser to be accused of criminal activity. The liberals are no better than “United Russia” – they’re all crooks and thieves and we’re against them all, because the communists are for the people! Navalny will go to jail if he’s guilty – so what? He’ll be nearer the people that way.’
The Danish journalist was given a volume of Comrade Stalin’s writings as a farewell present. It was a gift he couldn’t refuse and now Stalin has gone to Denmark.
An ineffectual manager
Other views were expressed in the office of the socialist party, ‘Just Russia’. Here portraits of the party leader Sergei Mironov graced the walls: he is surrounded by the people and the leader of the local regional division of the party Duma deputy Sergei Doronin, both in white overalls at a pig farm. The socialist deputy owned a large agro-holding called ‘Absolute-agro.’
‘You can’t imagine how easy it is in Russia to get rid of someone who becomes inconvenient. Prosecutors, the police, civil servants and “United Russia” party officials - they’re all in it together’ Sergei Doronin, Just Russia party
‘I know Navalny. He visited our pig farm complex. He’s a good lad. Nikita Belykh entrusted him with the modernisation of the Kirovles enterprise. He was to put the sales in order so that the revenue went into the regional budget, rather than people’s pockets. But the forestry managers effectively refused to cooperate with the new working conditions and the reform failed. Navalny is probably not a good manager and he didn’t take account of the local conditions or the way people work, but he’s no thief. You can’t imagine how easy it is in Russia to get rid of someone who becomes inconvenient. Prosecutors, the police, civil servants and “United Russia” party officials - they’re all in it together. The real judge in this trial is not Sergey Blinov, but someone quite different….You know who I mean?’ The deputy looked meaningfully at the portrait of Vladimir Putin.
The case of the minced meat
Judge Sergey Blinov conducts the case calmly and in a businesslike manner, as if trying a presidential candidate was as commonplace for him as washing his hands before a meal. But until recently Judge Blinov was dealing with cases of a very different kind. In the local town of Kumena, for example, a man had stolen 5 kgs of mince, 1 kg of herring and 8 eggs out of his neighbour’s fridge. Judge Blinov convicted the offender, but he was given a suspended sentence as he had pleaded guilty and cooperated with the investigating officer. What will happen to Navalny who didn’t want to cooperate or to plead guilty to stealing timber? Will the judicial meat grinder not make mincemeat of him?
‘36 forestry managers have been called as witnesses for the prosecution. By some strange coincidence they all seem to have suffered from partial or total amnesia.’
36 forestry managers from far-distant districts of the Kirov oblast have been called as witnesses for the prosecution. By some strange coincidence they all seem to have suffered from partial or total amnesia.
‘Winess, do you remember what prices you were offered for the timber when you worked with the Kirov Timber Company?’ asks Judge Blinov.
‘No, your honour, I’ve forgotten!’ the witness smiles nervously, rubbing his huge hands together. The forester had clearly never been in a courtroom before and, in his embarrassment, had no idea how to behave. People in gowns or the blue uniform of the prosecutors made him uncomfortable, because he’s much more used to dealing with logs and planks.
‘Your honour, the prosecution requests permission to read the witness his statement, as he has partially forgotten what he said.’
Each time the judge allows the request, despite protests from the defence.
On the 9th day of the trial Governor Nikita Belykh is called as a witness. He has recently returned from an official visit to China to attend the trial of his former adviser and comrade in opposition. Judge Blinov is obviously uncomfortable at having to interrogate the head of the Kirov oblast.
‘You may refuse to give evidence against yourself or close relatives and you are entitled to ask for an interpreter.’
A smile plays on the govenor’s lips – the smile of an experienced spectator who knows exactly what the outcome of this comedy will be.
‘What was Aleksey Navalny’s official position in the government of the Kirov oblast?’ the prosecutor asks.
‘He had no official position: he acted as my adviser on a pro bono basis. He was offered a position, but refused it.’
‘Could he give orders to civil servants?’
‘No, this was not in his remit.’
‘Tell us about the state of Kirovles in 2009, please.’
‘It was a loss-making enterprise with very considerable debts and in need of restructuring. The reforms were not Mr Navalny’s idea, because everyone knew how things stood.’
Mr Navalny himself intervenes. ‘Did the director of Kirovles or any of its employees every complain to you that I was forcing them to sell timber at less than market value?’
‘I received no such complaints.’
‘But they could have complained? By requesting a meeting with you, for instance.’
‘Of course they could.’
The lawyer then asks ‘Do you consider that Navalny’s actions damaged the economy of the Kirov oblast?’
‘I have no such information. I know that the Property Department is considered an injured party in this case, but I don’t know what expert analysis has been carried out or why this conclusion was reached. To do that I would have to read the case files and this is not one of my hobbies.’
After the interrogation, Nikita Belykh hurriedly left the courtroom. The journalists followed him like hunters after game, but failed to catch up with him. He obviously had no wish to speak to the press. He got into his car and was driven away.
Governor Belykh’s former adviser, Andrei Votinov, was brought to the courthouse in special prison transport and with a police escort. He looked shrunken and downhearted. The badge on his prison uniform gave the number of his brigade in the open prison at Omutninsk. Votinov was charged with crimes in the Kirovles case and found guilty a year ago. He was accused of extorting 10 million roubles from the Kirovles director, Vyacheslav Opalev.
Opalev is a man of unremarkable appearance, simple and not very articulate, but in the Kirov forests he became a figure that only be described as demonic. To judge by the Kirovles case files, all the governor’s advisers extorted money from him, bribed him and induced him to take part in their criminal plots.
‘Your honour, Vyacheslav Opalev is dishonest and disreputable,’ says prisoner Votinov, a touch nervously. He looks scared inside the ‘cage’ he inhabits in the courtroom. ‘Opalev supported the reforms in the timber industry in word only. All the time he would do his best to put a stop to them, as they represented for him the threat of losing both his job and his income. He knew of the plan to sack him and appoint me in his place. And, by the way, the charge sheet in my case was based solely on Opalev’s evidence, but his evidence was false. I consider that if Opalev is called as a witness for the prosecution in this case, he could mislead the court. I respectfully request permission to read out a statement.’
The respectful request was refused on the grounds that it had no direct bearing on the Navalny case. The former adviser didn’t argue. A few months of prison had wraught very considerable changes in him: the formerly cheerful and confident young man has become a haunted, obedient prisoner, used to answering ‘Yes, sir!’
‘Are you afraid of a Russian prison?’
‘Good question! Next!’
‘Do you really want to become president?’
Navalny gives me a look which is difficult to describe in words.
Could this possibly be the future for the opposition leader Aleksey Navalny?
‘I have no doubt that I shall be found guilty,’ said Navalny to the journalists in the lobby of the courthouse during a break in proceedings. ‘What will be interesting is whether I get a suspended sentence or not.’
‘Are you afraid of a Russian prison?’
‘Good question! Next!’
‘Do you really want to become president?’
Navalny gives me a look which is difficult to describe in words.
The Russian Kennedy
Every day, after many exhausting hours in the courtroom, Navalny has unplanned meetings with people who have been waiting for him in the square outside. There was a rumour that Navalny would be able to help and some of them have brought him their problems from thousands of kilometres away.
‘I’ve come from Saratov,’ an elderly man in a hat talks quickly and nervously. ‘My son has been put in prison, but I know he hasn’t done anything. The police beat him up, so he pleaded guilty to a crime he didn’t commit. I hope Aleksey will be able to help. After all, he’s in a similar situation.’
‘God help Alyosha,’ sighs an old lady in a headscarf. ‘What can I do? I’m no one.’
‘Now, now, granny, you mustn’t talk like that. You’re a Russian citizen!’ Navalny supporters chide the old lady.
