Politics & Policy

The Notting Hill Gang

A signal event's lessons.

British police had surrounded the flat in Notting Hill where two of the suspects from the July 21 bombing had holed up. Negotiations had commenced, but promised to be short and sharp. Snipers took up positions and police demanded the suspects come out unclothed and with their hands up.

”I have rights!” Ramzi Mohammed wailed from inside.

How ironic. Yes, you do have rights Ramzi–all the rights guaranteed you by the liberal democracy you have pledged to destroy. Rights enshrined in some of the oldest laws of their kind in the world. The same rights enjoyed by the innocent commuters you sought to maim and kill. Rights worth commending; and worth defending.

Moments later the two emerged, as instructed, nearly naked, hands high, in what is certain to be another iconic photo from the global struggle against violent extremism. This is the way it ends sometimes, stripped on a balcony, dragged from a spider hole, or rousted from a safe house in dirty underwear.

“I have rights!” Mohammed repeated to the police. What rights would he enjoy in his ideal society, the utopia promised by his version of sharia? We saw it in the rules the Afghans suffered under during the Taliban tyranny, or the ukases Khomeini bestowed on Iran and under which Iranians largely still suffer today. Imagine Mohammed’s due-process guarantees in the system he was fighting for–torture, ritual readings of some Koranic verses, followed by beheading, or perhaps hanging from a construction crane or soccer goal, or a bullet in the head if he was lucky.

But tell us, Ramzi, why did they take you alive? Why didn’t you go out in a blaze of gunfire and glory, seeking what you would call martyrdom, paradise, perhaps taking a few infidels with you? Oh, but that was never in the game plan. Investigators say that after their attack fizzled the bombers scattered to their homes and began a round of cell-phone recriminations. They apparently had not made contingency plans for total equipment failure, so they sat around complaining to each other. With the moment passed and lacking adequate training to adapt creatively, the prospective jihadist warriors played phone tag until they were captured.

One of the plotters, Osman Hussain, was picked up in Italy sitting on his brother’s sofa. He admitted he was involved in the attacks, but denied he is a terrorist. “We didn’t want to kill, just sow terror,” he allegedly claimed (yes, in the same breath that he denied being a terrorist–something must be lost in the translation). It is not much of a defense; the captured nail-bombs and other explosive devices demonstrate a desire to wreak devastation on people, to kill and cripple. Hussain, through a public defender, is now seeking to invoke rights under Italian law to fight extradition. If it were Saudi Arabia he would be dead already.

This is typical of the people we are fighting in this war. It is true that they are dangerous characters; the trail of casualties they have left attests to that. But there is a tendency to overstate their abilities, their motivation, their devotion to the cause. They are portrayed as patient, long-term planners, guileful, dedicated, inspired, pursuing their objectives with a cold and terrible intensity. However, frequently they are none of these things; in this case, the bombers were a clutch of pathetic wretches living on the public dole who could not accomplish their own mass suicide. The contemporary term of art for a terrorist is a “super-empowered individual,” which is a pretty extravagant expression for violent misfits acting out an anti-social pathology.

Generally speaking, terrorists are cowards. They hide behind masks, make surprise attacks on the innocent and helpless, and take pride and apparently pleasure in ritually beheading unarmed, bound men. However, when cornered they do not fight to the death or scream oaths to justify their cause; they lie about their involvement and demand their rights to due process. And this is not limited to the foot soldiers; even Osama bin Laden took over a year to admit complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

Capturing an entire terrorist cell intact is a signal event. Usually there are few left alive after an attack of this nature. The authorities now have the bombers, their weapons, and numerous documents and computer hard drives. They will learn a great deal. And the lesson for the rest of us is that there is no moral relativism in this conflict. Those of us who uphold the principles of the free society are better than the radical Islamic terrorists, and we should not be afraid to declare it. Western society and its ideal of human liberty is superior to the despotic social order they want to force on the world, so much so that they seek to use the guarantees promised citizens of the liberal states to preserve their miserable lives. And we so venerate our principles that we will give them the chance.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.


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