By Simon Jenkins
First the horror. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and Washington yesterday before a horrified world were the most vivid display of terror that I can recall. The heart of darkness had come to the heart of light and wreaked havoc.
New York is a city I love. It is bond-brother of London and cultural capital of a nation that has entered the new millennium as master of the world. That made it a natural target of envy and hatred. Those who question America’s frequent global interventions in the cause of democracy do so always from a position of respect. Leadership demands a price. When that price is paid in such symbolic centres of the nation as New York and Washington, Americans deserve every sympathy. Words may try to explain such events. None can justify them.
After the horror comes the response. The wise general always keeps in mind his enemy’s objective. As with other recent attacks on Americans at home and abroad, the objective here cannot be the traditional one of those who wage violent war. It is not to defeat America, to undermine its economic power or military strength, nor even to damage its political stability. Such goals are unachievable. That is why comparisons with Pearl Harbor are silly. The objective is to publicise a cause, humiliate America and goad her into a violent response.
To achieve this goal requires more than a big bang. It requires that bang to be publicised and for the reaction to it to be equally violent. Its effectiveness lies not in the death toll — a toll repeated daily on the roads — but in the loudness of the echo through the world’s media. It lies in the action replay, the humanising of the tragedy, the publicity for those responsible. It lies in the aftermath.
There is no military defence against attacks such as these. Indeed there is no realistic defence at all. America will doubtless redouble its efforts to penetrate and contain the groups responsible. But they will not be defeated by main force. Any plane can be hijacked. Any building is vulnerable. People can be protected individually but not in the mass. A community can always be gassed or poisoned.
The paradox of new technology is that it makes developed states more vulnerable to random assault. In the war of the weak against the strong, the weak can wield weapons more potent than ever before. Globalisation may render the rich richer and the poor poorer. But it offers the self-appointed champions of the poor devastating means of forcing their attention on the world.
Faced with horrors such as these, “anti-missile” defence systems seem suddenly obsolete. No rogue state needs an intercontinental ballistic missile to assault America when a boy with a suitcase or a suicide hijacker can walk through any shield. A trillion dollars hurled into outer space cannot stop the blast of a civilian jet loaded with fuel out of Boston airport. Fylingdales may detect a menace from outer space, but not a virus in a handbag or a madman in Club Class.
To protect every American building is clearly impossible. To attempt to protect city centres against suicide attack plays the attacker’s game. It awards him the attention he craves, the apotheosis of fame. The constant search for security becomes a ghostly re-enactment of the outrage, a reminder and a challenge to next time. That surely is why the World Trade Centre was targeted for a second time. It added an eerie echo to the “ripple” of the terror. Its power lies in the memory of blood-stained bodies and sobbing women, of shattered buildings and a world turned upside down.
If yesterday’s acts were committed under the sponsorship of a foreign state, retaliation might be understandable. But punitive action requires a collective entity that can be held responsible. Here there are only shadowy groups, moving from country to country, terrifying their hosts as much as the rest of the world. In 1993 the World Trade Centre was the victim of a massive car bomb. It appeared to be the work of Arab fundamentalists with ties to Afghanistan and Sudan. No conceivable response to the attack made any sense, except to track down the individuals concerned. They appear to have struck again.
Nor did any good come from putting states such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran and Sudan on a list of countries “responsible for sponsoring state terrorism”. Trade sanctions were imposed on destitute peoples with primitive political economies. Sanctions entrenched and often enriched those already in power. To sponsor anti-Americanism has long been a guarantee of dictatorial longevity, witness Assad of Syria, Castro of Cuba, Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
The ardent non-interventionist might argue that incidents such as these can be avoided. They would plead with America not to intervene everywhere and thus render its territory a target to all whom its government has offended abroad. This argument must be met since many enemies of America will cite it. They will point out that the scenes on television yesterday were different only in degree from those experienced by civilian victims of American bombing in Yugoslavia and Iraq. Those critical of Nato bombing might offer America more sympathy if Nato had offered sympathy for the hundreds of civilian deaths from its missiles and cluster bombs far from home. US generals openly demanded the bombing of civilian targets in Belgrade and Baghdad, to “break the will” of local people. Is that not what the perpetrators of yesterday’s outrage might say? Here we tread warily. Sponsoring the state of Israel led America into a prolonged and senseless hostility to the cause of the dispossessed Palestinians. The financing of anti-Soviet warlords in Afghanistan in the 1980s armed and galvanised terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden and others behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre. The criminalisation by the Americans of the trade in heroin and cocaine, of which America is the major consumer, ensures that crime triumphs in states throughout Asia and South America. The continuance of the Kuwaiti policing operation into weekly bombing of Iraq has made Saddam a regional hero and America an object of regional hatred.
These were not wise policies. The true policeman does not just project his awesome authority across the globe, he thinks through the consquences of his policy. But that is an issue distinct from yesterda’’s events. The new Anglo-American “moral imperium” may be no less imperial than the old one, but I do not believe it to be cynical. The bombing of the Serbs and Iraqis was undertaken in the cause of peace. It was without self-interest on Nato’s part.
America and its allies have “taken up the white man’s burden” with honest intent. They have done so aware of Kipling’s feared reward, “the blame of those ye better,/ The hate of those ye guard”. The wrong turns of Western policy in the Middle East may help to explain yesterday’s slaughter. They in no way excuse it. Nobody should want to see America terrorised into isolationism.
To seek revenge would be senseless. America showed after attacks on its East African embassies in 1998 that it regards revenge as a legitimate weapon in its geopolitical arsenal. The bombing of Afghanistan was ineffective. That of Sudan was illegal and militarily indefensible. Revenge is not the response of a sophisticated political community. America above all should know Thomas Paine’s plea, to “lay the axe to the root and teach governments humanity . . . sanguinary punishments corrupt mankind”.
To react to an atrocity by abandoning the customary self-control of democracy is to help the terrorist to do his work. He wants America to behave as the regional bully of local demonology. To extend further America’s Middle East economic santions, isolation and military aggression offers succour to the terrorist. These policies have not hastened the spread of democracy or stability through the region. They have, if anything, done the reverse. They should be replaced with policies of engagement, trade, friendship and contact.
The message of yesterday’s incident is that, for all its horror, it does not and must not be allowed to matter. It is a human disaster, an outrage, an atrocity, an unleashing of the madness of which the world will never be rid. But it is not politically significant. It does not tilt the balance of world power one inch. It is not an act of war. America’s leadership of the West is not diminished by it. The cause of democracy is not damaged, unless we choose to let it be damaged.
Maturity lies in learning to live, and sometimes die, with the madmen.