I think Aleksey Navalny would look very good as president of Russia. He’s tall, clever, clear-eyed and clearly a hit with the ladies. He could be the Russian Kennedy. Let’s just hope he doesn’t get himself killed.
But can the reform of the Russian state be entrusted to someone who couldn’t reform the Kirovles company? That question is harder to answer.
THUMBNAIL PHOTO: DEMOTIX/ANTON BELITSKIY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The fact is the perpetrators want this to be perceived as an
act of terrorism. Doing so would put them in a league with the Al Qaeda
aficionados they have idealised.
In the aftermath of the brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby in
London's Woolwich yesterday, questions have surfaced on how best to describe the events -
are labels such as “terrorism” either warranted or even accurate? While the
facts are still emerging, it is now clear the attackers were both British of
Nigerian heritage, with one named as 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo who, prior
to adopting radical Islamist views, is alleged to have dabbled in petty crime.
The men attacked Lee Rigby in South East London with a range of knives before being
shot by police officers, as they attempted to turn on them.
Many have questioned why the murder has received such
unprecedented coverage, with some pointing out that the equally brutal murder
of 75 year old Mohammed
Saleem, stabbed to death as he returned home from his local mosque in Birmingham
earlier this month, received comparatively little attention. In both cases, a
violent minority may be implicated in a murder with political dimensions, in
one case politically radicalised Muslims, in the other, the Far-Right. Both
could be dubbed a form of ‘terrorism’ and yet, only one has been.
It is a rather trite observation to state that the term
‘terrorism’ has become eminently politicised, used much more readily and easily
to refer to violence by certain types of political dissidents, such as those
whose violence targets the majority, than to refer, as it was originally devised,
to states, or groups targeting minorities.
And yet, there are significant aspects of this case which
appear to fit the ‘terrorism’ label. Amongst these, the nature of the target - a British soldier - and the identity of
the perpetrators - radical young Muslims - as well as the stated motivation. When
asked about his motive by an eyewitness, one of the men responded,
“because he has killed Muslim people in Muslim countries”, “I killed him
because he killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in
Afghanistan”. He added: "You will never be safe.
Remove your government". What’s more, the style of the attack, undertaken and
filmed in full public view with the objective of publicising the actions to a
wider audience, is reminiscent of a strategy employed by the media-savvy loose
network, often referred to as Al Qaeda. While there is evidence to suggest Michael
Adebolajo became radicalised through the now-banned al-Muhijaroun, the group is
well known to security services who monitor it closely and it treads a fine
line between espousing hate and undertaking violent actions. Though the group
may have laid the foundations for a binary and simplistic worldview, it is
likely that further motivating factors were involved in the move to action.
by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. We must fight them as they
fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," one of the attackers
told onlookers. To those familiar with Al Qaeda’s discourse, this is all too
familiar. A veneer of Islamist rhetoric dressing up opposition to the presence
of western troops in Muslim majority countries. The perpetrators need never
have met anyone vaguely even affiliated to Al Qaeda, they may have simply
imbibed the rhetoric, easily accessible online and in the pamphlets and clips
of extremists distributed in a murky underground network.
In a posting
on a jihadist website in January this year, Al Qaeda said 'coming strikes'
would target the 'heart of the land of non-belief' and that attacks would be
'group, lone-wolf operations and booby-trapped vehicles'. If indeed the men
turn out to be self radicalised Al Qaeda groupies, the attack would seem to
suggest that the security services have become efficient in countering more
elaborate plots and that extremists are now left with the “last resort” tactic
advocated by Al Qaeda and its satellites - rogue attacks by individual foot
soldiers – basic and simple to undertake, requiring little planning or
logistics and hence less likely to be foiled. The most recent "lone
wolf", self-radicalising extremist was Frenchman Mohamed Merah, who killed
three soldiers as well as three Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher in March
2012. If this is indeed the trend in the latest Al Qaeda attacks, they indicate
just how weakened the network’s reach in Europe has become.
So should the Woolwich attack be dubbed terrorism? Yes, it
appears to fit into the evolving pattern of Al Qaeda inspired attacks. But
should we be worried? Not really. Al Qaeda-style terrorism in Europe peaked
with the coordinated attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London on 7/7. The most
recent plots, from a foiled crude bomb plot at Glasgow airport in 2007, to yesterday’s
knife attack on a soldier, are an indication of just how limited their scope
now is in Europe.
The fact is the perpetrators want this to be perceived as an
act of terrorism. Doing so would put them in a league with the Al Qaeda
aficionados they have idealised. Ultimately, it vindicates their sense of
purpose, having “succeeded” in etching their names on the wall of terror,
alongside the Bin Ladens and Mohammad Sidique Khans of this world. That’s
precisely why they requested that the public film their actions and why they
appeared to relish a dramatic confrontation with the police. Like all Al Qaida
attacks, the force of the attack lies in the ripples of fear and division
created as a consequence. A successful attack against European targets is
measured not in victims but in the pandemonium and fear fostered.
Thankfully, the British “keep calm and carry on” attitude
has largely prevailed. Despite a worrying
spike in attacks on Muslims centres in the immediate aftermath, the message
from the political class has been broadly reassuring. Cameron was right not to
return too promptly from Paris and to advise
soldiers to keep wearing their uniform in public. Muslim organisations have
the attack and stood united with their fellow citizens, a blow to the intended
wedge Al Qaeda seeks to put in place in order to attract its recruits.
Terrorism it might be, but the critical concern now should
be to avoid the politicisation of public fear, further unnecessarily impingeing
on our civil liberties. In 2009, former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington denounced
the exploitation of public fear of terrorism to restrict civil liberties, while
campaign group Liberty repeatedly warned
that, “the risk of terrorism has been used as the basis for eroding our human
rights and civil liberties”. Several peers have already pushed for the
government to resurrect the communications data bill, rebranding it a tool to
fight terrorism. John Reid has reappeared to call
for the total observation of all our data communications. So although Cameron has
said he wants to avoid “kneejerk responses”, we must remain vigilant. For our
security, yes, but also even more crucially, for our freedoms.
Jeffrey Stevenson Murer reflects on openSecurity's collection of articles, which have explored the creation of the other as 'enemy', externally and in ourselves.
This series, exploring the images
of the enemy-other, began last year in the aftermath of the mass shooting by
Mohammed Merah in Toulouse, France. Since then more than 80 articles have
explored the presentation of enemy images to understand the
events in Toulouse, the analysis
of the Utøya
shootings in Norway on the one-year anniversary, the French
response to the Mali insurgency and the Algerian hostage crisis, up to Cameron
on the Boston Marathon bombing which explores the assumptions of enemies
and the social costs of indifference toward those seen as the ‘other’.
But more than chronicling these
important security events, the contributing authors explored the ways such
events are depicted, how power and politics figure in those presentations, and
how publics receive these images and narratives. For example, Omer Harari ends
the series with a thoughtful examination of narrative
constructions of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, following the fallout
from the Toulouse shootings, Brigitte
Beauzamy and Ruth
Wodak each explored the security turns in European politics, restructuring
the narratives of belonging and normalcy. These pieces examine how fear can be
manufactured, reinforced, or countered, and how in each instance assumptions
and expectations of normative behavior are altered.
Tony McKenna recounted Slavoj Žižek’s
assertion that contemporary Islamophobia emanates
from a fascist imaginary that continues to haunt Europe, while Marie
Baniff, Sara McDowell and Jonny Byrne explored
the relationship between violence and the lack of a shared, common memory
in Northern Ireland. It is in this connection between memory, the imaginary and
violence that the series plumbed the rarely explored depths of the role of
anxiety in conflict. The lack of a shared memory in Northern Ireland, just as
in Israel and Palestine, makes it difficult to find common ground as the basis
of negotiation, both at an institutional level but also at an immediately
social and communal level.
