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Home > Politics

Opportunity Knocks

19 March 2004

Wringing the necks of wounded pheasants and responding to major international catastrophes: two things the Queen does really well. She attends to both duties with the same cool formality and tasteful brevity. Her statement following the Madrid bombings was dignified, measured and resolutely apolitical:

"I was shocked to learn of the tragic loss of life following the explosions this morning in Madrid. These attacks of terrorism have struck without discrimination and have horrified the people of the United Kingdom. My thoughts are with the families and friends of the bereaved and injured."

The Queen would never dream of displaying actual emotion at such times. To do so would be as absurd as shedding a tear for a partridge while clubbing it to death with one’s umbrella. Or showing physical affection to one’s child in public. Or in private. Such things simply aren’t done.

George Bush Jnr shows no such reserve. “My heart breaks” he croaked, on Spanish TV, reaching for his hanky. “We weep with the families…”

George loves nothing more than a good weep after a tragedy. “I weep for those who lost their loved ones,” he said after the Washington sniper attacks. Likewise, on AIDS: “We weep for those who suffer on the continent of Africa.” On Iraq: “I weep for those who suffer.” On the downtrodden: “we weep for the citizens that are being brutalized by tyrants.” When tragedy strikes, George can’t stop the welling. He freely admits: “I'm not very good about concealing my emotions.”

What nonsense. Perhaps if he rubbed his fists at the corners of his eyes and said “boo hoo” it might ring truer. In the most cynical way imaginable, President Bush uses a tragedy after tragedy to make the political point that he “cares.” That he is empathic; has real human emotions, like a real human being.

The Madrid bombing is no different from any other tragedy: it is a political opportunity. Right from the start, the statements by politicians have been shot through with personal political agendas - most obviously in Spain itself. It was very much in the Bush-supporting centre-right Popular Party’s interests to blame Eta rather than al-Qaeda, and so they did.

A day after the bombings, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said: “All the objective elements that we have point to Eta.” Big mistake. The evidence soon began pointing towards an Islamic plot, and the voters were disgusted by the Bush-friendly Popular Party’s cynicism in trying to blame Eta for political ends, and voted them out of government.

If only British and American voters could develop such a distaste for the politicising of disasters. But it seems we have become inured to the spectacle of our politicians treating piles of dismembered bodies as a soapbox.

Certainly, the equation tragedy = opportunity is accepted as axiomatic in American politics. Even before 11 September 2001, we find this terrifying statement in a document drawn up by the hugely influential Republican lobby group, the Project for the New American Century:

The process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalysing event - like a new Pearl Harbor.

Cue sighs of relief and high-fives when the planes hit.

As Bush himself said, two days after the WTC attack: “Now's an opportunity to do generations a favour by coming together and whipping terrorism, hunting it down, binding it and holding them accountable.” And what an opportunity it was. he administration wasted no time in asking Congress for an extra $20 billion to combat terrorism - kerching!

Shift forward a year. Fresh tragedy, fresh opportunity. Bush’s statement after the Bali bombing (October 2002) is an extraordinary piece of politicising. Over and over again, in a single press briefing, he repeats the idea that the War on Terror is vast and unending:

“long and difficult struggle… a long way to go… this is a long war. And it's going to take a while to fully rout al-Qaeda… there's a lot more work to do… we've just got to understand, we are in a long struggle… we just learned a lesson this weekend: it's going to take a while to succeed.”

Okay George, we got the message. Well remembered.

Like Bush, Tony Blair made good use of the Bali bombing. Directly afterwards, he harped on his favourite theme – the unending nature of the War on Terror:

“The threat to all people, at any time, at any place in the world is real… the links of al-Qaeda are everywhere… nobody is safe from this threat. They’re perfectly willing to cause appalling injury to anybody anywhere.”

Tony hit the exact same note after Madrid:

“This terrorism is terrorism waged without limits… we must be prepared for them to strike whenever and however they can.”

This is not commiserating with the Spanish. It is thumping the terrorism tub and making the politically expedient argument that he is engaged in a global war.

This is what we must take from Madrid: not fear, but understanding. We have to see crocodile tears for what they are (witness how Bush’s weeping turned to threats, the very second the Socialists threatened to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq). We can’t allow ourselves to be deafened by mantra of “be afraid, be afraid.” We have to try and get our heads around the way that governments twist our perception of tragedies. They just can’t help themselves.

Bombs explode, axes grind. When the next big one comes (November, Jubilee Line, under parliament?) listen out for the opportunism. It’s enough to make you weep.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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