One of the world’s greatest journalists John Fisher Burns joined me from London for the third hour today:
HH: I’m joined now by John Fisher Burns, as promised. He is the senior foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and a veteran, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, of China and the Far East. John, it’s a horrible day for Europe, it’s a horrible day for everyone in the world who values free expression. As a journalist who’s covered Islamist radicalism all these years, it must be a terrible day particularly for you. I’m sure you’re a frequent visitor to the city of lights, and may have even known some of these men.
JB: Yeah, it’s the worst of all our nightmares, isn’t it? And of course, it’s unfortunately very likely not to be the last incident of its kind.
HH: Certainly almost isn’t going to be, and these folks had all of the earmarks of training, John. That’s what, I know you were living in Baghdad as the insurgency went from roadside bombs to a highly-developed, systematic assault on Americans. And this is another evolution. This was a fairly precise and lethal set of small, a group attack. It was very well-trained.
JB: It was indeed, and you can’t preclude the possibility that some of these people now are fighting under the flag of the Islamic State. If we make the assumption that these people who carried out this ghastly attack in Paris were in some way to linked to that, some of these people may have at some times benefit from American military training. They certainly, as we know in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, are using American military equipment, in some cases, quite sophisticated American military equipment.
HH: They’re using submachine guns today, John Burns. And what struck me is of course, those are illegal for private possession in France, and they’re illegal for private possession in Great Britain. And they’re illegal for private possession in the United States. How do they get into Europe? What’s the underground network for those sorts of weapons in Europe? I know how it works here, but what about there?
JB: Well, if you consider the people smuggling that’s going on across the Arab world and into Europe, including into France and the United Kingdom, if they can smuggle humans, you can be sure that they can smuggle weapons. I don’t think that’s likely to be the biggest of their problems. And although of course from a European’s perspective, we are in a much happier position than the citizenry of the United States in respect of the number of weapons that are available to people like this. We can’t obviously, today’s events make it clear that there’s absolutely no occasion for smugness about it.
HH: You wonder, though, will there be any, and you’re the quintessential European. You can tell me what the reaction will be. Will there be any desire on the part of an unarmed population to gain access to arms if events like this happen, because no one could defend themselves in this editorial office.
JB: That’s a very good question, Hugh. I would say the answer to that is in all likelihood no. I think that there’s the idea of being an unarmed population, notwithstanding the fact that the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, as you know, includes that ringing line, Aux armes, citoyens, take up your arms, citizens. And that was, of course, in relationship to the situation in France in the late 18th Century at the time of the French Revolution. But I think in France, elsewhere in Europe, and certainly in the United Kingdom, there is such a deep-rooted desire to keep weapons out of the hands of ordinary citizens, and in the hands only, and under very tight controls, of the military and the police. I don’t see that changing. On the other hand, with a shock like that, you have to ask yourself what can the governments of Western Europe do to answer this. And that’s the real conundrum.
HH: You know, John, when I first covered for television the Los Angeles riots in 1992, going through a burning Los Angeles, the buildings that did not burn in South Central had Korean-Americans, or just native Koreans, on their top with weaponry defending their building. And I don’t know which way Europe will go, but if this happens again and again, this is different from the London bombings, which is a sneaky, weasel thing which a small weapon wouldn’t help you about. But if people begin to invade businesses, this was a very strategic attack, don’t you think, going after a media outlet?
JB: Well, it is, and I’ve been thinking today about what newspapers and magazines, the champions of the free press, can reasonably do. And I find it very difficult to believe that the New York Times or our counterparts across the United States and Europe are going to readily agree or seek the protection of armed people. I mean, we have elaborate security systems, but the sorts of systems where you could be reasonably sure that gunmen of this kind would not succeed, I would think are very likely to clash very soon early on in the piece with our own ideas about freedom of the press. I think that there’ll be a deep-rooted resistance to surrounding ourselves with people with guns. I just gather, and of course the reporting is all at this point very early and very immature. We’re not sure. But the reports I’m hearing here are that there were policemen assigned to protect this building. Well, clearly the policemen had no chance. Two of them were killed. I think our listeners have probably seen some of the quite terrible videotape of how one of them died. And you know, what are we going to do to protect ourselves? And I don’t speak, you know, here of myself. I think that there are certain institutions which are clearly going to be very high media institutions, high on the list of potential victims. I would like to think that those media institutions like, I dare say, the New York Times, that have been, I think, I believe, studiously fair. It’s of courses a concept that these people wouldn’t accept at all. But we have attempted as best we can to account fairly for these ghastly events in the past, and you’d hope that would earn you a little bit of protection. But on the other hand, their value systems and ours are so totally distant from each other, and many points opposed, I think it’s a little bit perhaps naïve to think that any institution in the media is any less likely than any other to be attacked.
