Two weeks after September 11, as New York fire department officials worked bravely in the wreckage of the twin towers, a British journalist named Mark Thomas tastelessly wrote in the New Statesman (a magazine that once published the flower of the British liberal intelligentsia) that the Bush administration's propaganda effort in the wake of September 11 had "hijacked the language of liberation" and was "headed in the direction of the twin towers of fact and truth." He added that "Americans have taken on the mentality of a lynch mob. You can almost hear them drawling in southern accents: 'Yew jus' know Bin Laden's guilty, yew only gotta look at his eyes!"" (1) Thomas admittedly did preface his article by saying that the attack on the World Trade Center was "one of the vilest atrocities we have seen." In the same magazine a week earlier, the veteran investigative reporter John Pilger had argued that "far from being the terrorists of the world, the Islamic peoples have been its victims--that is victims of Americ an fundamentalism, whose power in all its forms, military, strategic and economic, is the greatest source of terrorism on earth."
The novelist Salman Rushdie was talking about just such people when he wrote in the New York Times in February that "anybody who has visited Britain and Europe, or has followed the public conversation there during the past five months, will have been struck, even shocked, by the depth of anti-American feeling among large segments of the population." September 11 (and even more the successful American military response to it), far from evoking pity, or anger, actually took the lid off a boiling cauldron of resentment among European progressives against the American way of life, mentality, and political system. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in what was one of his last published essays, was probably telling the truth about people like himself when he said that the "striking images" of the terrorists' planes crashing into the towers had brought "immense joy" into our hearts. The attack on the World Trade Center, for Baudrillard, was something we have all, "without exception," been dreaming of for years . It was the dramatic realization of the "terrorist imagination" that inevitably "dwells inside" all of us as an unavoidable psychological response to the dominance of the external world around us by the world's hegemonic power. "They did it," Baudrillard said, "but we wanted it to happen." (2)
Why did so many liberals, intellectuals , thinkers, and media people in Britain and the rest of Western Europe feel a frisson of exultation when the twin towers were bombed? (3) Why have they subsequently been so outright hostile, or at best ambiguous, about supporting the United States in the war on terrorism?
At least so far as Britain is concerned, the answer to these questions is explicit in the quotation from Pilger cited above: the perceived moral equivalence between the American government and the terrorists themselves. Just as many British progressives in the 1930s found choosing between fascism and the British Empire a difficult moral decision, so their counterparts today look at the injustices of the present American-dominated world (and at specific American policies around the world) and conclude that there is no moral justification for taking the side of the United States in almost any struggle. The United States is regarded as having meddled cynically in every corner of the world to keep brutal dictatorships and loathsome client states in power. It can hardly complain when the downtrodden victims of this policy strike back at the symbolic heart of the American empire. Thus the dramatist Harold Pinter, in a contribution to a recent edition of Granta, certainly Britain's leading literary magazine,...