Today, Jeremy Corbyn elevated terrorist attacks from acts of medieval mass murder to the level of a political statement. He injected the slaughter of pop fans and their parents with the frisson of anti-imperialism. He may not have meant to do this, but he did. When he said in his speech this morning that terrorism at home is a response to British militarism overseas, he imbued that terrorism with political meaning, even with a smidgen of progressiveness. This violence is anti-war, he is suggesting. He’s in serious danger of giving Salman Abedi a posthumous moral boost.
Corbyn called for honesty about the ‘connections’ between ‘wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home’. He didn’t deny that the terrorist who plants a bomb in Britain bears ultimate responsible for his murderous behaviour — this is not about ‘reduc[ing] the guilt of those who attack our children’, he said — but he did say that our foreign policy motivates them. It ‘fuels’ their terror. The ‘responsibility of government’ is to pursue a foreign policy that ‘reduces rather than increases’ terrorism. So Britain’s policies have increased terrorism. We’re at least partly to blame for what happened in Manchester. There’s another way of saying that: we brought this upon ourselves.
This is a kind of victim-blaming, to use Corbynista parlance. And victim-blaming always involves, by extension, a watering down of the perpetrator’s guilt, and sometimes even a normalisation of his motives. Corbyn is implicitly dragging Abedi’s barbarous actions into the moral universe of anger about war or frustration with foreign policy. He is taking this attack from the sphere of religious nihilism and placing it in the realm of normal or at least understandable politics. To those who say Abedi’s actions were senseless, people like Corbyn effectively say: ‘Actually they made sense. This was a kind of fury with foreign policy.’
This weird instinct to politicise Islamist murder, to locate it on the spectrum of what we all recognise as politics, doesn’t even make sense in its own terms. If terrorists are fuelled by an anger or despair over what our foreign policy has wrought, then why do they blow up girls at a pop concert rather than, say, the Ministry of Defence? (Which they shouldn’t do, by the way.) More to the point, why do they insist that their attacks will continue even if we were to stop intervening in their countries? Last year, Dabiq, the horrific glossy in-house journal of Isis, said: ‘[E]ven if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.’
There you have it, in blood-stained black and white: Isis murderers might well play the foreign-policy card, but the true reason they attack us is because we refuse to bow before their extreme religious writ. We now have the very strange situation where Corbyn is basically saying ‘If we change our foreign policy there will be fewer attacks’, and Isis is saying, ‘No there won’t be, because we’ll still loathe you for your nasty, heathen ways’. I’m sorry, but when it comes to the question of why Isis attacks us, I’m more inclined to believe Isis than Corbyn.
In the days since the Manchester attack I’ve encountered loads of people saying our foreign policy is to blame or that Blair is at the root of this current chaos. If only he hadn’t invaded Iraq. There is curiously prejudiced bent to this argument. The suggestion seems to be that Iraqis or Libyans or Syrians do not bear true responsibility for the movements they create or the policies they pursue. I agree that Blair’s invasion of Iraq was a colossal error and that it created a post-Saddam vacuum into which all sorts of forces could move and grow. But these forces, including Isis, are made up of sentient adults. They have free will. They are consciously choosing to be evil. To blame Blair, or Cameron or May, for what Isis does in Fallujah, never mind in Manchester, is to suggest these people lack moral capacity and autonomy. It is an ironically colonialist take on allegedly child-like foreigners; it’s tinged with racism.
Corbyn and others don’t only run the risk of elevating the likes of Abedi when they say his terror is a response to foreign policy — they also demean the very noble enterprise of opposing war overseas. They use the politics of fear to try to drum up concern about British foreign policy. They effectively say, ‘If we continue with these policies, there will be more terror in our towns and cities’. They prey on people’s insecurities rather than appealing to us with a principled argument against intervening in other states. Make your case, Corbyn — don’t rely on Abedi to make it for you.