HH: Well, that’s why it’s such a strategic attack. If they went after, I refused to, I don’t refuse, but I’ve been encouraging people not to call it a satirical newspaper, because it’s just a media outlet, right? It’s just, they’re all the same. If you’re in the business of journalist, journalists were threatened today by Islamists if you do something they don’t like, and it could be anything. They put out the cartoons, but it can be an editorial as well. So it’s a very strategic attack.
JB: Yes, yes, you’re absolutely right.
HH: Now you lived, though, in Iraq for so long during the civil war, and Afghanistan, and you went around with armed guards, I’m sure, when you were doing your business.
JB: We did indeed.
HH: Yeah, and is that the way the West is going to have to go if this keeps up?
JB: Well, I have to tell you, it’s now ten years back, but there was a point at which I had to go from Baghdad to New York to consult in a room that was filled with our most senior executives, corporate and editorial, to discuss how in Iraq after the, long time ago now, but you’ll remember the attacks on the United Nations reporters…
HH: Oh, yes. Yes.
JB: …then the International Community of the Red Cross. I went back to New York to give a briefing, if you will, in which I argued, I wasn’t alone, that we were going to have to arm ourselves. I don’t mean personally, but that we were going to have to take very elaborate and very expensive, and very, potentially very controversial steps to protect ourselves if we were going to be able to cover the war in Iraq. Our executives approved that, but it wasn’t without considerable discussion and debate about the big step that we were taking. The idea that eventually, and we tried to keep this as low profile as possible, eventually we, the New York Times in Iraq, had a substantial security force, which of course were armed, and there were people, including people who I worked with at the New York Times, who were uncomfortable with this. But ultimately, those who stayed long enough to appreciate how deep the threat was, I think, came, almost without exception, to the view that we had no choice.
HH: And I think that many, many in the world are going to wake up to this today, because again, this is the first time that such a lethal, strategic attack, a filmmaker has been killed by a fanatic in the street. Surely, we all recall that.
HH: But this was an attack on an organization, and a systemic reaping of everyone in the building. And that’s very, very chilling. When we come back, John Fisher Burns is my guest. I’ll ask him about the hashtag the Islamists are using today, #ParisIsBurning, and we’ll talk some more as well about what is going on in the Islamic world, and whether or not the Arab community of France is helping or not helping right now.
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HH: John, I have so many questions for you. The first one is I’ve been thinking all day as the search for the killers unfolded, every, someone knows who they are. They shouted out an affiliation with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. So all day long when this search is going on, someone knows who they are. And do you expect the Arab French, or the French Arabs to cooperate with the authorities? Or will they vanish into the cantonments I believe which are in the periphery of the downtown, that they won’t be found?
JB: Well, to answer the first part of that question, I think we can look with some confidence to the French authorities getting these people and getting them rather quickly. And I say that for two reasons, principally, one of which is that France, for all of its liberty, equality and fraternity, has one of the most elaborate and best-armed police forces in the world. The last time I looked, I think that France had something like six times as many police officers per head of population as the United Kingdom did. They are armed. They are backed by an extremely efficient intelligence community in France. And I think they will get them. And further confidence, I think, is lent to that by the history of previous Islamic militant plots in Europe over the last ten years. Now there was the London bombing. There have been attacks, as you know, in many major European cities, Paris, Madrid among them. But I think the more notable factor in this is how successful Western intelligence very much, I have to say, empowered by American intelligence, has been in uncovering these cells, these Islamic extremist cells, and interrupting them, and are preempting plots. Now clearly, that didn’t happen in this case, but I thought it was quite significant that Francois Hollande, the French president, said in his earliest remarks about this that they had intercepted in recent times quite a number of other plots. So I don’t think we need to despair about the likelihood of the security forces in France or in the United Kingdom or the United States or other major Western countries being pretty effective in countering this.
