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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own