Wed, Nov 26, 2003 - Page 9 News List

They slaughter protesters, too

The atrocities in Istanbul hold lessons for both US President George W. Bush and those who demonstrated against his visit to Britain

By Andrew Rawnsley  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON


Just because US President George W. Bush says something is so doesn't make it axiomatically wrong. The man is right: "Freedom is a beautiful thing." Like many things of beauty, freedom can also be very fragile. That most basic of freedoms -- the freedom to go about your innocent business without being blown up -- was cruelly denied to the Britons and Turks killed and maimed by the bombs that ripped through Istanbul.

If the intention was also to devastate Bush's state visit to Britain, it didn't have quite that result. The bombings of the British consulate in Istanbul and HSBC bank actually had the effect of rescuing the Bush visit from vapidity. The atrocities suddenly and violently invested the Bush-Blair alliance with a renewed seriousness of resolve and purpose.

Though the red carpet rolled out for Bush had been strewn with potential banana skins, the visit did not turn into the cringing embarrassment to British Prime Minister Blair that was widely predicted. The one setpiece speech delivered by the president at the Banqueting House was more subtle, fluent, multidimensional and pitched to appeal to non-Texan ears than had been generally anticipated. Bush set out to challenge the perception of his White House as blindly unilateralist.

"In this century, as the last, nations can accomplish more together than apart," he said. Blair could have written that. Perhaps he did.

Even some of the most vigorous Bush-whackers pronounced themselves quite impressed. I would judge that he exceeded most people's expectations, even if we must allow for how grass-cutting expectations of the president are on this side of the Atlantic. The Liberal Democrats' Menzies Campbell, one of the most trenchant opponents of the war against Saddam, no Bushie he, emerged from his private talks with the president to announce that he was "most certainly surprised at the extent to which the caricature of him was inaccurate."

Beyond the purpose of demonstrating to Britain that Bush is more than a cartoon character, the visit was otherwise developing into a sequence of stilted photo-opportunities. The president was moved around in a steel bubble of ceremonial. The protesters staged their own rituals by burning the Stars and Stripes. On issues of contention, such as the trade dispute between America and Europe, the prime minister and president had no progress to announce and nothing of substance to say.

The wrangle over steel tariffs, the bogus footman's revelations that the Queen likes to feed scones to her corgis, what Nigella cooked for lunch, the pageantry and piffle was brutally placed in perspective by the blood and rubble on the streets of Istanbul.

That did not mean a complete end to the ritualizing. Blair went into default response to the bombings when he declared: "There must be no holding back, no compromise, no hesitation in confronting this menace, in attacking it wherever and whenever we can and in defeating it utterly."

Bush vowed that they were, nevertheless, winning their "war against terror." Both men reached for well-worn phrases of condemnation and oft-rehearsed pledges that there will be no capitulation to the fanatics.

Their opponents, on the streets and elsewhere, were just as predictable. The bombings were "the bloody price," "the collateral damage," the "inevitable consequence" of the actions taken by Bush, with the support of Blair, in the two years since al-Qaeda attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

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