HH: You know, the reason I’m a little bit more skeptical than you, I’m reminded today of Lawrence Wright’s amazing book, The Looming Tower.
HH: …and how the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center ought to have been exposed repeatedly and wasn’t, because people grew dull and uninterested, and lassitudinous about this. And I know that’s not the case with the DGI, and M6 and M5. But it’s nevertheless, the more people come back from the Middle East that are ISIS-inclined, and that brings me to this hashtag, #ParisIsBurning, it’s all over the internet. And some people are using it as a sign of solidarity with the French, but the radicals are using it to celebrate, John. And it seems to me like it’s metastasizing.
JB: Yeah, it’s going to be a very big challenge for our security services. But I think in light of all the controversy that has been notably in the United States, and very recently about some of the excesses that were committed in the view of their critics by American, British and other security agencies in dealing with this threat, I think you have to keep in mind also first of all the scale of the threat that they faced, and their success, which is if you look at it across the piece, extraordinary success in preempting these sorts of attacks. Now clearly, we’ve now got a new situation with the situation in Syria and Iraq, with large Muslim communities which can host these extremists all the way across Europe. And it’s very threatening. But I think that we need to take some confidence from the efficiency, very much improved since 9/11. There was, as everybody knows, some pretty gross failings leading up to 9/11, and leading up to the 7/7 attacks in Britain as well. They could have preempted those attacks. They didn’t. But I think they have learned lessons from their failures, and we’ve got something to hope for in that respect. And to answer another of your questions, I think that we need to look seriously at the response of the mainstream Islamic communities to attacks of this kind. Now of course, across Europe and the United States today, there will be plenty of Islamic leaders who will come out and condemn this. But I think that there is a widespread feeling, at least in the political class and in the security services that the mainstream Islamic communities, the mosques, can do a lot more than they have done to cooperate with the authorities and uncovering this kind of thing, and indeed to counter the ideology that drives this.
HH: You know, after the break, I’m going to talk with you about the speech that President al-Sisi gave at the university in Cairo on Sunday at al-Azhar University in Cairo, because it was really quite remarkable. It didn’t get much coverage. I wrote a column about it. But it’s after the break. Before it, one of the reasons we set this interview up, we actually set this interview up yesterday not expecting to have to talk about those horrible events in Paris today. And so I had called because I wanted to ask what is going on in Europe and Germany and Sweden with these massive anti-Islamization and counter-anti-Islamization demonstrations? I always way demonstrations in Germany are not two words that go well with me together. What is sweeping Europe in this regard, John Fisher Burns?
JB: Yeah, it’s a very worrying picture, the rise of anti-Islamic protests in some places where we would never have expected it. Sweden is the most obvious example. There is a large and restive Muslim population in Sweden. There are, many of those people live in of course major cities, in particular, Stockholm, and another city, the name which escapes me for the moment that’s only about fifty miles south of Stockholm. And it has begun to reshape Swedish politics, for goodness sake. You and I grew up into a world in which we associated the word Sweden with liberalism in all things. And that’s begun to change. And I think that we have to worry about where this might all carry us. In the United Kingdom, for example, you have an election in May with an anti-immigration, I think the critics would say anti-Islamic, certainly militantly anti-Islamic militantcy, if that’s not too many words, party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is currently attracting about 20% of support in the polls. Up until now, up until today, the common view in the commentariat was that come the general election on the 15th of May, that support will evaporate as it has in the past for fringe parties. But after the events today, and if they were to be repeated, God forfend elsewhere, or particularly if they occurred in the United Kingdom, I don’t think we could confidently predict that the rise of the right, including the radical right, is going to be so easy to contain.
HH: Very interesting.
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HH: John, Thomas Ricks, one of your colleagues in the foreign correspondent business, used to be with the Washington Post, and now maybe with Foreign Affairs, I believe, wrote a piece about how journalists suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, he himself being one of them. And you lived in the war zone for so long, and I have begun to think after that, I wonder if whole countries suffer a kind of PTSD. After 9/11, what happened in America, I’m sure historians will reflect upon what happened, and in London after the 7/7 bombings. And now today in Paris, this is really the first of, like the Spanish train bombing. What’s it do to a country, in your experience, to have something this high profile and this savage happen right in its heart?
