Joan Smith: Exposed! My shameful life as a 'salon terrorist'

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The Independent Online

What a terrible person I am. Up and down the country, people are ashamed of me. I make them embarrassed to be British. The trouble is, you see, that I just don't know the difference between right and wrong. I am, apparently, in favour of the murder of innocent men, women and children.

I am even, according to Janet Daley in The Daily Telegraph, a "salon terrorist" who is "excited" by the attacks on New York and Washington. No wonder Stephen Pollard in the Daily Mail is nauseated by people like me.

Before you conclude that I have taken leave of my senses, I should explain the heinous crime I have committed. It is to hold two ideas simultaneously in my head, namely that the recent terrorist attacks are horrifying, but that the double standards of American governments may have inflamed the fanatical hatred that inspired them. This, I am told, is crude anti-Americanism, and my duty, along with the rest of the world, is to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US President. But what is so wrong or anti-American about calling for a measured response?

Imagine that a neighbour arrives on your doorstep in a distressed state, announcing that his wife and children have been murdered. He thinks he may know the identity of the culprit, although he isn't absolutely sure, and roughly where the perpetrator lives. He begs you to accompany him to the address, and assist him in burning down the house. Do you agree, or try to dissuade him while you summon the police? Most of us would be clear about where our moral duty lay in such circumstances. It is not dissimilar to the position of those of us who are worried by talk of a "crusade" and want to know what the President intends to do before offering unconditional support.

If his intention is to organise an international coalition to identify, arrest and indict terrorists – as is already happening with war criminals at The Hague and Arusha tribunals – I am entirely in favour. If it is to launch huge numbers of missiles at Afghanistan, then I am passionately opposed. So, I think, are many other people in this country and the US; it is almost unbearably moving to hear relatives of people who died in New York, Washington or Pennsylvania declare that they do not want more deaths. But any strategy to prevent terrorist attacks is inextricably linked with the question of causation.

And that is where I part company with the splenetic moralists of the Mail and Telegraph. This does not make me a terrorist fellow-traveller; it means that I subscribe to a different set of moral standards and I have even, unlike most armchair generals, gone to the trouble of writing a book about it. One of the things I have learnt is that the very existence of an alternative, liberal, secular morality comes as unwelcome news to conservatives. "Morality is morality," protested Professor Kenneth Minogue, formerly one of Baroness Thatcher's favourite advisers, when we had a frank exchange earlier this year.

But it isn't as simple as that. In my view, it is immoral to encourage the overthrow of democratic governments, as the US did in Chile and Guatemala. It was immoral for the American embassy in Jakarta in 1966 to prepare a list of leading Communists which was used by the Indonesian security authorities to hunt them down; according to documents accidentally released in Washington only last month, 105,000 members of the Indonesian Communist Party died in the repression. It was immoral to stand back and allow genocide in Rwanda, as Bill Clinton did in 1994.

What is the point of raking up these unhappy events? Let me be absolutely clear: the point is to help the US in its present ghastly predicament. It is an attempt to explain to decent, ordinary Americans how their country became public enemy number one in regions as geographically separate as Central America, South-East Asia and the Middle East. It is not, admittedly, as much fun to write as the abuse currently being hurled in less thoughtful journals. But it does raise an important question. As Americans struggle to understand the terrible events of 11 September, should they listen to the unthinking war-mongers in their fortresses of denial? Or voices which argue that acknowledging past mistakes is essential in order to create a fairer, safer future for us all?

Will anyone spot the real evil of the Taliban?

I'm sorry. I can't help it. But I did warn you. For the past five years, I have been banging on about the Taliban, the ignorant sect which has taken over Afghanistan and denied women education, medical treatment, even the right to walk about unmolested unless they wear a dreary garment called a burka. Did anyone take any notice? Not really. Three years ago, I even collared a member of Tony Blair's cabinet and asked him what European governments intended to do to help Afghan women, with results I can only describe as bizarre.

That was not the most serious problem with the Taliban, he countered. He was much more worried about the way they were exporting heroin in an attempt to destroy the Christian West. Excuse me? I stared at him, half expecting to hear he was about to launch the Fifth Crusade. Now, of course, the problem has changed again. The Taliban are horrible because they have been sheltering Osama bin Laden and the American government is finally putting pressure on Pakistan, their chief protector.

The world could and should have done this years ago, in August 1998, for instance. That is when the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims, murdered between 5,000 and 8,000 Hazaras (who are Shia) and left their bodies to rot and be eaten by dogs in the town of Mazar-e-Sharif. You didn't have to be a presidential adviser to work out that Pakistan was the key to ridding Afghanistan of this pestilential bunch. But world leaders weren't too bothered – and they certainly didn't start planning invasions, as the Americans are said to be doing – when the victims were women and some ethnic group most people hadn't heard of anyway.

Expensive habit is finally grounded

Not long ago, an article in this newspaper warned about the environmental costs of air travel. Flying has become as cheap as rail, for short journeys, and the industry appeared to be in a phase of limitless expansion. Suddenly, since 11 September, all that's changed. Of course I feel sorry for the employees who are about to be laid off by airlines and plane manufacturers, but the fact that so many people are thinking twice about flying is to be welcomed. How sad that it took catastrophe on such a scale to make us change our rather thoughtless habits.

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I hear rumours that someone called Smith is now leader of an obscure organisation known as the Conservative Party. He's bald and boring, and I don't think many people would get us mixed up. But you never know. So please bear in mind, if you see head- lines declaring "Smith backs hanging for shoplifters" or "Smith demands nuclear strike on French farmers", it ain't me, guv. Honest.