After yesterday's bombings in Baghdad and Jerusalem, we can all agree with the Pope's expression of "unanimous reprobation". We can, no doubt, also agree with President Bush's declaration that the "civilised world will not be intimidated". But having said that, what do we do?
Brazil's President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, called it "the insanity of terrorism". But that's exactly what it isn't. Barbaric, inhuman, self-defeating even, but insane it is not. What the "civilised world" has to face up to, what many of us thought it was facing up to in the aftermath of the 11 September, is that terrorism - the bomb, the assassination, the killing of civilians - is now part of the normal currency of armed struggle.
There's nothing new in this, or with the disregard for innocent life that goes with it. In 1946, Jewish terrorists blew up the King David Hotel, killing more than 90 people, mostly civilians, in a devastating attack on the British "occupying forces" in the Middle East, forces that were there under UN mandate. It was a suicide driver who steered a truck full of explosives into the US Marines' barracks in Lebanon more than 20 years ago, and the Americans then were there as peace-keepers not occupiers.
Nor is this kind of action peculiar to the Middle East, or to Muslim countries. The suicide bomb has been a favoured weapon of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. The Omagh bomb was exploded among civilians in Northern Ireland and the Guildford bomb in an English pub. The frequency and scale of the attacks may be on the increase since the Twin Towers, but the motivation has hardly changed.
The direct objective is to put a cost on occupation, to make the occupier pay in terms of human life and heightened security. The indirect object is to spread alarm and suffering among civilians, thus promoting a vicious cycle of security clamp-down by the military and consequent resentment against them among the civilians whose houses are searched at night and whose sons are carted off for interrogation.
It's no good arguing, as outraged politicians tend to, that terrorist actions are aimed against the very people that they're meant to be helping, or that they bring about reactions that make the lives of the population far worse than they would otherwise have been. They are not meant to ease suffering, just the opposite. And they are not intended to bring about immediate gains but a pattern of reaction that ultimately exhausts the occupier.
The other point that has to be made, however uncomfortable its implications, is that such terrorism very often is rewarded. The Mau-Mau terrorists in Kenya ended as the ministers of its independence. Menachem Begin became Prime Minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat the President of the nascent Palestinian state. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were made ministers in Northern Ireland. And, although you could claim that independence would have come to Kenya and a Jewish state would have been formed with or without violence, it is hard to deny that it could be interpreted as helping along the process.
Which is why the neo-conservatives in Washington have argued so strongly that terrorism should never be rewarded and President Bush has been quite so absolute in his rhetoric against it. Success, say the neo-cons, simply feeds the appetite of the terrorist. The only effective policy is to face them down with force and be prepared to tough it out "for as long as it takes." It was the voice we heard from the American President in his immediate reaction to the Baghdad bombing on Tuesday and it was the voice of the Israeli government as soon as it reacted to the bus bomb that killed 20 people in Jerusalem on the same day.
It's an understandable reaction, but the wrong one. Of course terrorism has to be faced down. And of course security forces have to be prepared for the long haul if they hope to defeat it. And of course these outrages are the products of small groups of particularly fanatic people. It's a mistake to believe that they have the backing of ordinary civilians. The neo-cons are quite right to accuse liberals of being too easily persuaded of the justice of terrorist causes in the past and too little moved by the violence of their means.
But if terrorists are few in number it is all the more important to divorce them from the people whose cause they claim to espouse. The breeding ground of suicide bombers is not in religious fanaticism as such but among the young unemployed males who exist in so many parts of the developing world. For Israel to "punish" the Palestinians by closing borders and cutting off the means of employment is an act of stupidity. For the US forces in Iraq to react to what they term Baathist diehards by concentrating repression on Sunnis further marginalises a group whose sense of isolation is promoting the violencein the first place.
You can't kill with kindness. But you can encourage the economic activity that reduces the number of disaffected and increases the reasons to support peace. The trouble with the Israeli obsession with security at all costs, however understandable, is that it stokes up its own demons. The more you erect barriers to the free flow of people to protect yourself from bombers, the more you will produce an economic destitution that encourages martyrdom on the other side. The security wall, or "fence" as the government prefers to call it, that the Israelis are building is short-sighted not just because it is creating a continual cause of Palestinian complaint and humiliation but because it will prevent the kind of passage of people that is the only way to peace.
So with Iraq. The only way forward is to produce the kind of economic development that will lock in the population to a peaceful future. The biggest obstacles to that development are the insufficiency of police and security forces on the ground, the channelling of funds through a few US corporations, and the slowness with which Iraqis are being recruited and trained for the tasks. Increasing the numbers through UN involvement will not of itself bring fewer attacks. But it might well mean greater security. Making the UN responsible for more of the reconstruction will equally accelerate economic activity. And if greater UN involvement means both Paris and Washington swallowing their pride, then surely that is a small price to pay.
The events of 11 September changed the rules of the game in that they introduced a whole new element of internationally organised networks of terrorists. But this is something best dealt with, like organised crime, by international police work - an effort that seems to have been sidelined by the quarrels over the invasion of Iraq. But as far as the hard business of the bomb and the assassin are concerned, we are in a world that goes back to the Roman occupation of Palestine and beyond. Tempting though it is to rest on the grand rhetoric of condemnation, the only way to cope with this world is to satisfy the needs of ordinary people and leave terrorism where it should be - isolated, ineffective and self-defeating.Reuse content