War against terrorism will rise from the ashes

All over the world this morning, eyes are turning to America to see what policy it will pursue in the wake of this attack. Although it is early, the outline of some of the opinion is forming. Many US and European observers, and some in the Middle East, are sending America their condolences.

But they are also saying that America, through its arrogance, and the Bush administration, through its unilateralism and casual militarism, brought this disaster upon itself. Governments that do not negotiate with terrorists will incur their wrath. The west as a whole, the thesis goes, is paying for America's cavalier attitude. In one sense, yesterday's tragedy is worse than Pearl Harbor. It appears to be the first large-scale attack by outsiders on the mainland US since the British war of 1812. Many pundits posit that it will force a great awakening in the US, an awakening to realities that the rest of the world has already confronted. The great test for the States now is to prove that it can absorb the lesson and learn the art of accommodation.

This is the wrong interpretation. Uncle Sam is the target here and terrorists are the attackers. The great test for the US will be to demonstrate, through decisive policy, that it has recognised the truth: that terrorists are martial enemies and that they must be confronted as such. Not accommodated, not negotiated with, but targeted and stopped just as they might be in a straightforward military battle. And that failure to do so will bring repeats of just the sort of nightmare that we have seen this week.

Consider the western policy in the Middle East, from where, as I write, the attack seems to have emanated. For a full generation, since Israel's Yom Kippur war in the early 1970s, administrations from both parties have pursued a policy of conciliation. Rather than support Israel or the anti-terror advocates in Arab nations, they have chosen to parley with the terrorists - on the theory that they were victims, weaker than others in the region.

The notion was that big powers and their allies, including Israel, must let themselves be subjected to the tyranny of the weak. Noblesse- or hyperpuissance - oblige. A superpower must pay for its status by forgiving and understanding weaker parties.

This policy of appeasement has wrought terrible damage. Specifically, it has confirmed terrorists' unrealistic vision of the US, emboldening them to launch just the sort of cartoon-like attack we have experienced. The terrorists who planned this made-for-Hollywood bloodbath took the US for a much smaller country than it is in reality. They believed that a theatrical suicide bombing of important national symbols would throw the nation into hysteria and that it would turn in on itself and away from foreign involvement.

They have seen such a turning-in before. Call it the Terrorism as Hydra phenomenon. Each time the US was assailed - and it was not often - domestic observers labelled the problem "terrorism" and looked no further. After the 1988 downing of the Pan Am Lockerbie plane, the campaign to locate the terrorists and bring them to justice was a mere sideshow. Most Americans focused rather on compensation and consolation for the loss - on the tragedy of the families whose relatives had died in that flight.

Throughout the 1990s, especially after the first World Trade Center bombing nine years ago, airports and train stations and the World Trade Center itself obsessed about terrorism security measures. Gate checks, border checks and elevator passes became a routine way of life and were viewed as the antidote to the vague threat of trouble from abroad. To blame were anonymous, shadowy figures - "terrorists" - and no specific individual or political group. It all amounted to a culture of self-blame. If only we guard ourselves better, Americans thought, we shall be protected.

This ostrich attitude is bound to continue to obtain, to some degree. All yesterday afternoon, the radio and television were full of remonstrations. People argued that America ought to have expected just such an attack in the early 1990s, after the Gulf war, or that citizens must move away from potentially dangerous targets such as the World Trade Center, or send their children to schools in the suburbs, away from the trouble.

But there is also another awakening in process, of a different sort. It is a national recognition that it is the perpetrators who are the enemy and not the US itself. In other words, many people in the US are undergoing a great awakening. It is not the awakening to the importance of conciliation; it is the awakening of a sleeping giant.

From Washington, this will translate into a military response. US leaders - Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and President George W. Bush will plan retaliation.

And this time US citizens are likely to be supportive. It is important to recall that the US is a country that went to war over the invasion of one far-off country - Kuwait - by another - Iraq. And that Congress backed the president through Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This time national support for action is likely to be far stronger.

I live a mile from the World Trade Center bombing. Outside my window yesterday morning, snow seemed to be falling. Only it was not snow but ashes, the dust from the World Trade Center's collapse. As I watched it accumulate, I thought: this is the sort of thing that happens in wars, and in Europe, but not here. I also reflected that this was indeed an end to American naivety - the belief that we Americans cannot be touched by war. But the attack will also, I hope, bring with it a new understanding here that America can stop war, if only it recognises it for what it is.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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