This division of memory and imagination
is not merely a disagreement about the interpretation of historical events;
rather, social history marks the manner by which sense is made of events. Different
events have differing social meaning, but are also linked to other events
differently. Receiving and retransmitting these narratives of group history are
the performances of belonging, and thus it can be difficult for groups in
conflict to reconcile their competing narratives into a common framework,
because it can be seen as compromising key performances of identity.
Perhaps one of the more uplifting and inspiring pieces in the series
is Mohammed Suliman’s story of man nicknamed “Awsaj”— the Arabic equivalent for Lycium –
living in Gaza. In recounting Awsaj’s story, Suliman points
to the work that is required to make peace: a critical introspection of
one’s own group self, as well as that of the other. He asks us to think of the
other’s history and social journey as well as our own. The path to peace is not
about changing the other, but reconciling the competing images of self and
other, and transforming the self to live peacefully with another party. Recognising
the humanity of the other is not enough, nor is seeing resemblances of the
self. Awsaj, like Julia Kristeva , entreats us to find the
other in ourselves. If we ask the other to change, to conform to our desires of
peace, surely we – the group self – must do the same. In that we must not only
recognise that “they” are like “us”, but perhaps more difficultly for “us” to
see how “we” are like “them”.
series has provided a number of critical insights into the means by which the
enemy other is created, made sense of through the construction of narratives,
and given a face: the image of the other. To transcend these devices that
naturalise the division between a group-self, often depicted as all good, and
an enemy other, often depicted as all bad or evil, it is necessary to analyse
beyond the image of the enemy other and to find common humanity. This series
has been an excellent collection of work that provides insight into doing just
Kristeva, Julie (1992) Strangers in
Ourselves (New York; Columbia University Press).
Do the "consumers of radicalism" Jon Moses refers to in his recent essay actually exist? An exploration of beauty and rebellion, through the lens of our relationship to the aesthetic.
In March 2012 I took the train from London to York. I
arrived with my friends at King’s Cross station, newly refurbished. We
complained. We criticised the non-descript modernism, the peculiar honeycomb
structure of the ceiling, tinged with pink light, a pseudo-naturalist touch
that leant the concourse and the outlets of the usual corporate suspects a
comforting, womblike glow. The space, we felt, was deeply offensive only by
virtue of the great pains taken to be inoffensive in every possible way. The new
King’s Cross, we decided unanimously, was a place that nobody could ever really
love, but most would find difficult to hate. We board the train. Two women are sitting
at the opposite table. As we roll out of the station, one of the women leans in
at the table, first words. “Doesn’t the new station look nice?”
In openDemocracy’s last Friday
essay, Jonathan Moses explored the tendency for capitalism to emulate or
appropriate even those cultures that originate from a desire to disrupt it. The
theme is nothing new, Che Guevara and the Soviets know all about life on a
T-shirt or tracksuit. Moses’ assessment
is rather a reminder of an old danger, one made all the more timely by a
society outraged by crisis(!) and austerity,
and yet apathetic about politics. His is a warning against a consumer culture
that will sell your protest back to you whilst doing nothing to alter the
injustice that made you want to protest in the first place. Moses writes at one
extreme about the characterless, glass-and-steel buildings that conceal the
labour relations that built them, while at the other he dissects Byron Burgers,
BrewDog and MEATMission, the culture of Dude
food and the punk-grunge irreverence that uses bare wood and hanging wires as
an aesthetic antidote to conformity. That all this is provided within the
convenience of a consumer culture is, needless to say, the final insult to the
radicalism that first produced the aesthetic.
There are a couple of stones Moses leaves unturned. MEAT
arguably treads closer to nihilist than radical, with water called ‘government
juice’ and one burger on the menu named ‘the dead hippie’. In the case of
Byron, Moses looks at the Upper Street (London) outlet, decorated as a (painfully
contrived) ruin, whereas what I always found more interesting is how the chain creates
its decor depending on the punters and styles typical of a local area. A north-east
London outlet gets the ‘ruin look’, Cambridge is upholstered in royal green and
brown leather, while the residents of Manchester have a matter of weeks before
they find out if their new outlet will be styled for Madchester or industrial
revolution chic. The Byron model is that of a parasite adapting to the body of
I would argue that we are seeing not only the emergence of consumable radicalism, but also a
corporate response to the human need for curiosity and chance. The ubiquitous deli
chain, Pret a Manger, has its policy
of a ‘joy giveaway’, whereby staff are instructed to periodically give a
customer their coffee for free. Bistro-come-bakery, Le Pain Quotidien, have an elaborate tale celebrating the small
number of red bowls that are inserted randomly amongst their ordinarily beige
ceramic bowls. These are rationalised, top-down initiatives implemented to lend
consumer experience a sense of the random in a world that has been meticulously
predicted and planned. The article, ‘Rebranding London’, raises perhaps the
cruellest incidence of this, whereby historic buildings have their facades
protected even as, beneath the walls, development is free to force out local
business and pursue the newest and most garish forms of corporatism.
This leads us to the question, who is it that is being
tricked? In other words, who are the assumed consumers of the radicalism? The
individuals possessed of political persuasions at once receptive to radical
non-conformity, and yet sufficiently lacking in scrutiny that they fail to spot
the contrived hand that created it. Does this individual actually exist? Is the
Žižek lament of a population sold inauthenticity one that was drawn-up by – and
on behalf of – those who have clearly not bought into the illusion? Meanwhile,
those who are consuming may well not have defined themselves as radical to
begin with. The reflection begins to sprawl, not least because within
the code of consumer capitalism is the proviso, the nod to each of our
individual intelligences, that everybody else has been fooled by the ruse we ourselves
have spotted. Perhaps the entirely gullible consumer is just as much a creature
of fiction as the Spartan cynic who has spotted the hypocrisies, and somehow
managed to stop consuming.
Living up to my blue
A brief look at the human relationship to the aesthetic is
rewarding. Levi-Strauss advanced aesthetics as part of a bricolage that in turn creates the emotional, mythical tapestry of
society, constantly drawing on the objects humans find around themselves. Though
his work was ethnographic, it is significant that we no longer afford our own
society the same gaze anthropology is expected to lend other cultures. The
French philosopher Jacques Derrida makes the useful distinction that society is
made up of many ‘Texts’ that need to be read. In so doing, Derrida facilitates
the understanding that beneath the visual of the aesthetic lurks much more, but
he also frames the idea that not all Texts will be visual. It is Oscar Wilde,
however, that provides some of the most accessible accounts of the effect of
the aesthetic. His famous line, “I find it harder and harder every day to live
up to my blue china”, presents the notion of aesthetics as existing in perfect
proportion, creating entities that possess a pristine sense of balance beyond
that which humans could ever hope to attain.
For my money, Wilde was wrong. His existence was more significant than that of the
aesthetic of his fine china. Yet in consciously and openly scrutinising the triumph
of the aesthetic over himself, he admits to the allure that corporations from
Byron to Givenchy mean to harness. To look at the social consequences of this, Lord
Henry’s statement from The Picture of
Dorian Gray is apposite:
“Beauty is a form of
genius, is higher, indeed than genius, as it needs no explanation… It has its
divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”
Oscar Wilde acknowledged the triumph of aesthetics
If we take beauty as the highest form of genius, we can
understand how growing injustices are tolerated in modern society. Taking
Wilde’s perspective, consumer society has not deprived us of fairness and
freedom in exchange for nothing, but it has given us an abundance of Beauty in
return. Lavish experience is now bestowed upon us: we have been made princes, masters
of rebellion or sophistication, or simply owners of garments and accessories
that will sparkle for us without end.
