Evil plotters? More like sad and crackpot

By Mathew Parris (THE TIMES, 07/07/07):

Petrol, writes Mr P. G. Urben, of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, “is not explosive and propane is not explosive: what is explosive is a mixture of these with air, within narrow composition limits (2-9 per cent by volume for propane, rather less for petrol vapour). Large volumes (the car ‘bombs’ specified hundreds of cubic metres) will not form spontaneously under any normal ventilation conditions.”

If we think about it we knew this already. Anyone who’s tried to hand-start a two-stroke engine from cold knows it’s quite difficult to make petrol go bang. A Molotov cocktail (a rag stuffed into the top of a bottle of petrol, which you light then throw) is a way of starting fires, not explosions, and is wrongly called a “petrol bomb”. Anyway, airport terminals are not very flammable.

Mr Urben was writing to the letters page of this week’s Spectator magazine. I noticed the name because he has been corresponding privately with me at The Times for some years. Is he right? Where in the British media could one could turn to find out? Odd, isn’t it, that though we have sports editors and aviation correspondents, the post of Explosives Editor does not exist.

When it comes to the War on Terror, by which we usually mean explosions, we defer to political editors. They know no more chemistry than you or me. I can talk up a storm on the folly of George W. Bush or the evil that is Osama bin Laden, but I don’t actually know if that shoe bomber was in with a chance of bringing down an aeroplane; or whether blowing up an airport terminal in Scotland was ever a goer from the alleged terrorists’ point of view.

If you study the letters pages of newspapers, or check the online comment posted by readers of the opinion pages, or listen to people in buses, or talk to the gang of bored, intelligent, wannabe-cool Muslim youths who hang around my railway station in Tower Hamlets in London, or inquire of ladies you meet a fundraising garden party in aid of the Conservative Party, you will find there are two Britains. And the funny thing is that the letter writers, Tory ladies and Asian youths are in the same Britain. The other Britain writes newspaper headlines and editorials.

For those who sometimes worry that the mass media dictate modern opinion, it’s heartening to find that the people who read headlines and leading articles take very little notice of what the people who write them say. They mutter “Indeed. Most interesting”, and then revert to their original opinion – generally based on a mixture of observation, hearsay and personal hunch.

In this Britain I believe something has been happening this summer, and if you ask me for evidence I must reply “observation, hearsay and personal hunch”. I cannot prove this, but I sense that the tide is turning against Islamist terrorism. We’re winning the battle – dare I utter the appalling cliché? – of hearts and minds.

You may think this a strange remark, considering that the whole country has been on maximum security alert this week, two attempts to cause dreadful loss of life have just been foiled more by luck than judgment, and arrests have been made that suggest a pattern of terrorist threats and some measure of internationally linked coordination. Nor do I doubt there will be more. Nobody knows what terrorist atrocities lie in store, but these attempts will certainly not be the last.

Yet for all that, something is changing in the public mood, and I think it’s this: terrorism is beginning to look a bit stupid. Those pictures of that idiotic and slightly overweight fellow with his clothes burnt off looked pathetic, undignified. It has occurred to even the meanest of intellects that concrete doesn’t burn.

And it isn’t just the technical competence of alleged British terrorists that people are beginning to doubt: it’s the whole jihadist idea. What world are they aiming for? Most British Muslims, just like most British everyone-else, think it’s all pie in the sky: all rather silly.

Yes, silly. Not “evil” as the red tops would have it. Take care, neocon editors, prime-ministerial speechwriters and opposition spokesmen, with that word “evil”. Evil is cool. Evil is wicked. Evil sells DVDs and airport thrillers. Evil is a gang you might want to be in if you were a clever boy in a cultural mess with a chip on your shoulder. We’re not talking anything as clever as Evil here: we’re talking Weird, we’re talking Crackpot, we’re talking Sad. The idea of using a Jeep to make a terminal explode was, in the latest lingo, a bit gay. We’re talking Failure.

Two thoughts, very widely thought, have completely escaped Britain’s headline writers. The first thought is that Islamist plotters, though hugely dangerous as any fool can be dangerous, don’t seem to be anything like as clever as the media keep telling us. The second is that although a lot of opinion formers keep telling them to be, a majority of the British people are not anyway on George W. Bush’s side. Both these thoughts are hurting – not helping – the terrorist cause.

At the heart of the jihadists’ most insistent recruiting pitch lies Iraq. The flaw in this pitch is that a substantial majority in Britain and America don’t support the occupation of Iraq. That realisation has grown this year, and is growing still. Your Muslim newsagent knows that most of his white customers agree with him about the war. He is not part of a marginalised community in an alien land: he is part of a democracy that made a mistake in Iraq, and knows it, and will in due course repent of it publicly as well as privately. Democracy is working for him. Millions of nonMuslims, white, black and Asian, have kept faith from the start with a reasoned opposition to the war, and been prepared to march in that cause. We are not the neocon puppets that Islamists want to portray. And we are winning.

Were I a jihadist terrorist recruiting in Britain today, I should pray for two things: first, that the British people did as the newspaper editorials urged, and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Washington neocons and their evangelical foreign policy doctrines. If the commuters on trains really were part of a Washington crusade, we could be more plausibly be portrayed as a military target.

And secondly I would pray that British readers would believe the picture of al-Qaeda that newspaper headlines urge upon us: of a brilliant, sophisticated, well coordinated international network of limitless wealth and fiendish expertise – a sort of Dark Side, an Evil Empire presided over by evil geniuses. Hell, which kid wouldn’t be tempted to join that?

But the mission to polarise the world, unconsciously shared between politicians in war rooms in Washington and people in caves in northern Pakistan, is failing. And the less our armies thrash pointlessly around in Iraq, and the less we glamorise prats in Glasgow who try to set fire to concrete, the faster it will fail.