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Only love and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against their murderers

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Our poor, our weak, our hungry

After the deluge

Don't inflate the size of the enemy to fit the crime

As in the Cuban missile crisis, the president still has choices

Special report: terrorism in the US

Martin Woollacott
Friday September 14, 2001
The Guardian

Searching for parallels to help them understand what has happened and what they should do next, Americans cite Pearl Harbour. A better reference would be the Cuban missile crisis. Then, as now, the United States had a new and untried president, John F Kennedy, and faced a danger that the wrong moves could turn a bad situation into a worse one. The president's advisers and cabinet members, like the men and women who serve George Bush, had diverse views and were sometimes rivalrous and uncoordinated.

Some among the senior military wanted to pulverise the missile sites, invade Cuba, or even ready America for a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. That ultimate possibility, which happened 40 years ago, should remind us that, terrible though it was, Tuesday's attack does not represent anything like that threat to humanity.

Kennedy proved himself to be a cool manager of his own advisers. He calculated the risks with care and rejected demands for actions which, we can see in retrospect, would have led to disaster, even to world war. He took military action - a naval blockade - but chose the form and timing with caution. He was respectful of allies and judicious in summing up opponents. One obvious difference from the present crisis was that the US was then involved in a conflict with communist states that dwarfs, even in the most exaggerated view, the present encounter with Islamic and other kinds of extremism.

But the fundamental question is whether President Bush and his people can live up to the standards set by Kennedy. What links the circumstances of the missile crisis with those of today is the imperative requirement that the American government should navigate its way through the recommendations for action which will be thrust on it with the same attention to ultimate consequences that the Kennedy administration displayed.

Of the many judgments that have to be made, the most critical is the one that measures the likely impact of American actions on Muslim societies. In this way, the present time is also similar to the period of the Gulf war. It is easy to say that the US should avoid any course which ultimately increases the pool of resentful Islamic youth from which extremism draws its recruits, or gives those extremists more stature as martyrs and heroes, or weakens Muslim governments.

To some extent, these things are going to happen whatever is done. But the decision-makers have to bear in mind that the objective of those who planned and carried out these attacks was to start a war. They planned to inspire and inflame Arab and Muslim public opinion, and then, by provoking an excessive retaliation, to feed the flames further. Why give them the war they want ?

The rhetoric of American politicians and officials is worrying, if understandable, because it has seized so readily on this concept of war. There is no war between America and extremist forces in the Islamic world. Most forms of fundamentalism have in fact passed their zenith, as developments from Algeria to Iran have demonstrated, or have become domesticated and tamer versions of their earlier selves. As for Palestinian groups, both secular and fundamentalist, for quite a while they have kept their attacks within the occupied territories or Israel. They argue among themselves about what should be attacked - Israel or just the territories, civil or just military targets - and their use of violence is relatively rational, whatever else we may think of it.

It really shows how bare the terrorist cupboard is that after the New York and Washington attacks we have a "list" of only one organisation or group of organisations. One government only is under suspicion as the primary patron, two others might have been involved; this too contrasts with the much wider range of suspects after Lockerbie and other outrages.

It would be too much to say that the age of terrorism had been approaching its end before this attack. What was happening was more complicated than that. Terrorism had decreased, but the damage that small groups or even individuals could do was increasing, a fact pointed out by experts in many countries. What guarded against an act like that of this week was a combination of preventative measures and the common sense of those using or sponsoring violence. They had to consider if their cause would really be advanced by excess.

Government sponsors, especially, had to think hard about the prices they might have to pay because of what such groups might do, whether the groups were following the orders of their patrons or acting without their knowledge or permission. Governments who sponsored terror also had to reflect on the fact that it could be used against themselves.

All these factors have constrained terrorist violence. And they suggest that this attack on America could be unique, the last effort of a uniquely extreme group sheltered by a uniquely obtuse and backward government. Certainly it is likely to prove to be unique in its means, since another use of hijacked aircraft as flying bombs will now become almost impossible because of security measures already being put into place.

These arguments may be too sanguine. But it is disturbing to see speculation that the Bush administration should authorise political assassinations in the Israeli manner, prepare itself for a future in which punitive descents by American forces, including the capture of hostile capitals, are a commonplace, and make the prevention of terrorism almost the primary aim of its foreign policy. This is more than envisaging a single operation against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. It considers putting America and its allies on a kind of permanent war footing.

President Bush has said that the US now faces "a monumental struggle of good versus evil". In the anguish of this week's events, everybody reaches for the big words. But there is a tendency to inflate the size of the enemy to fit the size of the crime. A certain counterbalancing moderation is also evident. It can be seen in the careful style of Colin Powell, in Congressional caution over extending an enabling resolution, and in the Nato decision to support the US that is probably also intended to broaden the counsel available to the US government.

There is a law of shrinkage about big events. As time passes - after the fall of Saigon, after the Iranian revolution, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, after the breaching of the Berlin Wall - perspective is gained. In the end, it could be that this attack on America may not even seem to be such a transforming event as were these. It may be that the domestic life of the US and other western countries will not be dominated by security measures from now on, that the Israelis will not seize the alleged opportunity to attack Palestinian groups, and that a permanent war against terror does not lie before us. It is certainly not inevitable that any of these things should happen.

What Kennedy knew still applies. Even in the worst of crises, we still have choices.

Special reports
Terrorism in the US

14.09.2001: Breaking news on the disaster

Interactive guides
Find out how the terrorist attacks happened

Lists of confirmed dead
13.09.2001: American Airlines flight 11
13.09.2001: American Airlines flight 77
13.09.2001: United flight 175
13.09.2001: United flight 93

Video and audio
America's day of terror - and the aftermath
2001 Reuters / encoding

14.09.2001: Jonathan Freedland: Where are you, Mr Bush?
14.09.2001: Blake Morrison: Why the attack has transfixed us
14.09.2001: John Sutherland: Reality bites
14.09.2001: Caryl Phillips: Ground zero

Photo galleries
11.09.2001: The story in pictures
13.09.2001: The victims

Where the attacks occurred

The weblog
We find the best journalism around the web

13.09.2001: Bin Laden: the former CIA 'client' obsessed with training pilots

Press review special report

13.09.2001: Explained: How the attacks on America may hasten recession

14.09.2001: Martin Woolacott: Don't inflate the size of the enemy
14.09.2001: Amin B Sajoo: Muslims beware

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