It is also valuable not to separate our experience of visual
aesthetics from our interaction with other short-term, shallow Texts, sensory
encounters that we experience quickly before moving to the next instalment. A
similar analysis might also be made of our relationship with news headlines,
Facebook notifications, growth forecasts, outpourings of mass public grief,
polished pop sounds, foods with high sugar content or synthetically enhanced
flavours. What slowly takes shape is a population, and at this point, we may as
well refer to ourselves more as a ‘species’, that takes short, shallow doses of
pleasure, ease or activation, assembled in such comprehensive bricolage that we
need never stray far from something else carefully designed with our
user-experience in mind. We are accustomed to a superiority of form over
substance so all-pervasive that the triumph of the immediate is complete.
Just past his two hundredth birthday, Søren Kierkegaard
remains relevant in helping to explain (if not quite understand) what is
happening around us. For Kierkegaard, life consists of the finite, the infinite
and the tussle between the two. The banal, physical and finite world craves the
meaning of the infinite and ethereal, while the infinite craves the physical
presence of the finite. What we see in the sensory experience that stems from
product and place is a concerted effort to load the finite with the infinite,
transforming life and experience from an organic and time-intensive process,
into an endless stream of nanomoments that synthesise what might once have
required history, engagement and accumulation. Moses refers to the monotony of
modern architecture, the glass which does nothing but reflect our very own
individuality right back at us. In Wilde and his blue china, meanwhile, we are
left to consider the prospect of humanity crushed by the aesthetics we created through
our own longing for the infinite.
As in any school of thought, scholars of postmodernism see
their particular discourse as the tool by which we make sense of a world
without the many structures and institutions that might once have ordered it.
The idea is that postmodernism is smart, rational, empowering; humans outfoxing
chaos by the power of intellect. The premise here, however, is that the world
around us is in disorder, spinning into a post-structural web of
contradictions, distraction and manipulations of truth. And yet what if the
scholars have it the wrong way round? What if postmodernism does not describe
the world outside of us, but rather the world inside our head? The atoms of the
world continue to move much as ever they have done, and it is only in the space
between our own ears that the structures have collapsed. The intricacies of
postmodernism are direct evidence of the elaborate contortions of thought
required to piece things back together.
If carefully designed aesthetics and Texts empower us as
individuals eager for emotional experience, perhaps the lasting problem is for
those of us with a Text of social and material equality at the core of who we
are, for whom there exists the unsettling thought that the equality we are
being offered is not the one we wanted. If someone is indeed experiencing a
sense of radicalism, euphoria, or plain beauty, is the greater problem that
they are… or that we aren’t? “Subjectivity is truth” and
“truth is subjectivity”, as Kierkegaard would say. As far as the women boarding
the train in a newly renovated King’s Cross station were concerned… the world had
just got slightly better.
recent elections to the City of London’s local authority were fiercely fought,
after years where the majority of seats went uncontested. Lessons should be
drawn for any future attempt to reform the financial services industry.
for the City of London Corporation’s Common Council were for many years
politics-free events in which a narrowly drawn electorate voted for a narrow
range of candidates. As often as not, sitting councillors stood for re-election
in seats that were uncontested. Debate about the sort of organisation the
Corporation should be did not take place.
election on the 23rd March of this year was different. It involved
public debates about the Corporation’s future and a genuine choice of
candidates in 21 of the City’s 25 wards. The City Reform Group, of which I am a member, encouraged
and supported independent, reform-minded candidates to stand and 10 did so.
(See my last article for OurKingdom, in the run-up to the elections.) Those candidates presented programmes of
reform that were couched in distinctly City-friendly tones, calling for
transparency in the manner in which the Corporation spends its money and makes
its decisions, advanced new proposals for how it could better deploy its
considerable resources (for example, by ploughing money into the City’s police
force in order that it may become a serious player in the fight against
financial crime) and how it may act as leader in building a culture of professionalism
in the financial services industry.
since Corporation elections are generally non-party political, the Labour Party
also fielded 10 candidates. The Labour manifesto involved similar commitments
to reform as those candidates who were supported by the City Reform Group.
However, the Labour party pledged a wider range of commitments, including
making the Corporation a living wage employer and using its clout to persuade City employers to do likewise. Labour candidates stood in wards in which
independent reform-committed candidates did not stand in order to ensure that
in as many wards as possible the voters had a candidate who stood for reform of
voters, having been given a genuine choice they came down emphatically, in
favour of the status quo. Only two independent reform candidates were elected.
None of Labour’s candidates were, although several performed well and one
came within a handful of votes of doing so. The winner of the election was
indisputably the Corporation itself. (See the results here.)
must approach with particular caution the results of an election in which the
votes even for successful candidates were in the hundreds and not the thousands.
However, it provides a glimpse of the attitudes and approaches that will feature
in politics of the financial services industry in the coming years.
Corporation’s electorate is unrepresentative of London and the UK population,
but is peculiarly representative of the City itself. It consists of those with
property interests within the City and those who have been allocated a vote by
corporations who are provided with a number of votes to distribute internally.
This franchise means that whilst some of the electorate were small business
owners and some were residents, the majority were those who worked within the
financial services industry.
votes for Labour party and independent reform candidates show that the industry
does not vote as a monolithic block. But the rejection of reform candidates in
the vast majority of seats is significant.
who stood for reform offered the mildest recipe for change. They advanced no
critique of capitalism, or even of the version of capitalism which successive
governments have advanced over the last 30 years. They did not seek to
challenge the assumption that here was an industry that should be prized and
supported or that the Corporation was the body to provide industry-wide
leadership. What they did stand for was an acknowledgment that something had
gone very significantly wrong with the way in which many parts of the financial
services industry operated and that the Corporation, which is effectively the
bridgehead between the financial services industry and the state (the term
‘lobbyist’ does not quite capture the entrenched nature of its influence), was
part of the problem.
election was therefore an opportunity for the City to demonstrate a willingness
to acknowledge wrong and commit itself to reform by voting for change within
its own representative body.
The City’s commitment to reforming itself has been much trumpeted by the
Corporation and other industry leaders to ward off the threat of external
regulation (most recently in its submission to the Parliamentary Commission on
Banking Standards in which it opposed any additional regulation of the banking
If one thing emerges from this election it is that for all those claims, when
the City is faced with the test of voting for reform, then in the privacy of
the voting booth, the City chose the status quo. When one comes to consider how
far the City can be trusted to puts its house in order, this fact deserves to
be better known.
the launch of the City Reform Group was respectfully reported by the
broadsheets the election itself was (aside from the coverage by the Financial
Times) covered poorly even by the Evening Standard, London’s daily paper.
may say something about the commitment of that paper to provide serious
coverage of important London events and perhaps also about its own pro-City bias.
However, even the most right wing news outlet finds it difficult to ignore the
news on its doorstep. Perhaps the greatest success of Occupy the London Stock
exchange was to occupy the front pages of Britain’s daily papers: the tents in
front of St Pauls may have brought the press, but they stayed because the
occupation created a sense that the terms of debate had been thrown open: the
big issues need not, indeed could not, be left to the political class to debate
were involved in the City Reform Group but by the time of the Corporation
election that radical, reforming spirit had thinned into a genteel,
establishment call for moral improvement. Led by Church of England clergymen,
supported senior figures in the RSA and WHICH and by conservative MP David
Davis, the reform group did not offer a challenge to existing system but a plea
for the creation of institutional morality need to make the system work.
an agenda of ‘moderate’ reform, centred on professionalization of the industry
and ring fencing rather than separation of the deposit-taking and investment
arms of the banks, to which the Labour and Conservative parties has already committed
themselves and to which the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards has
added its voice.
