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Published: Wednesday, 7/11/2007

Failed terror attacks in Britain provide lessons on hatred

BY DAN SIMPSON

WHAT IS there for Americans to learn from the three unsuccessful car bomb attacks in the United Kingdom? The first question is why there rather than here. If we wanted to be smug, we could say that it is because the United Kingdom presented a softer target than the United States.

That, probably, is not empirically true. The level of security a whole country presents is virtually impossible to measure in any case. But the theory is right. When I was an American diplomat in Beirut during the Lebanese war, we used to say we were safer because it was easier for the various assassins there to kill French and other diplomats. We took more care than they did to stay alive.

The theory was proved true at least once during my time there. The French suffered a loss when they broke a cardinal rule, making an appointment to pick up a gift at a shop, in effect fixing the time and place for a successful assassination.

The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that, in terms of being the target of hatred, and thus the target of attack, the United States is probably considerably more hated than the United Kingdom.

The British position on Israel and Palestine is more nuanced than the U.S. stance. At the same time, in addition to the 5,500 troops the United Kingdom has in Iraq, it also has an older, still deeply resented colonial heritage there, predating Iraq's independence and Saddam Hussein by decades.

So, if motivation is the key, the United States is the top target. If it's accessibility or vulnerability, then it's harder to say.

The United States is larger, sprawling across an entire continent. The United Kingdom is an island and more densely populated. At the same time, taken as a whole, British society is more heterogeneous in terms of nationalities and religion.

Those arrested so far in the failed London and Glasgow attacks appear to have been of Indian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Palestinian origin. There is no reason to generalize about Britain's Muslims, but a recent study showed that nine out of 10 imams preaching in British mosques were born outside Britain. On any given Friday, half the sermons are delivered in Urdu, not English.

A very disturbing aspect of the failed British bombings is the fact that the suspects identified so far are doctors or other medical personnel. This fact drives a stake through the heart of any theory that such terrorism - particularly suicide attacks - is in general the domain of less-educated misfits.

Thus, unless one is prepared to argue that the medical profession attracts misguided misfits prone to kill indiscriminately - a very unattractive concept - one is forced to conclude that these were intelligent attackers deeply embittered by something.

Too little biographical information has been made available so far to enable many conclusions about the alleged attackers. In the case of one Iraqi who is now assisting the British police in their inquiries, however, there is an indication he was seeking revenge for the killing of a close friend by Shiites in Iraq.

Revenge is, of course, an age-old tradition in the Middle East. In that sense, the number of blood debts that American and British forces have incurred in Iraq through the casualties they have inflicted over the last four years of the war is breathtaking by Middle East reckoning. We can only hope that the impersonality of war is such that Iraqis aren't keeping personal score for the future.

The attacks in Great Britain seem, on the one hand, to validate the moronic claim that if we don't fight "them" abroad, we'll have to fight them at home. The emetic to that poisonous line is that if we weren't piling up dead in Iraq there would be a better chance that we wouldn't be piling up people who hate us overseas.

President Bush's July 4 comparison of the Iraq war to the American Revolution was a terrifying reflection on his and his speechwriters' comprehension of American history. It was almost as depressing as some of the rhetoric of the declared Democratic and Republican candidates seeking to succeed him.

But we will survive as a nation. We are lucky in a way that it is in some ways easier for those who hate us to attack our British ally. Fortunately for the British, their experience in Northern Ireland and the efficiency of their security services have prepared them better to head off and respond to such attacks.

But as the hatred for America increases and our vulnerability becomes more obvious, the necessity to tighten up at home if we are going to continue to escalate the confrontation abroad becomes even clearer. Mr. Bush's "surge" has raised our troop level in Iraq to at least 170,000.

It is a deadly game. The two Mercedes in London and the Jeep in Glasgow that didn't blow up showed just how deadly it could become.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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