JB: Well you know, you’re probably better placed to answer that than I am, because you’re living in the United States of America, albeit three thousand miles from the World Trade Center. But no event in the history of the United States, I would think, other than Pearl Harbor, will have had the potential for traumatic impact on the palliation of the United States. And yet my sense of it, I think it’s widely shared in Europe, was that America absorbed that shock and turned around and dealt with it in an American way, and dealt with it, at least initially, very effectively. That wonderful scene that still comes to my mind of President Bush standing in the ruins of the World Trade Center and saying when the firemen couldn’t hear him, he said something to the effect of well, I can hear you, and pretty soon, the whole world is going to hear from us.
JB: And I think at that point, the esteem for the United States was extremely high, and it wasn’t only sympathy for the loss of the three thousand people who died. It had to do with how a nation born in liberty, which is known in Europe amongst the vast majority of the Europeans as the world’s principal defender of liberty, reacted to a shock of that severity. And I think that we can expect the same in many countries in Europe. Democracy breeds resilience in people. Look at the way that, for example, Britain reacted in 1940 to the German sweep across France. And Britain found itself under Winston Churchill standing alone. There was no panic in this country. People confronted the prospect of a German Nazi invasion of Britain not without considerable alarm, but they confronted it responsibly, and in the main, democratically. And I think that we can look to that. Remember how strong we are. And I don’t mean simply because we can deploy more guns than these people. But we are an extreme, we are extremely strong as a result of the very thing that these people dislike so much, which is our embrace of liberty and democracy.
HH: Do you think, John Fisher Burns, that it will increase resolve among the Western democracies to go after ISIS in a systematic and full-frontal way, rather than simply aiding the Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces, because it is, it seems to me that the metastasis is just going to advance until it’s rooted out.
JB: Yes, of course, that is the big, big question that hangs over today’s events. The pressures are, that have been mounting even before this for an increase in Western military response to the events in Iraq in Syria, who would have expected when American troops finally withdrew from Iraq, which I would think will stand in the esteem of many Americans as one of the great accomplishments of President Obama, who would have expected that within three years, there would be the beginnings of another American military build-up. So far, pretty limited, but I’m speaking as one who, and we’ve discussed this before, who saw the arrival of the American military in Baghdad as a liberation for the people of Iraq. Of course, much that happened subsequently changed my view. And I’ve now come to the view that, which I’ve also said, mentioned before in talking to you, that regrettable as it may be, the forces that are driving what is happening in the Middle East are well beyond our ability to significantly influence, much less to decide, and that increments of military power other than air power, which keeps us, and long may this continue, some distance from paying a price in blood, in our blood for this, is going to run into very early resistance among the populations, the electorates of the United States, I would think, and the United Kingdom. And how we’re going to square the circle, how we’re going to confront this, now that it poses such a direct threat to ourselves…
HH: We’ll be right back to answer that question with John Fisher Burns of the New York Times. One more segment ahead, America, stay tuned.
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HH: John, on Monday, my eye was caught by a story in the Washington Free Beacon. It didn’t get much play in your newspaper, the Washington Post, or anywhere else. But President al-Sisi of Egypt went to the al-Azhar University in Cairo on Sunday, on New Year’s Day, and gave a speech in which he called for a religious revolution. “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people should want to kill the rest of the world’s population, that is 7 billion people, so they themselves may live? Impossible.” The story goes on. Speaking to an audience of religious scholars celebrating the birth of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, he called on the religious establishment to lead the fight for moderation in the Muslim world. “You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move, because this ummah is being torn. It is being destroyed. It is being lost, and it is being lost by our own hands. The corpus and texts that we have made sacred over the years to the point that departing form them has become almost impossible is antagonizing the entire world. You cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You must step outside of yourselves and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.” I’m, A) I’m amazed he gave that speech where he gave it, John Fisher Burns, but I’m also amazed that the West didn’t even notice it.