fact that the Labour Party, which once pledged to abolish the Corporation, now
participates in Corporation elections as a candid friend of the financial
services industry (‘to bring about the reforms needed to create again a City
and Corporation of which we can all be proud’, as the City of London Labour
Party website has it, is a
small but telling signal that it will not be the party to ‘take on the City’ in
the way that the Thatcher government took on the unions. It may institute codes
of conduct and greater training requirements, plead for responsibility and
issue threats of real change if impossibly vague criteria are not met (Labour
currently pledge to break up the banks ‘if there is not a genuine change of
culture’ in the City. The
City has responded and will continue to respond much as certain trade unions
responded to calls for restraint and responsibility in 1970s, by issuing solemn
declarations that in practice count for little.
who took part in the Corporation election trod a difficult path: they had to be
moderate and un-newsworthy in order to have any chance of being elected. Yet it
is hard not to see the election as one example of the reform of the financial
services industry being re-occupied by the political class, denuded of it
radical potential and fading into the foreground of politics-as-usual. ‘Make no little plans’, said architect
Daniel Burnham ‘for they have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ It is a warning
which City reformers need to heed.
future reform of the Corporation and the industry
the odd advantages enjoyed by the Corporation is that, despite its own
self-proclaimed role as the ‘voice’ of the financial services industry, many
people persist in regarding it as a harmless, historic local government body. However,
this attitude may be changing. The pressure for the Corporation to release
information about its private income led it to make disclosures in the lead up
to the election. The ‘City’s Cash Overview 2012’ which revealed a fund worth
£1.32bn was not a full breakdown of expenditure and pressure must continue to
understand how it uses its money to advance the interests of the financial
services industry. In March the online campaigning organisation Avaaz started a
petition that called for the ‘Rememberancer’, the Corporation official who
represents the City’s interest in Parliament, to be removed from his traditional
seat in the Chamber of the House of Commons.
and exposing the role that the Corporation plays in shaping the life of London
and the nation is important. However, the Corporation - its institutions,
history and public spaces - should also be used to fire the widest debate about
the future of the financial services industry, which is a debate about what sort
of economy and society we want.
will mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the medieval charter
in which the British crown not only undertook to respect traditional liberties
but also to respect the freedom of the trading City of London. This freedom has
been the source of the wealth and power of the financial services industry. The
Magna Carta anniversary is an opportunity to think again
about the terms of the licence which the City enjoys: to consider what society
requires of the financial services industry in return for the right to make its
In 2011, at a time of financial crisis and in opposition to impending austerity measures, Greeks of all ages came together to occupy Athens' central square and inspire a resurgent form of political protest across the world. Two years on, where are the occupiers now?
2013 is shaping up to be a quiet year for political protest in
Greece. You won’t have heard about the riots, protests, or running
street battles. There aren’t any. With talk of a slow ‘Grecovery’, Athens is no longer the epicentre of financial and political news.
An empty Syntagma, Jon Wiltshire.
But it certainly remains the pressure point. Social upheaval
continues, frighteningly exemplified by the wandering unemployed father
and child I met at a community kitchen who move from free meal to free
meal looking for food; or the underreported but frequent shootings, stabbings and beatings of migrants by Golden Dawn (see openDemocracy) and those that support their racist and extra-judicial violence .
2011 occupation of Syntagma Square
This year feels sheepish in comparison to 2011; a year of surging
grass-roots politics, a global political ‘moment’. Back then, Greeks of
all ages and most political persuasions had occupied Syntagma, Athens’
central square and most prominent public space, alongside occupiers in the US, the UK, Spain, Israel, Egypt, and beyond .
Niovi Laúd, who co-runs a fair-trade cooperative café in Athens, was
there: “I saw things I hadn’t imagined”, she tells me, sitting outside
her café. From day one it felt like a new way of doing politics; a
politics distinct from the slanging matches of the past. Syntagma
produced discussions across fractious ideological lines that were
notably civil, unusually tolerant. It was an unprecedentedly
constructive and energetic coming together, at a time of imposed and
impending austerity, mass protest, racism, police violence, and memories of 2008’s riots.
But that was two years ago. Today, the effects of austerity are
everywhere entrenched, lagging behind the legislation and memoranda. So
what happened to the energy of the occupation? There are reams of pages
written on Occupy Wall Street’s fallout (see the Financial Times’ roundup), but where are the Greek occupiers?
Back to the neighbourhoods
They went home. Or rather, they returned to the neighbourhoods. At Syntagma, like in many of the other occupied squares across the
Arab and Western worlds, seasoned activists mingled with the erstwhile
apolitical. “For the first time, neighbours met their neighbours in a
political setting”, Niovi says. “They saw that people they knew from
their suburb or their street were troubled by the same problems”. The
occupation provided the setting for indignant people of all political
colours to form the strong social networks that are the basis for
today’s surge in localised, grass roots activism.
Indeed, immediately after Syntagma’s occupation, it was through these localised networks that the ‘Do Not Pay’ (Den Plirono)
movement against near-punitive taxes on housing, was so well supported
by those with so different a political tendency. And it’s through these
networks that, two years on, local people are attempting to help those
worst affected by the crisis, those who’ve slipped off the bottom rung
Criss-crossing Athens, most neighbourhoods have established their own
non-hierarchical assemblies, regularly meeting to discuss and act upon
what they see as local issues. And most impressively, solidarity
kitchens regularly feed the city’s poor and act as a focal point for
community togetherness. Increasingly, neighbourhood groups have also
started their own doctor’s surgeries, pharmacies, tutoring services, and psychotherapy sessions. The locals are stepping in where the state has stepped out.
‘There were two Syntagmas’
“I’m not really sure what happened at Syntagma. I think there were
actually two squares, two geographies: one in the square itself, where
the assemblies took place, and one up the steps, outside Parliament”.
Georgia Alexandri, who is finishing her PhD in urban geography, was also
at Syntagma. She’s wants me to think about visually: Syntagma Square is
a large, sloping marble plaza with steps at it’s eastern end. Climbing
up the steps leads you to wide pavements, four lanes of traffic and,
behind ceremonial guards wearing a Greek permutation of the kilt, the
pinkish Greek Parliament. It’s here, up the steps, that most political
protests and marches begin, end, or at least pass. And it’s here, up the
steps, that “they were angrier, simply shouting at the politicians”.
Georgia tells me she doesn’t want to “beautify” the occupation; what
happened, who was there, and what the outcome was isn’t as clear as some
would have it. Yes, as you might expect, strong leftist, anarchist and
autonomist networks were created and broadened in the main square,
through the ‘people’s assemblies’. But the anti-political surge also
attracted enraged citizens who felt their problems might be better
solved by the far right.
Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London aimed to expose the financiers,
not the politicians. That’s why they occupied public space in the
financial districts. Although a false distinction everywhere, those with
power and those with money in Greece really are a bit more
indistinguishable than in the US or the UK. Perhaps Syntagma was simply
the most central space, or perhaps the Greeks were making a point about
how in cahoots political parties were (and remain) with most problematic
aspects of Greek society.
Either way, Parliament overshadowed the
occupation. The actual assemblies held at Syntagma were, by and large,
constructive. But Georgia thinks that it was up the steps that those
newly disillusioned by party politics began to be inculcated by the far
right. She thinks many of those who were there purely because they were
anti-politics, eventually ended up supporting Golden Dawn (the Greek
Nazi party built on generations-old legacies of fascism).
Two types of local networks
So on one side, we have the previously apolitical, the leftists, the
anarchists and the autonomists, all helping those worst affected by
austerity through localised, neighbourhood groups. And on the other, there’s Golden Dawn. The party and their
supporters, clad in black t-shirts and combat pants, help ‘only Greeks’
through media-friendly and provocative ‘Greek only’ food giveaways or ‘ethnic Greek’ blood donations.
Their involvement signals another development in Athenian localised
politics: perhaps unfortunately, altruistic responses to austerity –
solidarity kitchens or doctor’s surgeries – are now being used for party
political infiltration. Yes, Golden Dawn are organising monthly media
stunts. But Syriza, a parliamentary political party, are also getting in on the action. It feels as if what was an extra-party-political movement now isn’t.
