Comment: John Humphrys:

The biggest casualty in this global war on terror is us

A gang of children were playing on a makeshift football pitch when the American air force helicopter gunship came clattering in. Nine of them died. Others were left mutilated. A group of children were sheltering behind a wall when another gunship came to another part of the country a few days later. This time only six died -- crushed to death under the rubble of the wall.

Try to imagine the reaction if such a thing had happened in this country. Every other story would be pushed off the front pages. The headline writers would search for the words to express our horror. "Slaughter of the innocents", perhaps. The nation would share the anguish of the grieving families. Mothers across the land would give their own children an extra hug that night and shudder at the thought of them with their limbs blown off or their brains spilling out. After the grieving would come the anger. How could this happen? How can we make sure it will never happen again? But it happened in Afghanistan and Afghanistan is at war. We may have thought the war was over, but this is the war against terror. In war accidents happen. The American military spokesman said: "I can't guarantee that we will not injure more civilians. I wish we could." The attack was justified because "non-combatants" were in a "compound used by a terrorist".

The same broad justification is used when things go wrong in Iraq. Kofi Annan, secretary- general of the United Nations, is not impressed by it. He has warned that American forces should take "special care" to avoid killing innocent civilians. The war in Iraq was said to have ended, too, but the Americans have resumed aerial bombardments there. When that happens, innocent people die.

Annan's point is that this is not only regrettable but also self- defeating. The parents of those dead and maimed children will never forgive the Americans for what they have done. They and others may seek revenge. Wouldn't you? But there is a wider issue. It is about the values we are meant to be promoting in the war against terror -- the values of civilised countries such as the United States. America's critics ask themselves: how can we claim to be civilised if we behave like this? The question covers more than military action. Guantanamo Bay has come back into the news this past week. Some of the prisoners who have been released have been talking about their experience. Camp X-Ray was set up in Cuba to hold the men taken prisoner in Afghanistan. They were herded onto cargo planes, hooded and bound and chained to the floor.

We saw pictures of them in Cuba, kneeling at the feet of their captors. They were locked in wire-mesh cages, allowed no privacy, forbidden to speak to each other or to pray collectively.

Hunger strikes eventually led to their conditions being eased. Camp X-Ray morphed into Camp Delta. But the principal complaint against their treatment has not changed: their denial of human rights. They are deemed to have no right to rights. They are not categorised as prisoners of war, with all the rights of the Geneva convention. They are "enemy combatants", which leaves them in a legal no-man's land. They have been held for almost two years without charge and without access to legal representation. Any charges will be tried, not in a civilian court but by a special military tribunal which could impose the death penalty.

Now Amnesty International has accused Britain of having "a Guantanamo in its own back yard". It says 14 people have been locked up in British prisons under our new anti-terrorism laws, some for nearly two years, without having been told what they are charged with. They have no access to secret intelligence evidence against them and there is no prospect of a trial in sight. Amnesty says that this is "Kafkaesque".

David Blunkett, the home secretary, is outraged. He has been a member of Amnesty for 20 years and is threatening to resign in protest. He did not join Amnesty to see it support people who had been "recognised as being correctly certificated as being a threat to us".

Those who take an absolutist view of human rights will defend the principle at all costs. Most, I suspect, will take a more pragmatic, utilitarian view. What are legal niceties set against the possibility of a poison gas attack on a crowded Underground train or a plane flown into a skyscraper? In an ideal world civil rights would be sacrosanct, but we do not live in an ideal world. Emergency measures are called for in exceptional times and we are at war.

The problem is with the word "emergency". By definition it means temporary. Yet if the war on terror means a war to rid the world of terrorism, it has no end. Thus, temporary measures are needed in perpetuity. That has two consequences. The first is the self-defeating nature of them: they may generate more terrorism than they will defeat. The second is the effect on the electorate whose support they need. The longer the "war" drags on, the greater will grow the realisation that victory is unattainable.

It is easy for the terrorists. They have to get it right only once. It is almost impossible for the security forces. They have to get it right every single time. Sooner or later -- somewhere, somehow -- they will make a mistake. Then the terrorists claim another victory. That erodes the support of the public for policies that the politicians have adopted. That erosion is already happening in the United States. Howard Dean, once a distant outsider, has become the front-runner as the Democratic candidate for the presidential election partly because his congressional rivals voted to support the war in Iraq. It is a sign of how things are moving that Al Gore, the supreme Washington insider, backed Dean last week.

The phrase "war on terror" may have simply been a rhetorical flourish intended to match the horror of 9/11 but it was what philosophers would call a conceptual error. It may now exact a political price: the evaporation of support for the war. There are many who wish terrorism had been spoken of as an evil that must be contained rather than as an enemy who must be defeated.

There is a parallel with crime. Politicians talk endlessly of the war against crime but everyone knows it is a metaphor and that crime will always be with us. We must simply do our best to keep it within acceptable bounds. The war against terror does not look like a metaphor. Had the language been different, the approach might have been different, too. It would suggest a police operation -- albeit on a massive scale -- rather than a military one, with all the risks that implies.

The debate over civil rights would have been conducted in different terms, too. We all suspect that the police do not always go strictly by the book. Sometimes we are secretly glad of that. Weaned on a diet of James Bond, we also know that our intelligence forces don't always play by the Queensberry rules. Again, we secretly approve if we feel that the threat is great enough. The many friends of Israel applauded when her secret agents in Mossad sought and destroyed her enemies. The same friends are appalled when the tanks and gunships go into action in the West Bank.

If public support cannot be sustained, as it is in a "normal" war, by the prospect of ultimate victory, it may have to be sustained by fear -- and increasing fear at that. It is impossible to rely on victories because we do not see the vanquished enemy or the strategic target defended by brave soldiers. There is no bridgehead to be held. Instead we must trust the authorities when they tell us, necessarily without details, of yet another plot thwarted.

Many Americans are growing increasingly uneasy at being told that they must accept a diminution of civil rights in the face of an unseen danger. A friend recalled the chilling words of Martin Niemöller, the German pastor: "First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist . . . Then they came for me. And there was nobody left to speak out for me."

My friend was not making a comparison between modern America and Nazi Germany. He knows that would be preposterous. But he worries about civilised values in an uncivilised world.