Death came to my home town this week. It is not a place too accustomed to being in the international headlines. But like countless cities, towns and villages across the world Cork is in mourning just now. We grieve for all the lost thousands but our particular sorrow is for a woman and her four-year-old daughter. Ruth McCourt and her daughter, Juliana, from Connecticut, were aboard one of the planes which crashed into the World Trade Centre.
Anybody who has ever sat in a plane alongside a young child, who has felt the half nervous, half excited grip of a small clammy hand as the plane takes off, will be able to guess at the anguish of that mother as the hijackers took over and steered towards New York. Ruth McCourt came from a town as quiet and easygoing as you will ever find. The politics of the Middle East, or any other part of the world for that matter, were until last Tuesday a distant and unfathomable question. But in the space of a few hours in New York, Washington and Pittsburgh the world shrank. Whether we lived in Cork or Kansas or Cairo we were all of us huddled in the same small room, a world reduced by madness in which anything has become possible.
There is little consolation in this hour of global anguish. I remember Stephen Spender's lines: "The world is the world and it writes no histories that end in love." But we know too that even in the most frightening moments of Tuesday's apocalypse, there was phone call after phone call from those trapped on doomed airliners or in crumbling rooms and stairwells in the World Trade Centre.
Again and again they told those they were leaving behind: "I love you." Those three most important words in our language, words we shy away from in daily life, are the only comfort in a world turned upside down. Keep those words with you and never feel ashamed of saying them. They stand between us and the hatred which has taken so many thousands of lives. The gulf between ourselves and the terrorist attackers has been characterised as the struggle between freedom and democracy and the world of fanaticism. I would put it more simply: it is the battle between love – as those telephone calls so powerfully exemplified – and hate.
So we are left with the question, not so much of how we fight terrorism but how we defeat hate. Fighting terrorism is difficult enough, defeating hatred is a longer and harder task by far.
Let us deal first with the "easier", if one can call it that, task of fighting the terrorists. Mr Bush has declared all out war against terrorism. In doing so he must realise that he will have to fight on many fronts. The men who attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon have offered an inspiration to thousands of holy warriors across the globe. For them the trauma of the past week is seen in very different terms. It is the holiest of work, an ecstasy of blood which represents not the end of a campaign but the beginning. They will even now be planning the next atrocity. Not all will have the organisational capacity and resources of those who attacked America, but they understand the central truth of all terrorism: it takes very few to harm many.
President Bush is obliged by his own judgement, by public opinion and by the demands of history to retaliate against the attackers. But in doing so he also knows that innocent lives may be lost, and this is precisely what the holy warriors would wish. Every terrorist everywhere yearns for the counter attack which will send new recruits hurrying to his ranks.
The possibility of military action in Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere in the Middle East is fraught with danger. And yet it is hard to see another alternative for George Bush. The painstaking work of intelligence gathering and penetration of terrorist cells, the intensification of diplomatic pressure on states who harbour terrorists is the work that will win this war in the long term. But just now the demand is for vengeance and that means war.
The Middle East is in a fragile enough state as it is, the countries that border Afghanistan are already some of the most unstable and violent in the world. The potential of a great conflagration which would ignite the region cannot be underestimated. It is less a question of how the governments of the region, such as the Saudis and Egyptians, will react, but of the effect on their populations. We truly are in uncharted territory, mapless and frightened in a way that our generation cannot comprehend.
There is the more practical question of how you track down terrorist gangs in a place like Afghanistan. I know that country well and have travelled with the opposition forces as they fought Taliban. It is arguably the last country on earth a foreign power would choose to go to war in – as the British and Russians historically found to their cost. What happens if you are lucky enough to get Bin Laden? How do you ensure that an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban will not throw up another holy warrior intent on killing Westerners. The truth is that you cannot. There are vast swathes of our world, places of poverty and despair, where terrorists can find a ready hiding place.
And that takes us to the second part of the equation. The world in which we live, with its vast inequalities and injustices is a recruiting heaven for those who preach hatred and offer paradise in the next world. Men like Bin Laden offer a Utopian vision, a world without enemies in which no man will want. The path to that world will be strewn with as many innocent lives as it takes. For the fanatic is not interested in humanity – he does not really like people – but in the sanctification of an idea. To defeat the fanatics, the monsters with beautiful words, we need to look honestly at how our world works.
This is a moment for existential questioning. Only part of the answer lies in security. Beyond our western borders and our comfortable existence lies a world of turmoil and poverty. For much of the time we keep it at bay, we refuse to recognise its existence. The politicians' cliché about being tough on crime and the causes of crime must now be applied to international terrorism. We are not just talking about Islamic extremism but about every wretched sinkhole of despair, every slum and refugee camp in that other world. Not "developing world" or "Third World" but other world. A big task? The work of our lifetime and lifetimes to come.
If we are not prepared to face the injustices of our age – not least the vast economic disparities – then we cede the ground to the fanatics. For all their flaws our Western democracies do represent noble aspirations. The fanatics despise our liberalism and tolerance. In their hearts they must surely cheer every stime we in the West lapse into racism and xenophobia, the only language they understand.
The last thing we need to do now is throw up more borders and feel more threatened by that other world. I have no doubt the smiting sword is about to fall. but in its wake, can we please remember that we live in one world and not a constellation of warring planets.
The writer is a BBC Special CorrespondentReuse content