Where are the occupiers now?
Syntagma Square’s occupiers forged strong networks of thriving – if
underfunded and under-equipped – neighbourhood assemblies that provide
the services the state has cut. For the most part, these services are
open to everyone; Golden Dawn media stunts are the exception. But what
of the other 2011 occupations? Where are the occupiers now? Will basic
community service provision on a volunteer basis work elsewhere? Indeed,
will it work in Athens, in the long-run? Whatever your politics,
running a public doctor’s surgery without state funding is hard, if not
 A ballooning police force are also now enforcing tightened
immigration policies in Athens. Often, their methods are brutal, several
eyewitnesses I’ve met here talk of beatings of illegal immigrants being
commonplace. The experiences of some foreign tourists, mistaken by the police for illegal immigrants, is testament to this.
 These movements were occupying, developing structures and debating
for different ideological reasons and in country- or even city-specific
contexts. Yet, they are intimately linked because they all concurrently –
and sometimes in solidarity with one another – adopted the same form of
protest: a semi-permanent occupation of a public space;
non-hierarchical organisation; and open, decision-making assemblies.
 This article isn’t designed to be ‘crisis porn’ – that is,
spectacular, emotive, loosely based in the nuances of reality – but the
statistics are real.
In January 1968, young feminist
antiwar activists in the U.S temporarily broke with a long tradition of protesting war as
mothers. At an all-women’s protest against the Vietnam War, they symbolically
buried “Traditional Womanhood” and claimed the right to protest as independent
citizens. Does it matter what language
women use to protest war ?
Throughout history, women have often leveraged
their legitimacy and status as mothers—or even as grandmothers—to protest war and
violence. In the United States, for
example, Carrie Chapman Catt and Jane Addams founded the Woman’s Peace Party
in 1915, which eventually became the Women’s International League for Peace and
Like so many other women of their generation, they argued that women’s special life-giving and preserving role
as mothers gave them a unique right to seek universal disarmament in the 1920s.
Between the early years of the twentieth century
and the 1960s, union activists and socialists often based their opposition to
war on their view of themselves as workers or revolutionaries. Still, the
tradition of women protesting as mothers persisted.
That tradition was dramatically challenged on
January 15, 1968 by American young feminists. On that day, about 5,000 women peace activists from two generations
gathered in Washington D.C. to demand the immediate withdrawal of troops from
Vietnam. They called themselves the Jeanette
Rankin Brigade, in honor of the first woman elected to the U.S.Congress, a
pacifist, who had voted against both world wars.
Interspersed among the crowd were approximately
500 young feminists, who, in a controversial act of defiance, decided to
symbolically bury “Traditional Womanhood”
at the protest. The ritual was hardly spontaneous. After months of consciousness raising,
they had decided that “the Brigade
was playing upon the traditional female role in the classic manner. They came
as wives, mothers and mourners; that is, tearful and passive reactors to the
actions of men rather than organizing as women to change that definition of
femininity to something other than a synonym for weakness, political impotence,
and tears.” They demanded to be
heard as citizens, not as mothers.
After the coalition of women had protested and
delivered their petition to the U.S. Senate, about 500 young feminists issued
black-bordered invitations to the rest of the Brigade, “joyfully” inviting them
to join the torchlight burial of Traditional Womanhood, “who passed with a sigh
to her Great Reward this year of the Lord, 1968, after 3,000 years of
bolstering the ego of Warmakers and aiding the cause of war.”
They carried a dummy of “Traditional Womanhood”
and symbolically buried her at the military’s Arlington National Cemetery.
Larger than life, the dummy rode on a bier “complete with feminine getup, blank
face, blonde curls and candles. Hanging from the bier were disposable items
such as curlers, garters and hairspray. Streamers floated off of it and banners
screamed “DON’T CRY, Resist!” The funeral entourage sang songs specially
written for the occasion, lamenting “women’s traditional role which encourages
men to develop aggression and militarism to prove their masculinity.”
The rest of the Jeanette Ranking Brigade snubbed
their invitation. Many of the older women failed to understand why these young
women needed to attack activists like the Women Strike for Peace, a group that
had successfully fought above-ground atomic bomb testing in the early 1960s and
The International League for Peace and Freedom, which had protested the Vietnam
War. What was their problem? Why did
they need to engage in such adolescent theatrics and make women’s liberation an
issue at an all-women’s antiwar demonstration in the nation’s capital? The war,
in their view, was more important.
The generation gap could not be bridged. For the
young women, the burial of Traditional Womanhood was a critique of the Feminine Mystique
of the 1950s, the pervasive cultural imperative that women should live
exclusively through their husbands and children. Many of these young feminists were not yet mothers and they
insisted that “Our children will not become victims of our unconscious
resentments and our displaced ambitions.” Determined to avoid the plight of
their mothers’ generation, the young women decided to protest as citizens. The
ghost that haunted them wore an apron, lived submissively, and protested as a
But the Burial of Traditional Womanhood also
expressed the rage of young civil rights and antiwar activists who had
gradually come to realize the power that their men in the movement and
elsewhere held over their lives. As
they buried Traditional Womanhood, they declared their right to resist war as
autonomous beings, not merely as contingent appendages of men and their families.
Rejecting the biological determinism of the 1950s, they stressed the similarity
between the sexes, rather than the differences. Though they failed to gain many
recruits, their counter protest helped consolidate and publicize the rapidly
expanding women’s liberation movement all across the nation. Sadly,
the legacy of that demonstration is rarely included in histories of the 1960s
or antiwar protests against the Vietnam War.
Nor did the attack against protesting as mothers
last very long. As women peace activists aged, the terror of the 1950s
retreated and their respect for women’s experience and motherhood grew. By the
1980s many of these women peace activists were no longer distressed by the
“motherist” rhetoric they had rejected in 1968.
Some used the language of motherhood tactically,
believing that as mothers, rather than as feminists, they had greater
legitimacy. Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarment (WAND),
founded by Helen Caldicott, happily
exploited Mother’s Day and other symbols of motherhood to promote women’s
organizations against militarism. Aware of how effective women, as mothers, had
fought for an end to violence in Argentina, Ireland and South Africa, many
peace activists no longer worried about “traditional womanhood".
Still others used a new eco-feminist discourse that
viewed women as preservers of the planet and men as plunderers of the earth.
The women who participated in the Women’s
Pentagon Action in 1980, for example, valorized everything female.
Emotionality---excessive displays of weeping, raging, chanting and mourning---
were honored and favorably compared to men’s sublimation of feeling into
violence. Traditions inherited—or newly invented-- from women’s past were used
to glorify women’s magical healing powers. At a variety of peace encampments in
the United States and England,
thousands of women in effect said that they had a moral responsibility to wrest
control of the earth from men. “For many,” explained two participants at the Greenham
Common Women’s Peace Encampment, “The issue is about reclaiming power for
ourselves, and not remaining victims of a male-defined world characterized by
Although they employed a discourse that presumed
women morally superior—much as mothers had done—they also succeeded in drawing
the world’s attention to the danger of nuclear war.
So does it matter which language women use when
they fight against war and violence?
There is no correct answer. Women should use the discourse that best
reflects their own sensibilities and one that resonates in their own society.
Every discourse, however, creates its own limitations. Protesting as mothers is
often more effective than organizing as feminists, though it may limit women’s
rights as citizens. Organizing as
feminist peace protesters may offend so many people that women’s demands for
peace may be ignored.
The truth is, no matter what discourse they
employ, the very act of fighting against war and violence turns women into
political actors, which inevitably expands their traditional role in their
families and society.
