Editorial: Three Cities

1 November 2005

Three Cities

Rebecca Johnson

Three cities: London, Baghdad and New Orleans. Joined together in the last few months by wanton death and tragedy. Nearly sixty killed on the London Underground and number 30 bus by naive young men groomed into deadly weapons by unscrupulous religious extremists. Over a thousand - mostly women and children - stampeded to death in Baghdad. And hundreds, perhaps thousands, drowned in New Orleans and left to rot for days.

What links these three proud, vibrant cities is not just misfortune and the death of innocents. They are connected through policy choices and arrogant leaders' carelessness about the rights and lives of ordinary people. Even when threats are largely natural, such as hurricanes and floods, human factors - in this case the gas guzzling cars and polluting industries that cause global warming and climate change - can increase the frequency and severity.

When Tony Blair continues to deny that the London bombs could have had any connection to his joining George W. Bush in the war on Iraq, he shows how remote he is from truth and reality. It no longer works to dismiss the truth-tellers as apologists for terrorism, when so many others have eyes to see. Recognising there is a causal link is not the same as justifying terrorism, for the indiscriminate killing of civilians cannot be justified. Nor does it imply that this was the only cause, for attention also has to be paid to cultural, religious and gender expectations and frustrations, and the mechanisms that extremists use to manufacture hatred and intolerance and induce in young men the willingness to kill and be killed.

When the capital's commuters were bombed on July 7, Blair was at the G-8 meeting in Gleneagles, surrounded by thousands of London's police officers and terrorism experts. He is not to blame, but he must face up to his own contributory mistakes and responsibilities. His disastrous policies with regard to Iraq have alienated a generation of Muslims, driven some of the more foolish and inadequate into the eager arms of violent extremists, and provided a fertile recruitment and training ground for terrorism. In other words, the pre-war intelligence assessments which warned of these consequences were right.

Tony, did you watch the young bomber on Al Jazeera explaining how he plans to kill us because you have harmed his 'people'? He is serious because he is putting his own life on the line for this 'cause'. However dreadful and misguided his actions, it is important to understand that this is what he believed, and that his actions flowed from these beliefs: that British policies on Iraq fed into his anger and frustration and made the job of the terrorist recruiters much easier.

For Baghdad, the terror goes on and on, day in and day out. Forty killed one day, 112 the next. And now more than a thousand people trampled to death when a religious procession turned into a stampede.

Baghdad's pain and tragedies have become so commonplace that the death tolls seem to raise little interest nowadays. Mass panic has caused deaths before, and our news may be dominated by the parochial, but that should not be an excuse for us to ignore the misery in Iraq that has been exacerbated by US and British policies. These deaths must be recognised as a consequence of the war. The surging crowd was trying to get away from what people thought was a suicide bomber in their midst. Suicide murderers, like aerial bombardments, are part of Baghdad's war now. And of course the stampede disproportionately killed the most vulnerable - children, the less able-bodied, and women.

Another policy that will cost lives is the new Iraqi constitution that Bush and Blair are so eager to have adopted. To do this, they have sold short the lives of Iraqi women, who over decades had established a level of legal and human rights above the norm for Islamic societies. Not even Saddam Hussein was able to take away the women's rights that Britain and America are now sacrificing on their behalf! Looking at the sad pictures of bodies laid out in rows in Baghdad, I wondered how many women had been impeded by their voluminous shrouds as hoards of panicked men pushed over them.

In New Orleans, too, the most vulnerable were too poor, disabled or encumbered to get out. The majority of victims were not killed directly by the hurricane, though it tore through their houses, but afterwards, when the levees broke. It turns out that resources earmarked for emergency planning and strengthening the levees had been diverted to pay for "homeland defence", including the debacle in Iraq. What kind of homeland defence forgets human security and leaves its citizens so vulnerable when a fraction of the resources spent on armaments and this gratuitous war in Iraq could have saved them?

Extraordinarily, considering how an entire movie genre has been built around the heroic saving of a single US soldier from enemy hands, American civilians were left to die like flies in their own city while the self-proclaimed "war president" dithered. These were the uncounted Americans, predominantly poor and black, treated as collateral damage like the tens of thousands of uncounted Iraqis killed in their disintegrating cities since March 2003.

Three cities, one war, many deaths. When will these leaders learn? When will they be held accountable?