Drop the rhetoric of war. We need cool heads and hard police work

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The Independent Online

Faced with such wickedness, the easy and wrong response is rhetorical overkill. A suicide car bomb in a hotel and a shoulder-launched missile attack on a civilian aircraft have had the effect that was intended, of striking fear into the hearts of millions.

Faced with such wickedness, the easy and wrong response is rhetorical overkill. A suicide car bomb in a hotel and a shoulder-launched missile attack on a civilian aircraft have had the effect that was intended, of striking fear into the hearts of millions.

The temptation for democratic leaders, who feel it their duty to give expression to popular outrage, is to resort with ever more ferocity to the language of the "war" against terrorism. That is counter-productive, partly because, in the well-worn phrase, it "does the terrorists' work for them". But also because it is wrong.

No politician likes to stand up and say: "This is a terrible outrage. There is not much we can do. We must not get carried away with the idea of a global war against al-Qa'ida and its allies. What we need is a process of adjustment." But that is what they should say.

What has happened since 11 September 2001 has – rightly – been an adjustment not a revolution. People still work in tall buildings and they still travel by air. After Bali and the Kenyan bomb, they will still travel as tourists to all corners of the globe.

But attitudes have changed. The perception by Americans of the threats to their security has shifted. Over the past 14 months, the national missile defence shield has hardly been mentioned. However, one pre-twin towers security obsession has not only persisted but has been magnified, namely the supposed threat from Iraq.

Where the rhetoric of the war against terrorism has been taken seriously – as in the campaign against Iraq – it has been damaging. It has been used to curtail civil liberties to no good purpose in a remarkable range of countries, from the US and Britain to Russia, India and Indonesia. Although we cannot be sure, there is no evidence that the denial of human rights to the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has yielded the US any significant intelligence on the activities of al-Qa'ida.

The response to the attack on Kenya, as to the previous attacks ascribed to al-Qa'ida, ought instead to be to continue the process of adjustment and to limit the risks in future.

That means societies around the world need to adjust to the ubiquity of the terrorist threat. We in Britain, and especially Northern Ireland, are reasonably familiar with the concept, having endured the smaller scale bombing campaign of the IRA in the two decades before 1996. Not as familiar as the Israelis, however, who already knew that they were a nation under siege.

What this means in practice is the acceptance of minor inconveniences – rather than the surrender of liberties – and an increased emphasis on police and intelligence work.

Beyond that, the campaign against al-Qa'ida and other brands of anti-American and anti-Israeli extremism should involve a better understanding of the causes of Muslim grievances, some of which are justified. Of course, even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved – not an imminent possibility – it would be little defence against the demented ideology of Osama bin Laden. But it is something that ought to be attempted anyway.

It is cold but definite comfort that the al-Qa'ida attacks since September last year have been rather cruder in their conception than the original "spectacular". If yesterday's attack was not the work of al-Qa'ida, it certainly bore the distinctive hallmarks of aircraft, simultaneous attacks and suicide.

Whoever was behind it, the response requires cool heads, sensible precautions and hard police work. Not ever more intemperate talk of war.

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