The role of the teddy in a holy jihad

No column in The Independent again this morning, as they weren’t overly keen on the issue I was writing about, which is connected to the Viva Palestina convoy of trucks, that left London on February 14th to deliver food and medicine to Gaza.

The convoy was financed by collections throughout the country, which were enough to fund 110 vehicles on a journey to across the channel, through France, Spain, across North Africa and hopefully through Egypt into Gaza. This, you might imagine, is the sort of charitable venture that would be publicised across the media as a chirpy feelgood tale, perhaps involving a regular feature on Blue Peter and at some point resulting in Cat Deeley squealing ‘The response has been AMAZING, you’ve been ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC’.

But in the tradition that anyone’s permitted to carry out crazy wacky acts as long as it involves charity, the police decided to contribute to the event with a spectacular lark. Early in the morning, on the day the convoy left, they arrested nine people on the M65 under the Terrorism Act, who were on their way to Hyde Park, where the journey was due to begin. They blocked off an entire section of motorway, and grabbed their suspects with what was described in the local newspaper as “Dozens of police cars, vans, 4×4 vehicles and a helicopter.”

The first I knew of this episode was from that afternoon’s BBC news, on which it was the main item. Which is as you might expect, with nine suspected terrorists being pounced on by an operation that included a helicopter. To be fair, the BBC journalists didn’t have to work too hard to find the story, as the police informed them in advance, and in addition, by a splendid coincidence, a press photographer happened to be on hand to record this successful swoop.

Maybe this is how the police plan to fund themselves from now on. They’ll follow the practice of celebrities and stage their events so they can be sold to OK and Hello. Major criminals will find themselves lying on the floor in handcuffs, while a photographer claps his hands and calls out “That’s lovely, now can we do the arrest one more time while the Inspector stands just behind kissing his wife, and then have a profile of the murderer’s assistant on a sheepskin rug in front of a coal fire.”

The news reported that the terrorists were on the way to join the Viva Palestina convoy, which straight away seemed a little peculiar. Why would terrorists be on the way to join such an event? What would they be planning to attack? The convoy of trucks heading for Gaza? And what sort of Jihadist terrorist would say “I know how we’ll move around without being noticed – we’ll drive down the motorway in three vans with Palestinian flags flapping from the windows and a fucking great ‘Viva Palestina’ logo painted on the side.”

 

The story was reported in almost every Sunday paper, with headlines such as “Galloway’s Aid Convoy linked to three terror suspects”, in the Mail on Sunday. And they had the effect of reducing contributions to the charity by eighty per cent, as the astute might have been able to predict. But the nine men, six from Blackburn and three from Burnley, were questioned, and the lorries, which were full of children’s toys, were searched. And presumably the head of the anti-terrorist squad stood there throughout saying “Check that Bratz for semtex.” By the next morning six were released without any charges, and a few days later the other three were released as well, the police appearing to be duly embarrassed to the extent they’ve paid the fares so the wrongly arrested men could catch up with the convoy, which by now was moving into Algeria.

 

The local councillor for the arrested men in Burnley is Wajid Khan, described how they were “Well respected men in the community, seen in a positive light.”

 

Presumably then, all the broadcasters and newspapers who considered it a major story that the police had successfully pulled off this anti-terrorist operation will now make it an equally prominent story that the arrests had no validity whatsoever. Apart from anything else there must be many people who saw that story, and are wondering why they’ve heard nothing about it since, assuming a bunch of terrorists have escaped and are running round on the loose. They may even indulge in some investigative work, which will show that three of the arrested men are defence witnesses in a separate trial, which may, or may not be a coincidence.

 

So you can’t help be suspicious that the arrest of people volunteering for charity may be connected to them being Muslims, and being associated with Palestine. If not it’s going to mean Comic Relief this year will be chaos, with Richard Hammond and Lenny Henry spending the whole evening making announcements such as “Now we’re going to meet the wonderful children of St. Josephs junior school in Kidderminster, who’ve raised two hundred and sixty-four pounds with a sponsored cartwheel race. So here’s Alan Titchmarsh to speak to them from their high security cell in Belmarsh.”

