Terrible acts of barbarism against America, but the response must be civilised

The leading article on the morning after 9/11


Click to follow
The Independent Online

12 September 2001

They are images that we will never forget. The loss of life is immense, and on a scale hard to comprehend. It was, it hardly needs to be said, far beyond even our worst fears. The sympathy of the world is with America, the blameless victim of the most concerted acts of terrorism ever perpetrated against one nation. It was also an attack on the civilised values of the whole world. The people who organised and executed these outrages were utterly indifferent to the sanctity of human life. They were also, evidently, well organised, resourceful, and cunning. It is to pay them no compliment to recognise their ingenuity as readily as we should condemn their savagery.

President Bush struck the wrong note when he said that the nation he leads would “hunt down” those responsible for these atrocities. He sounded more measured when he pledged that terrorism against the United States will not stand. It should not, and it is up to all the democracies in the world to ensure that it does not, however long that may take and however much that may cost.

And that measured response should continue to be the American way, even to what is to all intents and purposes an act of war. Understandably, in the face of the biggest challenge to her security since, perhaps, Pearl Harbor, voices will be heard that are vengeful and violent.

But as we have seen so many times in the past, and as we witness today in the Middle East, the terrorists can only truly be said to have won if civilised nations abandon civilised values and themselves use indiscriminate violence against the innocent. Restraint, even in the face of such grievous provocation, has to be the watchword.

The terrorists have struck at the very heart of the economic and political life of the most powerful nation in the world. It changes everything. Never again will Americans feel safe on their own land. It was an attack different in scale and intensity to that of the Oklahoma bombing, for example, or indeed the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre.

The United States will, we can be sure, do all that it can to redouble its own security. Domestic flights, the safety of prestige targets, the security of government buildings, all will of course be examined and strengthened. Much the same applies to the security of US missions abroad. America’s intelligence procedures and resources will be under intense scrutiny.

But the experience of those nations that have had to live with the threat of the terrorist for many decades is – however bitter it may be to state this – that the bomber will often, if not always, get through. As the IRA once said after the attempted murder of the British Cabinet: “We only have to be lucky once.” The suicidal nature of the terrorism in America is ample evidence of the terrorists’ determination; the shocking novelty of their methods bears witness to their ability to surprise. We know how quickly the terrorists’ methods can mutate and adapt and adapt again to the measures that are used against them. Outright victories in wars against terrorism are rare.

In the days and weeks to come, as we begin to fully comprehend the full enormity of this evil, it will become clear that life in America, even the world, will never be the same again. Questions will be asked about how reliant America should be for her security on the National Missile Defence programme. It is still possible that “rogue states” will feel tempted to launch some kind of missile attack on the United States.

But the events of yesterday should tell us a good deal about how easily a defence “umbrella” could be bypassed. It seems inevitable that there will be a refocusing of America’s defence and intelligence communities towards the terrorist threat. International co-operation, such as we recently witnessed working so successfully against an IRA mission to Colombia, has to be intensified. While we cannot know for sure who was responsible for these atrocities, America needs also to re-examine what efforts she can make to remove the causes of terrorism, to help resolve those conflicts that fuel the hatreds that lead to the slaughter of the innocent. The US has played a noble and honourable role in such efforts at many times in her history, even at times and in places where her own vital interests were not at stake.

There may even need to be a response to the economic and financial effects of this outrage, at a moment of difficulty in the world economy. Mr Bush and, indeed, the whole of the political leadership of the nation will have to rally America’s spirit, as well as her resources, in order to endure this immense strain. Such issues are, however, for the future. For the moment, we should confine ourselves to expressing our sympathy, once again, to the people of America and in particular to those who have been injured and bereaved as a result of these disasters.

It was terrorism on its most murderous scale – calculated, evil and without mercy. To recall the words so memorably used by President Roosevelt about a similarly unprovoked and cowardly attack on American forces in Pearl Harbor six decades ago, we can say now that 11 September 2001 is a date that will live in infamy.

For more stories, pictures and cartoons please click here