Since 2000, however, women peace activists have
successfully employed the language of human rights on the global
stage, declaring women’s
rights as human rights, challenging violence against women, and ensuring
that women be engaged in fighting militarism before, during and after war.
Human rights activists are certainly not the
first to argue that women should fight militarism as citizens. Betty Friedan
once said, “My own revulsion toward the war in Vietnam does not flow from my
breast, nor even from the fact of my draft-age sons, but from my moral conscience
as a human being and as an American. A
few years before her death, Simone de Beauvoir expressed her firm conviction
that “women should desire peace as human beings, not as women.”
The historical significance of the Burial of
Traditional Womanhood is that it set the stage for a moment in the future when
women peace activists could, without apology,
use the language of human rights to protest war and militarism—not just
as mothers or morally superior protectors of the earth—but as citizens of the
in this article are taken from an article by the author in the journal Vietnam
Generation ( out of print) , Summer-Fall Vol 1, no. 4. 1989, entitled 'Gender and the War: Men,
Women and Vietnam'.
and political shifts in large part attributable to the successes of the post-war multilateral order are now amongst the
factors grinding that system into gridlock.
round of trade negotiations is deadlocked, despite eight successful
multilateral trade rounds before it.
Climate negotiators have met for two decades without finding a way to
stem global emissions. The UN is
paralyzed in the face of growing insecurities across the world, the latest
dramatic example being Syria. Each
of these phenomena could be treated as if it was independent, and an
explanation sought for the peculiarities of its causes. Yet, such a perspective would fail to show
what they, along with numerous other instances of breakdown in international
negotiations, have in common.
cooperation is gridlocked across a range of issue areas. The reasons for this
are not the result of any single underlying causal structure, but rather of several
underlying dynamics that work together.
Global cooperation today is failing not simply because it is very difficult
to solve many global problems – indeed it is – but because previous phases of
global cooperation have been incredibly successful, producing unintended
consequences that have overwhelmed the problem-solving capacities of the very
institutions that created them. It
is hard to see how this situation can be unravelled,
given failures of contemporary global leadership, the weaknesses of NGOs in
converting popular campaigns into institutional change and reform, and the
domestic political landscapes of the most powerful countries.
A golden era of governed globalization
to understand why gridlock has come about it is important to understand how it
was that the post-Second World War era facilitated, in many respects, a
successful form of ‘governed globalization’ that contributed to relative peace
and prosperity across the world over several decades. This period was marked by peace between the great powers,
although there were many proxy wars fought out in the global South. This
relative stability created the conditions for what now can be regarded as an
unprecedented period of prosperity that characterized the 1950s onward. Although it is by no means the sole
cause, the UN is central to this story, helping to create conditions under
which decolonization and successive waves of democratization could take root, profoundly
altering world politics.
economic record of the postwar years varies by country, many experienced
significant economic growth and living standards rose rapidly across significant
parts of the world. By the late 1980s a variety of East Asian countries were
beginning to grow at an unprecedented speed, and by the late 1990s countries
such as China, India and Brazil had gained significant economic momentum, a
process that continues to this day.
Meanwhile, the institutionalization of international
cooperation proceeded at an equally impressive pace. In 1909, 37
intergovernmental organizations existed; in 2011, the number of institutions
and their various off-shoots had grown to 7608 (Union of International
Associations 2011). There was substantial growth in the number of international
treaties in force, as well as the number of international regimes, formal and
informal. At the same time, new kinds of institutional arrangements have
emerged alongside formal intergovernmental bodies, including a variety of types
of transnational governance arrangements such as networks of government
officials, public-private partnerships, as well as exclusively
Postwar institutions created the conditions under which a
multitude of actors could benefit from forming multinational companies, investing
abroad, developing global production chains, and engaging with a plethora of other
social and economic processes associated with globalization. These conditions,
combined with the expansionary logic of capitalism and basic technological
innovation, changed the nature of the world economy, radically increasing
dependence on people and countries from every corner of the world. This
interdependence, in turn, created demand for further institutionalization,
which states seeking the benefits of cooperation provided, beginning the cycle
This is not to say that international institutions were the only cause
of the dynamic form of globalization experienced over the last few decades.
Changes in the nature of global capitalism, including breakthroughs in transportation
and information technology, are obviously critical drivers of interdependence.
However, all of these changes were allowed to thrive and develop because they
took place in a relatively open, peaceful, liberal, institutionalized world
order. By preventing World War Three and another Great Depression, the
multilateral order arguably did just as much for interdependence as
microprocessors or email (see Mueller 1990; O’Neal and Russett 1997).
Beyond the special
privileges of the great powers
Self-reinforcing interdependence has now progressed to the
point where it has altered our ability to engage in further global cooperation.
That is, economic and political shifts in large part attributable to the successes of the post-war multilateral
order are now amongst the factors grinding that system into gridlock. Because
of the remarkable success of global cooperation in the postwar order, human
interconnectedness weighs much more heavily on politics than it did in 1945.
The need for international cooperation has never been higher. Yet the “supply”
side of the equation, institutionalized multilateral cooperation, has
stalled. In areas such as nuclear
proliferation, the explosion of small arms sales, terrorism, failed states,
global economic imbalances, financial market instability, global poverty and
inequality, biodiversity losses, water deficits and climate change,
multilateral and transnational cooperation is now increasingly ineffective or
threadbare. Gridlock is not unique
to one issue domain, but appears to be becoming a general feature of global
governance: cooperation seems to be increasingly difficult and deficient at
precisely the time when it is needed most.
It is possible to identify four reasons
for this blockage, four pathways to gridlock: rising multipolarity,
institutional inertia, harder problems, and institutional fragmentation. Each
pathway can be thought of as a growing trend that embodies a specific mix of
causal mechanisms. Each of these are explained briefly below.
multipolarity. The absolute number of states has
increased by 300 percent in the last 70 years, meaning that the most basic
transaction costs of global governance have grown. More importantly, the number
of states that “matter” on a given issue—that is, the states without whose
cooperation a global problem cannot be adequately addressed—has expanded by
similar proportions. At Bretton Woods in 1945, the rules of the world economy
could essentially be written by the United States with some consultation with
the UK and other European allies. In the aftermath of the 2008-2009 crisis, the
G-20 has become the principal forum for global economic management, not because
the established powers desired to be more inclusive, but because they could not
solve the problem on their own. However, a consequence of this progress is now that
many more countries, representing a diverse range of interests, must agree in
order for global cooperation to occur.
inertia. The postwar order succeeded, in part,
because it incentivized great power involvement in key institutions. From the
UN Security Council, to the Bretton Woods institutions, to the
Non-Proliferation Treaty, key pillars of the global order explicitly grant
special privileges to the countries that were wealthy and powerful at the time
of their creation. This hierarchy was necessary to secure the participation of
the most important countries in global governance. Today, the gain from this
trade-off has shrunk while the costs have grown. As power shifts from West to
East, North to South, a broader range of participation is needed on nearly all
global issues if they are to be dealt with effectively. At the same time,
following decolonization, the end of the Cold War and economic development, the
idea that some countries should hold more rights and privileges than others is
increasingly (and rightly) regarded as morally bankrupt. And yet, the architects of the postwar
order did not, in most cases, design institutions that would organically adjust
to fluctuations in national power.
problems. As independence has deepened, the
types and scope of problems around which countries must cooperate has evolved.
Problems are both now more extensive, implicating a broader range of countries
and individuals within countries, and intensive, penetrating deep into the
domestic policy space and daily life. Consider the example of trade. For much
of the postwar era, trade negotiations focused on reducing tariff levels on
manufactured products traded between industrialized countries. Now, however,
negotiating a trade agreement requires also discussing a host of social, environmental,
and cultural subjects - GMOs, intellectual property, health and environmental
standards, biodiversity, labour standards—about which countries often disagree
sharply. In the area of
environmental change a similar set of considerations applies. To clean up
industrial smog or address ozone depletion required fairly discrete actions
from a small number of top polluters.