JB: Yeah, I have to admit that I hadn’t noticed it, and I’m very pleased that you mentioned it. By the way, I should say just as a footnote, I am no longer the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times. And I’m feeling that if my colleague, who is now in that job, were to hear us talking, he would want me to say so.
HH: I’m sorry, chief foreign correspondent, then.
JB: No, and in fact, he may well, seeing he was previously Paris-based, Steven Erlanger, he may well be back on his way to Paris today. But to answer your question, that is a remarkable speech, and a speech that we would surely have wished to have been made by Egyptian leaders much earlier than this. On the other hand, if we look at the situation in Egypt itself, and the way in which al-Sisi has reacted to that, it doesn’t hold out, at least give me much confidence, that he or the imams of Egypt are likely to show us a lead in all of this. The situation in Egypt is pretty…
HH: Yeah, he’s not an avatar of press freedom. He shut down most of the opposition. And he’s hell on wheels on the Muslim Brotherhood.
JB: Yeah, and a friend of mind, a friend of mine, Peter Greste, formerly of the BBC, is in prison. One of the three al-Jazeera journalists who is in prison, and has been for much of the past year, so no, he’s not a champion of liberties. On the other hand, he has a country that has proved increasingly difficult to govern. It’s as well that he has put out that cry, but what reason do we have to think that the imams, the mosques across Egypt, or for that matter, the rest of the Arab Muslim world, are going to respond any more proactively than they have in the past? And I can only think in the light of what’s happened today in Paris, and other atrocities, that one of the reasons that they don’t, there are, of course, those who do, but one of the reasons they don’t is that will put them exactly in the line of fire in the way that those French journalists were after they had published articles and cartoons.
HH: Sure, and that’s why I speculated in my own writing about the Sisi speech that he’s put himself in the same position vis-à-vis the Islamists as Sadat did. And of course, the Brothers killed Sadat.
HH: And so Sisi is, you know, to a certain extent, we don’t get to pick the perfect partner, right? He’s not a press, he’s not a baron of press freedom. He’s not going to be reciting Jeffersonian odes to free speech. But he’s a lot better than everybody else, isn’t he?
JB: Well, he is, and of course, what we’re looking for today is solutions in the near and medium term, and they’re going to be extremely difficult to find consistent with, if you will, the mood of our own electorates. But of course, it’s to state the obvious that in the long term, the solutions into this lies in dealing with the anger, particularly amongst the unemployed young across the Middle East, across the Islamic world, and make sure that they have education and jobs. But we’re talking about a project that could take a hundred years.
HH: Or more. And so I want to close by asking you about the mood in London, John Burns. You’re now covering extensively the things that matter in your native country. And is there a greater sense of fear or hope about the near term, next ten years, as you approach these elections, as we see this disaster in France, this murder in France, and the number of attacks that happened there beforehand, and of course, the number of threats in Great Britain? What’s the mood?
JB: I’d have to say given the fact that immigration is almost certainly going to be the principal issue in the general election here, that the mood is not good. The mood is indeed troubled. How are we doing to deal with this issue? I’m inclined to say let’s keep calm, as they used to say in the Second World War, Keep Calm and Carry On. We are equipped to deal with this better than many nations are. We have, and I speak here from the United Kingdom, but I think I could also speak for the United States. We have extremely efficient intelligence and security organizations. We have stable democracies. And I think we will find a way to confront this challenge much as our fathers and grandfathers confronted the challenge of the 1930s and 40s.
HH: Well, that’s a very optimistic way of looking. I hope you’re right about that, John Fisher Burns. I wonder, though, the average person, do you find people who say to you after a pint, you know, I’m going to vote for UKIP, and you’re surprised by that? Is that just a…
JB: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I meet them all the time. And if they are a recognition, if they are a reflection of how things really are, we’re going to have a very complicated situation after the election, because if UKIP attracts anything like the 21, 22% in the polls that it is now attracting when the country goes to the general election, then it will make it virtually impossible for the Conservative Party, which currently leads the government here, to win the election.
HH: When is that election, John?
JB: The 15th of May.
HH: I’ll tell you, these events today certainly are going to play on the development of that electoral arc, certainly. John Fisher Burns, thank you for spending an hour with us. I can’t think of anyone better to talk to on a day as dark, but as also important to understand than you.
End of interview.