When it comes to saving lives, one Mo Mowlam is worth 100 missiles

The moment you stand over graves of kids killed by terrorists is the worst time to decide how to react
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The Independent Culture
I WISH I had a quid for every time some idiot has repeated the silly saying that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". The apparent meaning of this is that everything is relative; in a post- modern age why is any one viewpoint superior to any other? They are all constructs. So Nelson Mandela is a dangerous villain one moment, and a hero the next; Yitzhak Shamir was a bomber and became Prime Minister of Israel; good ol' cuddly Yasser blew up all those parked planes in Jordan in the Seventies and, 20 years later, is the respectable father of his people; David Ervine shakes hands with Gerry Adams; and one day, maybe (so this thinking goes), we'll be cutting trade deals with Osama bin Laden.

Much of this thinking disgusts me. There are precious few causes today that are worth the life of a single child, let alone those of 300 Kenyans, 300 Ulsterfolk or 300 Palestinians. For Mandela, the use of bombs was an extremely rare act in a struggle in which millions were denied any recourse to democratic means. And, even then, they didn't bloody well work. In the case of the Omagh bombers, however, living in a democratic and tolerant country and surrounded by a peace process validated by 90 per cent of the people of the island, a much darker pathology is at work. Where Mandela was desperate to get shot of violence at the earliest possible moment, the flint-hearted car-bombers of the "Real IRA" wanted to keep on killing as late as they conceivably could. There is no meaningful equivalence.

But if it is not necessarily true, this argument that we always end up doing some kind of business with terrorism, it is the case that politics almost invariably provides the means to defeat, end or disarm it. Sinn Fein's leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, steeped in Republican martyrology, nevertheless eventually got sick of all the bollocks about volunteers and operations and apologies to civilians. They'd had enough. There hadn't been an exhausted surrender by successive British governments, which rightly held tenaciously to the principle of allowing the majority in Northern Ireland to decide the future of their province.

But just as there was no military surrender, there was no military victory. Chronic fatigue alone would not have been anything like enough to allow Adams and McGuinness to bring the majority of their supporters, armed as well as unarmed, to the table. Politics did that: the much maligned, underestimated art of politics.

Consider how the Middle East peace process went pear-shaped, and led us inexorably to a loony called bin Laden becoming a hero to the more impressionable part of the Muslim world. Yitzhak Rabin, a reluctant (but complete) convert to allowing a Palestinian entity, was murdered by an orthodox right-wing fanatic. His successor, Shimon Peres, was then destabilised by a series of appalling bombs planted by Palestinian opponents of the peace process. The two sets of zealots wanted the same objective; the Israeli people (by the slimmest of majorities) rewarded them by electing Benjamin Netanyahu on a "peace with security" platform. It was the greatest tragedy of the last half-decade.

The Israeli election result stymied America's ability to broker further progress, and lost it vital support in the Arab world. This has made it far more difficult to reform the alliance that defeated Saddam Hussein, and has led to the recrudescence of militant terrorism - except that this time it is clothed in the robes of the religious, rather than the fatigues of cod Marxism. The seeds of the Kenya bombing were sown in a Tel Aviv square four years ago.

Peace With Security is, of course, usually a chimera. It substitutes the magic notion of a military fix for the agonising process of politics. Revenge becomes an objective, whereas the only true goal is the neutralisation of the terrorist. And this neutralisation is almost always achieved by slicing, bit by painful bit, the political ground away from the terrorists, undermining their alliances, disappointing their hopes of growth. Efficacy is everything.

I'm not saying that you cannot physically fight terrorists. With one- man bands such as Sendero Luminoso and the Abu Nidal bunch, it may make sense to pop the top guy if you can do it - though you rarely can. You are also entitled to use every trick in the book to keep them under surveillance, and to foment murderous divisions in their ranks. They want, after all, to kill our children. We owe them no consideration. But, given the clear- headedness with which the tactics of democracies must be planned, it is likely to be true that immediate or hasty reactions to the outrages of terrorists should be avoided. The moment that you stand over the graves of kids killed by these bastards, and take your measure of the lives ruined by their actions, that is usually the worst moment to decide how to react. After all, who brought you here? And what did they have in mind?

Take Omagh. At the moment the "Real IRA" are completely isolated. They are probably more scared of their own community than they are of the security forces. And they should be; there must be a good chance that they will be handed over by their disgusted fellow republicans. Their one hope is to provoke a reaction from the two governments that will refuel the republican myth, and bring back some measure of support. Paradoxically, one of the most sincere of their enemies, the local DUP MP, Willie Thompson, could be, were his advice on the reintroduction of internment taken, their biggest chance of salvation

So it isn't silly to ask whether the Government's proposals, which will be placed before the special session of parliament next week, are really absolutely necessary. If they are convinced that such action will prevent another Omagh, then that alone could be sufficient justification. If not, they may reflect that now is precisely the time not to take the risk of reconstructing a hinterland for these terrible people to fall back on.

The same could be true for the battle against bin Laden. The issue is not whether we would like to erase him from the face of the earth (we would, and we would be justified in doing it), but whether any course of action strengthens or weakens him in the long term. Some tough words about Israel's sabotage of the peace process might have been rather more help in separating him from elements of his potential support than flattening a factory in downtown Khartoum.

And I wonder about the possible expulsion of the Muslim extremists who currently enjoy exile in London. Though it sticks in the craw to have these chaps justifying the murder of children from the comfort of our studios, is it not better to have them located in our capital? Where can you maintain better round-the-clock surveillance - in Kensington, or in some rocky wilderness north of Kandahar? If we know where they are, we can nab them when we need to.

All too often in our cosy democracies we think of military people as the good guys, and of politicians as the villains. Military action is noble, political compromise is shifty and dishonest. One is simple and the other is complex. But, for my money, one Mo Mowlam is worth a hundred Cruise missiles. When it comes to saving babies and marginalising terrorism, she's far more accurate.