Tear gas and a touching moment

There are moments in life that signal you’ve reached a new stage and nothing will ever be the same again – death of your first pet, the first time you hear your dad say ‘fuck’, your first curry, that sort of thing. One of those moments happened at the recent demonstration in support of the people of Gaza.

It was the end of a process that began in the days before the march, after I told my twelve-year-old son it was taking place, and he said “Cool – I’m going on that.” He’d been on marches before, but as a result of me dragging him on them for my own convenience. For example when he was three I took him on a march demanding an increase in the minimum wage, which he enjoyed so much he repeated the most popular slogan of the day over and over again for the next week, so that at random moments in the street he’d yell “You can stick your three-pounds eighty up yer arse.” This also meant that if he met a relative who gave him some money, there was the dread of what might happen if they gave him exactly three-pounds eighty.

But the reaction to the Gaza demonstration was clearly different. He wanted to go, compelled by the mix of urges that drives anyone to take part in such an event, rather than because the alternative was to stay at home until discovered by social services. And once there, all the marks of demonstrations that become cliches to those of us who’ve been on countless processions, to him were captivating. “Look dad, a man in a Tony Blair mask with a placard saying ‘war criminal’. That’s BRILLIANT!” Which was wonderfully infectious, because I had to accept it was BRILLIANT!, just as when your daughter’s two and says “Look daddy bus bus,” you become equally excited about the existence of this bus, rather than reply “Alright it’s only a bloody bus. If you see a zeppelin let me know but a fucking BUS.”

It helped that it was a vibrant freezing raucous frosty day, and the march rumbled with youthful enthusiasm, so that it smelt of teenager. But then we got to these vast gates that policed the road to the Israeli embassy. Hundreds of people stood around these gates, calling and gesticulating, and occasionally lobbing the thin strip that once formed the backbone of a placard. At this point I wondered whether it might appear a little frightening to my lad, but he said “Oh for God’s sake, they’re not going to break down the embassy with balsa wood.” Then he added “Come on dad, let’s get to the gates.”
“No I think it’s safer to stay here,” I advised.
“COME ON,” he insisted, and we shuffled through the squashed crowd to get nearer the front. “Why don’t we all invade the Israeli embassy?” he asked, and whoever was stood next to us answered “Because the Israeli embassy is better protected than Buckingham Palace.”
“Well then let’s invade Buckingham Palace,” he said.

After a few minutes I asserted parental authority and we carried on up the Bayswater Road, round the corner and back past the other side of the road with the embassies. Here the march was completely blocked, so several thousand were stood around becoming agitated, unable to proceed through a police cordon towards Trafalgar Square. Then a line of riot police slid gently into position, all identical in their helmets, shields and truncheons so they looked like a line of aliens in an old computer game.

‘I’ll calmly suggest we leave’, I thought.
“COME ON DAD, LET’S GET GO TO THE FRONT AGAIN” called my son.
So I explained that, although there was nothing to worry about, it was probably best if we left. “People in Gaza are getting bombed and all you want to do is get home to get WARM,” he objected.
Then a steward told me the police had used tear gas up the road, so they were advising anyone with kids to leave.
“But Daaaaad,” complained my son, “Let’s get near the front”, and I found myself making the most ridiculous response, saying “Alright – you can have FIVE MORE MINUTES,” as if this was a dispute about bedtime, and he wanted to watch a bit more of Terminator.

It was as daft as if I’d looked into his eyes and said “Right, you can throw three lumps of rubble and THAT’S IT – no more than three, DO YOU UNDERSTAND. And if I see you throwing four we won’t go to the anti-arms trade march at all – IS THAT CLEAR?”

It was the moment I realised he was experiencing the enthusiasm of protest, the optimism of resisting apparently invincible power, the belief that injustice can be dealt with NOW NOW NOW, without the inevitable blunting of that confidence that comes with age. I was the cautious one, he was the fiery one, from now I’d be told off for being too safe and too warm and too conservative by my own son, I’d had one of those moments. I bet the Israelis never considered they’d cause all that before they started bombing Gaza.