Alan Watkins: It was an attack on them, not on us

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Being driven round Burgundy at the beginning of September, with me doing the navigating, I said to my companion that there would shortly be a terrible event in the United States.

Being driven round Burgundy at the beginning of September, with me doing the navigating, I said to my companion that there would shortly be a terrible event in the United States. This was not a revelation but an induction. It would, I thought, be the result of various political developments, chiefly in the Middle East, which are easy enough to chart but are now considered tasteless to mention in case they provide aid and comfort to the enemy. In the US, and to a certain extent in this country as well, explanation is thought to be the same as justification – perhaps slightly more reprehensible, in that it imputes an element of rationality into terrible events.

I did not forecast the precise method whereby those events were to come about. I thought it most likely that a skyscraper would be blown up by a nuclear device. On 10 September we returned to Blighty. Since then I have kept more or less in touch, chiefly through the BBC's News 24 service, which in reputation has gained as much through this as yet unfought war as CNN did in the Gulf.

The most striking aspect of the crisis is the extent to which we seem to wish to become involved with America. We all know that Mr Tony Blair, the Great Actor-Manager, thrives in conditions of this kind. Most people are happy to watch the performance with admiration, at any rate for the time being. But the cancelled holidays, the empty restaurants, the cruising taxis, the reluctance to move out of the house: these have not been got up either by the politicians or by the papers, or not entirely.

Both politicians and papers alike have none the less been making statements which do not bear a moment's serious examination. Thus we are told that the attacks of 11 September were as much on us as on the United States. I am sorry – or, rather, I am glad – but they were nothing of the kind. As far as I can make out, they were unprecedently violent protests not so much against the position of Israel as an American client-state (though no doubt that came into it) as against American control of the foreign policies of Osama bin Laden's native Saudi Arabia and of other, smaller Arab states in the region. Certainly the perpetrators all seemed to have come from that part of the world. In these circumstances one would have expected Mr bin Laden to send his suicide bombers, if they really were his, into Riyadh and Jeddah rather than into Washington and New York. But terrorists are no more logical than politicians or, indeed, than the rest of us.

The truth is that the slogan We Are All Involved is a piece of English conceit, comparable to the assumption of those middle-class nuclear disarmers of the 1950s that we could take over the "moral leadership of the world" by divine right. This does not mean that we are or have been immune from terrorism. On the contrary: we have been its victims for the last 30 years. So also have other countries, including the United States. I believe it is worse morally to kill 6,000 people in New York than 30 people in Omagh. But the moral nature of the action remains the same.

The response of Prime Ministers to the IRA, from James Callaghan onwards, has been quite different from that of the Great Actor-Manager to the events of 11 September. Except for that ludicrous period under Lady Thatcher when the voices of Mr Gerry Adams and other members of Sinn Fein were dubbed, the representatives of Irish terrorism have been endlessly courted, flattered and indulged, whether at the instigation or with the approval of successive Presidents of the United States. I am not saying that this policy was necessarily and in all circumstances wrong. It would certainly have caused an outcry throughout the civilised world, and rightly so, if Mr Blair had treated the Roman Catholic population of Belfast as he and Mr George W Bush are now proposing to treat the Mohammedan population of Afghanistan.

The crisis has already unleashed the most violent passions not among the politicians, who have maintained an uneasy unity, but among the commentating classes, as much in this country as in the United States; perhaps more so. Most of them have not heard a shot fired in anger or, indeed, at all, and are in no danger of finding themselves in this uncomfortable position. Those columnists who have taken the Queen's Shilling include William Deedes, Anthony Howard, Richard Ingrams, Paul Johnson, William Keegan, Michael Parkinson, William Rees-Mogg, Donald Trelford, Keith Waterhouse and myself. Lord Deedes apart, what a shower! If I have omitted anyone, I apologise. Senior politicians are even thinner on the ground, Mr Iain Duncan Smith virtually the sole exception. I am not asserting that a period of military service is a necessary condition either of making war or of writing about it. I think it may help, that is all.

At times like this, politicians seize the opportunity of doing what they always wanted to do but were afraid to try. An example is Mr David Blunkett with his identity cards. Oddly enough, as a libertarian I am not opposed to them. For one thing, we most of us carry around numerous pieces of plastic anyway. And, for another, the habit is growing – with banks, building societies, postal delivery services – of demanding as a means of identification a driving licence or a passport. Nothing else will serve. A passport can be withdrawn on the whim of a minister; nor is there any right to one in the first place. In this respect an identity card would be an improvement. No doubt there would be a brisk industry forging them. But for the law-abiding citizen they would be a convenience.

As for that supposedly knockdown question: What would you do? I will tell you. I would discover the perpetrators of the outrage, or, rather, those behind them, for the principals in the first degree have all gone to meet those 72 virgins in the sky. I would put them on trial, either in a neutral country or even in the US. I could never understand why the originators of the Lockerbie crash could not have been tried under Scots law in Edinburgh. Despite the present – perfectly understandable – atmosphere there, the United States lives by the law as does no other nation on this planet.

Unfortunately the US also believes in capital punishment. The other Western members of the alliance do not. Indeed, from time to time they issue declarations stating that it is a deprivation of human rights. No one, as far as I know, has yet considered this difficulty. But alas, I expect the outcome to be far messier, when the question of whether Mr bin Laden should or should not be executed will be of theoretical interest merely.