By contrast, the threat of climate change and the efforts to mitigate it
involve nearly all countries of the globe. Yet, the divergence of voice and interest within both the
developed and developing worlds, along with the sheer complexity of the incentives
needed to achieve a low carbon economy, have made a global deal, thus far,
impossible (Falkner et al. 2011; Victor 2011).
The institution-builders of the 1940s began with, essentially, a blank slate.
But efforts to cooperate internationally today occur in a dense institutional
ecosystem shaped by path dependency. The exponential rise in both multilateral
and transnational organizations has created a more complex multilevel and
multi-actor system of global governance.
Within this dense web of institutions mandates can conflict,
interventions are frequently uncoordinated, and all too typically scarce
resources are subject to intense competition. In this context, the proliferation of institutions tends to
lead to dysfunctional fragmentation, reducing the ability of multilateral institutions
to provide public goods. When funding and political will are scarce, countries
need focal points to guide policy (Keohane and Martin 1995), which can help define
the nature and form of cooperation. Yet, when international regimes overlap,
these positive effects are weakened. Fragmented institutions, in turn,
disaggregate resources and political will, while increasing transaction costs.
In stressing four pathways to gridlock
we emphasize the manner in which contemporary global governance problems build
up on each other, although different pathways can carry more significance in
some domains than in others. The challenges now faced by the multilateral order
are substantially different from those faced by the 1945 victors in the postwar
settlement. They are second-order
cooperation problems arising from previous phases of success in global
coordination. Together, they now
block and inhibit problem solving and reform at the global level.
exists across a range of different areas in global governance today, from
security arrangements to trade and finance. This dynamic is, arguably, most
evident in the realm of climate change. The diffusion of industrial production
across the world—a process enabled by economic globalization—has created a
situation in which the basic consumption of each individual directly affects
the life chances of every other individual on the planet, as well as the life
chances of future generations.
This is a
powerful and entirely new form of global interdependence. Bluntly put, the
future of our civilization depends on our ability to cooperate across borders.
And yet, despite twenty years of multilateral negotiations under the UN, a
global deal on climate change mitigation or adaptation remains elusive, with
differences between developed countries, which have caused the problem, and
developing countries, which will drive future emissions, forming the core
barrier to progress. Unless we overcome gridlock in climate negotiations, as in
other issue areas, we will be unable to continue to enjoy the peace and
prosperity we have inherited from the postwar order.
are, of course, several forces that might work against gridlock. These include the potential of social
movements to uproot existing political constraints, catalysed by IT innovation
and the use of associated technology for coordination across borders; the
capacity of existing institutions to adapt and accommodate factors such as
emerging multipolarity (the shift from the G-5/7 to the G-20 is one example);
and efforts at institutional reform which seek to alter the organizational
structure of global governance (for example, proposals to reform the Security
Council or to establish a financial transaction tax).
there is the political will or leadership to move beyond gridlock remains a
pressing question. Social
movements find it difficult to convert protests into consolidated institutional
change. At the same time, the political leadership of the great power blocs
appears dogged by national concerns: Washington is sharply divided, Europe is
preoccupied with the future of the Euro and China is absorbed by the challenge
of sustaining economic growth as the prime vehicle of domestic legitimacy. Against this background, the further
deepening of gridlock and the continuing failure to address global collective
action problems appears likely.
aftermath of the Second World War the institutional breakthroughs that occurred
provided the momentum for decades of sustained economic growth and geopolitical
stability sufficient for the transformation of the world economy, the shift
from the Cold War to a multipolar order, and the rise of new communication and
what worked then does not work as well now, as gridlock freezes problem solving
capacity in global governance. The
search for a politics beyond gridlock, in theory and in practice, is a hugely
significant task – nationally and globally – if global governance is to be once
again both effective and fit for purpose.
An understanding of the link
between the shocking murder of a young soldier on a London street and
"remote-control" attacks by western states is essential.
In the London bombings of 7 July 2005 (“7/7”), explosions on three underground trains and a bus killed fifty-two people as well as the four bombers and injured hundreds. Soon afterwards it became clear that the four bombers came from Leeds and Dewsbury in west Yorkshire, 200 miles north of London, and the media quickly descended on the neighbourhoods. On a number of occasions newspaper and TV journalists asked young people of Pakistani origins for their reactions, and these were almost always of horror and condemnation of the bombers and what they had done.
Not infrequently, though, they also referred to Iraq, where the post-invasion violence was at its height. Fifty-two innocent people died in London on 7/7 but that was the average daily death-toll in Iraq - day after day and week after week. The connection was not difficult to make and was reinforced by one of the "suicide videos" released in the wake of the London attacks. It was also angrily and predictably denied by Tony Blair and his government, even if it struck something of a chord with many people in Britain.
Eight years on, British troops have long since left Iraq. That was one of Gordon Brown's less noticed decisions, but it also involved a quid pro quo for Barack Obama in the form of a greater UK commitment to Afghanistan. That war has scarcely been more popular in Britain than was the one in Iraq, but the media attention is far lower and any link between the Woolwich atrocity and Afghanistan is almost entirely discounted.
In part this is explainable by the sheer horror of the action and the immediate spread of appalling images through new social media and the main broadcast and print media. The shock is there, it is visceral, and surely needs no explaining. It is sheer terrorism.
And yet this is not enough.
The new social media may provide vivid and grim dispersal of the Woolwich murder but that same media does the same for the numerous armed-drone attacks in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, including two drone-strikes in Yemen in the past week alone. These and their counterparts go virtually unreported in the establishment western press; indeed the public image in Britain is of a war rapidly winding down in Afghanistan and hardly observed in Yemen or Somalia, let alone Pakistan.
Where the disconnect lies is in the near-universal lack of knowledge of the intensity of the armed-drone operations as these replace “boots on the ground”. This lack of knowledge has two elements. The first is that the attacks have been numerous. The United States may be the major user of armed-drones in Afghanistan, with over a thousand operations through to the end of 2012, but the UK follows quite closely behind with 349.
The second is the absence of any information on casualties, except for the occasional naming of middle-ranking commanders who may die. This “we don't do body-counts” policy is persistent and was practised to remarkable effect in the air war in Libya in 2011.
At that time, Britain's ministry of defence would - day after day - release details of targets hit by bombs and missiles. These might be rocket-launchers, tank-transporters, anti-aircraft radars or psychological-warfare centres; but the remarkable thing was that no mention was made of people ever getting killed - and this was despite the ready availability of high-resolution bomb-damage assessment (essential in case of the need for retargeting). It was as if every time a bomb or missile was about to strike, the clever people around the target could jump out of the way in a matter of microseconds and escape entirely unharmed. The end result of this was that, to all intents and purposes, no one was getting killed or injured - at least as far as most of the UK media was concerned.
The same applies to Britain's armed-drone attacks in Afghanistan, with one difference: that the new social media, linked to the work of Islamist propagandists, is assiduously used to spread the reality of the strikes in a way that simply did not happen in Libya.
The appalling nature and the open shock of the Woolwich murder are such that it is expecting far too much for this Afghan connection to have any traction with public opinion. Yet there is a connection and the full picture is incomplete without it.
The steady move from boots-on-the-ground to "remote control" has created an apparent assumption that people in the west are safely anaesthetised from the impact - whether it be in Afghanistan, Yemen or, perhaps in the near future, Nigeria as well as Mali
We are not.
It is understandable that the murder of the young soldier is too grim and violent for that to be seen. But perhaps we will somehow have to make that imaginative leap if, in the longer term, we are to avoid further instances of such extreme violence on our streets.