Fergal Keane: There is only one way to defeat such hatred

'To track the killer you need to walk in his shadow, you cannot depend on missiles that rain from the sky'

Share

It is 7am in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, and like everybody else waking up across the globe, I sense a world profoundly changed. The brief e-mail from London asked if I could write something that would somehow register the scale of the event. But that is beyond me. I do not have the language equal to this calamity. Last night the concierge asked if I would write a letter to the American guests on behalf of the hotel manager. His English wasn't up to the task. What should we say to them? I asked.

" Sympatico," he said. So we settled on the simple offer of comfort and an expression of sorrow. All day the Americans had hung around the television set in the bar, swerving between rage and despair. There was, above all, a sense of bewilderment. Why us? And to that there was no answer that would have made any sense at all.

The scale of the event? One commentator after another has spoken of Pearl Harbour and the American Civil War. But the events in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania exist in a different world. The comparisons with Gettysburg or Pearl Harbour are accurate only in the sense of indicating the degree of national trauma. But in the cold terrain of fact we should look instead to the humiliation of American power in Beirut in the 1980s or the slaughter of American forces in Somalia at the hands of Mohammed Aidid.

Both, in different ways, showed how small, ruthless groups can inflict catastrophic damage on a great power. People in Britain who have suffered the terror of the IRA will have some idea of the confusion thrown up by such horror; the instinct for vengeance is immediate but so, too, is a terrible sense of powerlessness: to attack whom and where and under what rules?

The giant roars but cannot find its tormentors. The terrorism of the IRA was ruthless but calibrated. It was, for the large part, nasty, tribal and small, with what the terrorists would call the occasional "spectacular". The murder of Lord Mountbatten and the bombings in Birmingham and Guildford evoked a national trauma, but nothing like that terrible Tuesday in America.

The slaughter in the US was of a different order: nihilistic, apocalyptic, a crime before which we are rendered speechless. So too will be the response, and in this lies a danger. The world in which Osama Bin Laden operates and from which he draws his support is a place of rage and alienation. Taking out the leader and his henchman will only answer an immediate need.

How does America deal with the long-term problem of being hated by people who are willing to take their own and others' lives? The short-term answer lies most crucially in intelligence. The Americans can learn a lot from the British in that respect. The reluctance to commit human resources in battle and intelligence post-Vietnam has been America's Achilles heel. To track the killer you need to walk in his shadow, to fight him you cannot depend on missiles that rain from the sky. By avoiding direct contact in the name of reducing casualties you risk an ultimate encounter in which casualties are much greater.

And none of this works without a political strategy. For too much of the period since the Second World War, American foreign policy has oscillated between isolationism and adventurism, between self-interest and moral crusading. The result has all too frequently been a policy of fire-fighting in which long-term strategic goals are ignored. All of this may seem a little ahead of the game when America is still counting its dead. But military retaliation is only the beginning of a very long war.

We may often find ourselves frustrated by America, angered by both its actions and its failure to act. But the values for which America stands – at its best and truest – are those of tolerance and fairness. You could fill many pages outlining where and how those values have failed, but in the long run we know that the slaughter in America was a wound against democracy and humanity. The war against terror is the new world war.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace