Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Beacon No. 51: Closer to Columbine


I happened to be in the southern Tunisian desert and incommunicado when the 1999 Columbine High School shootings occurred in Littleton, Colorado. By the time I got back to Tunis, several days had passed and all I could tell from the International Herald Tribune was that something horrendous had happened at a school near Denver. In fact, at that great distance in time and space, the only stories I saw were about the shootings' psychological fallout; it took me a few more days to piece together that a couple of teenagers had shot a dozen classmates before killing themselves.

Almost no one called the Columbine shootings "terrorism," although terror and death were plainly on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's agenda.

And what if the shooters had been Arab or even just Muslim students? Police officials and news coverage of Columbine certainly wouldn't have shown the same restraint in referring to the high school as a "crime scene." CNN and Fox News would have taken half an hour to frame their coverage with special logos: possibilities from TERROR RAMPAGE to HEARTLAND HORROR to MIDWEST JIHAD would have been considered and one quickly adopted.

Restraint, though, is exactly what British officialdom is showing in dealing with last week's bombings, according to Timothy Garton Ash's commentary in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times:

... The right response does not lie, as commentators on Fox News would have us believe, in more military firepower to zap "the enemy" in Iraq or elsewhere. It lies in skilled policing and intelligent policy. Quietly refusing the melodramatic metaphor of war, officials of London's Metropolitan Police described the sites of the Tube and bus bombings as "crime scenes." That's right. Crimes.

Working in the most ethnically diverse city in the world, they have developed patient techniques of community relations and intelligence-gathering, as well as evidence-gathering after the event. That won't stop every attack. It didn't stop this one. But skilled policing at home, not soldiering abroad, is the way to reduce the threat from terrorists who operate and sometimes, as in the Madrid bombings last year, live for years in the immigrant communities of our great cities. If that is true of London and Madrid, it applies equally to Toronto, Paris, Sydney or Berlin.

At this moment the London bombers appear to have been well-educated, suburban Pakistani Britons aged 19 to 30. Although they appear to have died in the bomb blasts, they have paper trails and known associates; thus, whoever put them up to the bombings—assuming there is such a person—is vulnerable to the kind of patient police work the British have learned during the long-running conflict with the IRA.

I can't help but admire the British people's and government's self-possession, surely one of the U.K.'s most famous exports. The ability to deal with a crisis without howling "terrorism" is a major reason why Scotland Yard has enormous soft power, even among the Pakistani immigrant population, as today's Wall Street Journal reports:

An unusually extensive network between Scotland Yard and Muslim community groups is helping to keep London peaceful in the wake of last week's bombings. It also is providing a potential channel for clues on the terrorists.

Notice that it's the Journal that's using the word "terrorists."

...The police force is depending on alliances it has built up in recent years with Muslim groups across the U.K. such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Safety Forum. Yesterday, the Muslim Safety Forum said it was in close communication with the police about the raids in Leeds but declined to elaborate. ...

See "Britain's Disparate Muslims" in today's WSJ for more. It takes courage to treat mass murderers as simple felons rather than monsters—but it's an entirely appropriate step in a case that's closer to Columbine than to 9/11.

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