The bigger they come the harder they fall
Still the enemy, says The Times. As if you can. “The foes of democracy must face a united assault,” the paper adds, as though anyone has the least idea who makes up this prowling host or where its encampment is to be found. “Unsheath the terrible swift sword,” cries The Daily Telegraph, omitting to offer further news of the miracle weapon. “A broad coalition of all peace-loving states must be built to defeat this enemy,” writes Ehud Barak in The Times, apparently unaware some of them would object to the inclusion of his own country in that list.

Spare us this nonsense.

“What happened on 11 September, 2001,” writes even Hugo Young in The Guardian, “changed the course of human history” and “punctured the dream” of American isolation: “Disengagement is not an option”. In the same paper James Rubin, former spokesman for President Clinton, declares that ground troops could be used: “It’s not retribution, it’s pre-emption.”

Crush terrorism? Purge fundamentalists? Impose Pax Atlantica on a continent peppered by bandit states and religious maniacs? Spread Christian-liberal order across a savage world by force of arms? Kipling, thou should’st be living at this hour.

This is babble, dangerous babble. This is bawling nonsense. What gets into the collective head of the political class and its Commentariat, shooting off their mouths at times like these? Do they think a terrorist is like a pin in a tenpin bowling alley: one down, nine to go? Do they want to give Osama bin Laden his own Bloody Sunday? Do they not know that when you kill one bin Laden you sow 20 more? Playing the world’s policeman is not the answer to that catastrophe in New York. Playing the world’s policeman is what led to it.

September 11 is a consequence of trying to impose world order, not a wake-up call to redouble the attempt. September 11 is a demonstration of what you can never achieve with armies, spies, coalitions, conferences and international muscle, not an argument for buying more.

September 11 reminds us of another giant in history, a tower of a man brought down by a well-aimed airborne projectile from the sling of a slim young zealot. But in that case we are on the side of the zealot; in this our condolences are for the giant. Both stories would teach that the bigger they come the harder they fall. But did we not know that already? September 11 teaches us nothing we did not already know.

We know — do we not? — that the infrastructure of a modern capitalist state is essentially unguarded, and unguardable. We cannot be body-searching each other all day; we could not bar from employment any jobseeker who was Muslim because he might already be, or later become, a secret fundamentalist.

We know — do we not? — that borders cannot be sealed. Is the whole 40-year experience of Berlin insufficient to teach us that even a ruthlessly authoritarian power struggles to make an impregnable wall across one city? From another mental compartment, curiously sealed from the echo of calls to halt the free movement of terrorists, comes a recollection that the British and French Governments appear unable to seal the mouth of one tunnel just beyond our shores. What hope the land borders of Central Asia? We know — do we not? — that 40,000 Nato troops in tiny Kosovo are unable to stop KLA Albanian terrorist weapons crossing freely into Macedonia. We know — do we not? — that an imperial Britain was unable to contain so much as one terrorist uprising in little Cyprus; that we barely beat the Boers in South Africa and never beat the Mau Mau in Kenya, Jewish terrorists in Palestine or the bombers in Aden; and that Algerian terrorism wrecked much of the last century for France.

In every case the terrorists’ pursuer governed the place. And we are going to have them “stamped out” in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we do not? Dream on, Tony.

We know — do we not? — that even the watchful state can seldom find those who are determined to work unseen. In Britain we cannot so much as keep tabs on a few wretched asylum-seekers who slip away into the crowd when their applications are refused. Nor need a potential terrorist be an illegal immigrant: he may have entered lawfully, or have citizenship. We know that — do we not? We know we cannot keep them out and we know we cannot find them when they are in.

We know — do we not? — that with every year that passes, every thousandth link-up to the Internet, every millionth new mobile phone, it becomes less necessary for conspirators to meet physically in one place in order to conspire. The day is coming, perhaps has already come, when terrorists will not need to gather in camps. There will be no HQs to bomb, no cells to track down, no tents to ransack. The concept of “host” country as geographical location for a terrorist group may already be too weak to bear weight, certainly too weak to justify revenge-bombing of the uninvolved. All we will be able to allege will be the “hospitality” or “ambiguity” shown by some governments to shadowy figures who flit in and out of their territories. The IRA, for instance, flitting in and out of America and raising funds. Shall we bomb Washington? Should we bomb Dublin? Should white supremacist South Africa have bombed London when black freedom fighters with bases here killed innocent people there? We have got a cheek — have we not? — to declare (as has this and other newspapers) that the Americans should “make no distinction between the perpetrators of a terrorist atrocity and the government which gives it shelter”. London and the capitals of Europe offer some of the world’s best havens for terrorists and freedom-fighters seeking neutral countries from which to hatch their campaigns.

For we know — do we not? — that no ghost of an international consensus will ever be reached about who are the goodies and who the baddies in the world of violent protest. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter. Making these distinctions the grounds for invasion — which the British press now seem to be barking at the Americans to do — will sow the most monstrous sense of injustice among nations who think differently.

Of course we must catch and disable terrorists where we can. Of course there is a moral case for trying to snuff out those who threaten our world. There was a moral case for American policy in Vietnam. But if America failed to remove the Vietcong from South-East Asia, and if Russia cannot even remove terrorists from Chechnya and all but foundered in the attempt to subdue Afghanistan, why and how do a series of explosions in America suddenly make possible a new Pax Atlantica imposed worldwide by an American-led group of nations of which Britain now yaps to be a leading member?

It is not the case that terrorism can never be stamped out by sheer force; rather it is the case that without locating, surrounding, isolating and ruthlessly exterminating the whole group, the attempt — particularly if made by a foreign power — is likely to fail; and in failing, to energise and remotivate the cause, spreading its appeal and acting as a recruiting sergeant for its leaders. The West is in no position to trample across the East with the necessary vast manpower, firepower and local intelligence. All we would do is infuriate the Muslim world and drive moderates into the arms of extremists. That is bin Laden’s hope.

Instead we should ask what makes a Muslim terrorist. It is rage. Can we understand the rage? Surely we can. Many in the Middle East, including many who are not extremists, resent American involvement there, propping up favoured states and undermining others. Few Muslims — even among those America supports — can be comfortable with this; many are angered, and a hard core are enraged.

A drawing-in of horns by the West would take the heat from this anger. After America’s immediate lashing-out, which I suppose may now be inevitable (and perhaps after securing the extradition of bin Laden himself), I believe such a partial retrenchment may take place. And after September 11, 2001, and the horrible, horrible deaths of thousands of innocent people, one thing will be certain: the world will be the same again after all.

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September 14, 2001