Talking to a British officer attached to the US forces in Iraq over Easter, I asked what he thought were the main differences of approach between the two armed forces, expecting him to talk of the way each dealt with locals and such issues. No, he said, that wasn't the difference. "The real distinction is that, for the American troops, they feel they are fighting a war." And for the British? "It's a job."
If only the common sense of the British soldier could be applied to their political masters back here. For, behind the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary's aggressive justification for overturning civil liberties and introducing new anti-terror measures is the constant reiteration that we are now at war against terror. "9/11 changed everything," as Tony Blair keeps repeating.
Whether Tony Blair really believes all this is another question. The war on terror and the all encompassing change wrought by the attack on the Twin Towers is a useful narrative to justify military intervention abroad and illiberal laws back home. Certainly its difficult to believe that Charles Clarke has any such global view.
But the issue of what kind of struggle we're involved in matters terribly, and not just in approaching our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The novel global war of Bush and Blair's imagination has come to justify everything from extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo Bay to giving the intelligence services overreaching control of policing here and trying to lock up suspects without trial for months on end.
The reasoning is that Britain, indeed the whole West and its value system, is under global attack from a new form of co-ordinated terrorist threat with roots stretching throughout Islamic communities. It is not just the scale of terror that matters but its kind.
Yet there is no real evidence for this, any more than there was real evidence for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, other than the Prime Minister's vague references to the intelligence that passes across his desk. And it is time that the Commons and its committees began to challenge these assumptions.
We know, of course, that the internet and the mobile phone allow extremists around the world to gain access to technology and to link up with each other in ways that were inconceivable only a decade ago. We also know that al-Qa'ida, or at least the organisation based around Osama bin Laden, had gained funds and recruits, in the radical mosques of the West as well as the training grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, that gave the organisation a reach that was new and far reaching.
But the question is whether there is a difference in kind between these cells and the networks of anarchists, Fenians and other terror groups that have long been around and perpetrated such outrages in the past. Do we in other words face a threat that demands a similar kind of response to previous threats such as the IRA, only from different sources and with different potential weapons, or do we face a different kind of threat altogether, demanding a quasi-military retort.
On the face, there's not much to suggest that we do. Little that has happened since 11 September has borne out the fears of global terror networks waging a new kind of war on the West, or the picture of al-Qa'ida as a sort of super-global network of terror. The movement of international fighters into Iraq, and more recently in Afghanistan, followed an initial uprising that seems to have been almost wholly indigenous in character and planning. Although Osama bin Laden would love to claim authorship of the terror, hard intelligence suggests otherwise.
So too with the bombings in Madrid and London - or for that matter the terror acts in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. All the evidence that has been published indicates that the July London bombers were very much a home-grown group with little if any orchestration from abroad. Their radicalisation came from the internet and possibly the local mosque, their expertise from websites open to all. You don't have to go much further than the specific and the local to account for their actions.
It's no doubt more convenient, and sounds a lot better, to wrap every incident up in the rhetoric of grand global conspiracy. It is an easy, if cheap, trick to suggest, as some ministers imply, that to deny such a conspiracy means that you are deliberately ignoring the possibility of further outrages in the future. There is every likelihood that there will be, in Britain, in the US. Australia and elsewhere.
But further outrages do not prove grand plots. The fear is rather that the dire warnings will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more Bush and Blair talk in terms of a great crusade, the more attractive it becomes for any oddball with a death wish to choose Britain and America as a target. They will get infinitely more publicity for doing so.
Talking of this as a "war on terror" only makes it far more difficult to counter the threat. If you really believe that the problem in Iraq is from foreign fighters, then you will take all the wrong measures to combat it.
So too with the domestic threat. If you do make it part of a war rhetoric, that may justify all sorts of restrictive measures, but it will do nothing to help you understand, gather intelligence and seek an effective response to the threat as it is.Reuse content