Reasons for hope, even as we mourn

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In the space of a few minutes last Tuesday, an act of terrorism became an epoch-making event. The nature of the attacks in their brutal simplicity, and the scale of the losses were enough in themselves to change the world.

In the space of a few minutes last Tuesday, an act of terrorism became an epoch-making event. The nature of the attacks in their brutal simplicity, and the scale of the losses were enough in themselves to change the world.

Each day the magnitude of the horror is heightened by further details relating to the loss of life, new stories vividly evoking the last moments of a father, mother, son or daughter trapped in a blazing building or on a hijacked aeroplane. Across the world the grieving and the mourning have intensified as people step back and reflect on what has happened, no longer anaesthetised by the immediate shock.

The objectives of the terrorists were frighteningly ambitious. They ranged far more widely than the destruction of human life. In their targets, they were aiming fatally to weaken the most powerful democracy in the world. One of the hijacked planes was heading for the White House; another wiped out part of the Pentagon. As far as the perpetrators of these crimes are concerned, those who died are of only marginal interest. They seek to terrorise those who continue to live and to make it more difficult for democracies like the United States to function. As diverse political leaders have said, the atrocity was an attack not just on the United States, but on democratic countries around the world.

An epoch-making attack demands an epoch-making response. That means that it must be subtle as well as effective. There is an acute danger in such a delicate situation that both the short-term military reaction and the longer-term measures will play into the hands of terrorists and their sympathisers. Excessive military retaliation risks splintering the international coalition formed in the hours and days after the attack. Tracking down terrorists in individual countries is inevitable. But governments must be aware – and be kept aware – of the threat to civil liberties. This is not simply a classic warning from the liberal left (although it is none the worse for that). The values that implicitly are now under attack include those of an open society. Governments must beware handing the terrorists a second victory by distorting the nature of freedom.

It need not be like that. On the contrary, there are some grounds for optimism amid the weekend's fearful gloom. There is a coalition of support behind the United States that is quite comforting in its breadth. The grotesque excesses of the terrorists could become the cause of their undoing, in that normally wary countries like France, and traditional US opponents such as Pakistan, will support limited military action.

The key to their support is the nature of the action. If it is restrained, with clear objectives, the coalition will remain intact. There could be no better motive for President Bush to act cautiously and with clearly stated objectives.

Some members of the US Congress and plenty of other voices are urging Mr Bush to act quickly, complaining that already he has delayed too long. They are being recklessly impatient. Mr Bush is to be commended for not matching his vaguely bellicose rhetoric with an immediately thought-out retaliation. He may yet act in a way that proves to be dangerously provocative. Bombing Afghanistan in a way that kills many civilians would threaten the coalition of international support and spur more terrorists to act. Presumably, one of the reasons for the delay is to target a site or sites that avoids such a slaughter. So far, Mr Bush has shown admirable restraint.

But he needs the international coalition to stay in place for years to come in order to carry out his self-declared "war on terrorism". This will not be quick, nor will it be without casualties.

On one point there is agreement across the United States and Europe. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington represented a catastrophic failure on the part of US and allied intelligence. Already, senior ministers from across the international coalition are exploring ways in which the monitoring of terrorist activity can be improved. In a separate development, the EU has agreed to make airport security far more rigorous. These measures will have limited impact unless there is sustained co-operation of an unprecedented kind. There is no point in having better airport security in Brussels if the same measures are not applied in Athens.

As well as requiring co-operation, the increased vigilance demands a degree of subtlety at least as challenging as the military strike against Afghanistan. The determination to track down terrorists must not become an excuse for an outbreak of excessive authoritarianism. Already the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has hinted that the introduction of identity cards is being reconsidered in the light of the attacks. Here and in the US, religious leaders are worried that innocent Muslims will face unfair intrusion from the intelligence services in an attempt to compensate for the lapses that led to last week's tragedy. At every stage, as governments contemplate new measures to stifle terrorism, they must reiterate their unflinching support for basic liberties including the freedom of speech, association and travel.

This is a moment that demands the most impressive and rare form of leadership. In spite of Mr Bush's rhetoric yesterday, this is not a war with clearly defined enemies and an obvious strategy. That is one of the ways the world has changed. But it is a serious conflict – and one that, with time, patience and acuity, can be won. Virtually the entire world is aiming its resources at a relatively small number of malfeasants. They have given us many dead to mourn. We must show both resolve and restraint in response.

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