Fear must not be the key to winning the next election

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The Independent Online

Nuance, as John Kerry discovered, does not make for good politics. One of the principal functions of politicians is to simplify. This is not a wholly reprehensible activity. Politicians are teachers; their mission is to provide us with simple binary choices. But sometimes the process can go too far. The simplicities expounded by our leaders can be so distant from complex reality that they become dishonest, an obstacle to democracy rather than an aid to it.

Nuance, as John Kerry discovered, does not make for good politics. One of the principal functions of politicians is to simplify. This is not a wholly reprehensible activity. Politicians are teachers; their mission is to provide us with simple binary choices. But sometimes the process can go too far. The simplicities expounded by our leaders can be so distant from complex reality that they become dishonest, an obstacle to democracy rather than an aid to it.

That has been a global problem over the past three years with the "war on terror". It is an over-simplification both of war and of terror. The people of the United States, in particular, have been told that they are "at war". Much is implied by this, including that some civil liberties must be curtailed, that it is unpatriotic to criticise the President and that military force must be projected abroad to pre-empt threats. But the US is not at war. It suffered from one astonishing and horrible act of terrorism in which 3,000 civilians died.

Nor is al-Qa'ida the kind of cohesive international military force portrayed by George Bush. Tony Blair on Friday yet again (repetition being almost as important a part of politics as simplification) said the world faced a "wholly different kind of security threat". It does not.

The perverted Islamic ideology of Osama bin Laden has developed over decades. The use of suicide as a technique of terrorism may be a more recent innovation, but it is one to which the language and strategies of "war" are not just inappropriate but often counter-productive. The intervention in Iraq can be seen as fighting the war on terrorism only if words come close to meaning the opposite of what they say. This does not mean that The Independent on Sunday is soft on the struggle against jihadist terrorism. We are absolutely committed to vigorous police action and intelligence co-operation around the world to penetrate and disable the disparate cells of nihilists motivated by the ideology of al-Qa'ida and similar cults. We share Mr Blair's brave hopes of being tough on the causes of such terrorism too, by resolving the legitimate grievances of Palestinians, Chechens and Kashmiris who recruit for such twisted campaigns.

These are the real issues of the so-called war on terror. The threat posed to the populations of the rich nations of the West is small, but pervasive, unpredictable and unsettling. It requires vigilance, calm understanding of relative risk and imagination in trying to anticipate something as outlandish as, but completely different from, the attacks on America of 11 September 2001.

Yet the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary seem determined to fight the next election in this country on the politics of fear. David Blunkett said yesterday: "We want to win an election based on hope, not fear, but" - at which point the listener is warned that words are going to mean their opposite again - "knowing that you don't give people hope by dismissing their fears." Mr Blair seems to have decided that, if he cannot shake off the consequences of his decision to join an unpopular war, he might as well use that war to frighten people into supporting his "strong" leadership at a time when the nation feels threatened.

It is the deplorable tactic of the demagogue through the ages. Is it too much to hope that the good sense of the British voter will be offended, and Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett be persuaded to engage more honestly with complex reality?

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