Leading Article: A just cause, a bad action

Related Topics
THE RIGHT, indeed duty, of the United States to strike back at the perpetrators of the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam is not in doubt. No nation, let alone the superpower upon which the stability of the world to a large extent depends, could accept with equanimity the declaration of an open hunting season on its citizens and public servants by a group of backward-looking fanatics. In such circumstances, retaliation is a regrettable necessity.

But whether any particular act of retaliation is a wise one is another question entirely. Is the blow well-aimed? Will it produce the desired result? Are its costs unacceptably high? The US cannot afford to act as if it were a bad-tempered participant in a game of blind man's buff.

In the present political circumstances, the question inevitably arises as to whether President Clinton's decision to permit the bombing of a chemical factory in the Sudan and of two camps in Afghanistan was swayed by his domestic difficulties. If the need to distract the American public from his sexual activities was uppermost in his mind, the episode might yet go down in history as the War of Clinton's Penis. It is not necessary, however, to believe in a conspiracy to understand the value to Mr Clinton of an excellent pretext for a foreign adventure. His military and intelligence chiefs must have been pressing him for action from the start: only the timing of the act, not the act itself, is suspiciously convenient.

There is still room for doubt as to the wisdom of these bombings, however. The idea behind them seems to have been that the perpetrators could be cleanly - surgically - eliminated by means of a little hi-tech wizardry, and thus the problem would have been painlessly solved, once and for all. Alas, the problem of terrorism is not to be solved in this fashion. For not only are innocent bystanders killed in such hi-tech strikes, thus giving the impression of callousness, but also the targets are not reached, thus giving the impression of incompetence into the bargain.

All free societies have difficulties in dealing with terrorism. Not only are their governments expected to operate within certain rules, but also their actions are open to constant scrutiny in the press and on television.

The public is likely to blow hot and cold, to demand a hard line on one occasion, and to demand conciliation the next, when it becomes clear that a hard line itself provokes retaliation by the terrorists. A few terrorist incidents in the US will thus result in simultaneous demands that the perpetrators be punished and that the US withdraw from its futile role of policing the world.

Withdrawal from the fray is not, however, an option for the United States. The embassy bombers did not act because they hate the US for what it does, but for what it is; that is to say, modern, secular, freewheeling, decadent and, above all, attractive to the great mass of humanity.

American cultural imperialism is, after all, the first imperialism in which the colonised long for their own subjugation. What the Islamic fundamentalists hate about the US is the mirror it holds up to human nature.

The US cannot, therefore, ingratiate itself with its terrorist enemies, but it can inflame and encourage them. Sudden blind rages followed by long periods of craven indifference or propitiation, such as characterise US policy towards terrorism, are sure to both encourage and inflame.

What is needed above all is consistency, a policy rather than an occasional reaction to outrages which is designed to rescue the President's standing in the polls as much as it is to punish the wrongdoers.

Whether the US has the stomach for a prolonged and possibly unending fight is yet another unanswered question. A society that is so bombarded with information about today that it is inclined to forget what happened yesterday ("Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone," as the refrain in Mr Clinton's inaugural theme song put it), and in which every innocent casualty is regarded as a tragedy of unprecedented proportions, is not one that can easily follow a consistent policy such as Israel's. The population of Israel is only too aware of what will happen if its government displays weakness in dealing with terrorists, and is prepared to accept sacrifices accordingly; the population of the US, by contrast, regards even a minor threat to its safety as intolerable.

The latest American bombings will probably have stoked the extremists' desire for revenge without having in any way reduced their capacity to carry it out. This is a consequence of dealing with the long-term problem of terrorism on a news bulletin by news bulletin basis. To stir hatred without instilling fear is the worst possible policy for the US.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Development Manager (District Heating)

£55000 Per Annum plus company car and bonus scheme: The Green Recruitment Comp...

Lead Hand - QC

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

Chemical Engineer/Project Coordinator

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Chemical Eng...

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The daily catch-up: knitting, why Ed wants to be PM and a colloquium of Indy-pedants

John Rentoul
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn