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Now is the time for furious common sense

Simon Jenkins

That bin Laden has not yet been neutralised is the pre-eminent scandal of the new world order

I am no good at atrocity journalism. When the Spanish bombs went off, limbs flew and bleeding faces peered from stretchers, I tried the expletives required of these occasions. The bombs were fiendish, evil, vile, bloodthirsty, monstrous, despicable, cowardly, fanatical. Such words soon dried on their own spittle. Nor am I good at atrocity clichés, as liberally applied to Spain over the weekend. Nothing will be the same again, it was said. Or everything must go on as before. Terrorism must be defeated at all costs. Or civilised values must not be sacrificed. We must be on guard. We must pretend all is normal. We must . . . we must . . . we must . . .

I accept that such phrases have a place in the aftermath of mayhem.They express the quick stab of shock. They ride on the first wave of anger and then channel it into more familiar responses. They ease the mind back to normality. Clichés are a political anaesthetic.

What I cannot understand is what public interest is served by ministers fuelling the hysteria. Why get Sir John Stevens of the Metropolitan Police to say yesterday that a British bomb is “inevitable”, unless he merely wants to say, “I told you so”, afterwards? The authorities tell people to go about their business as usual, lest we “do the terrorist’s job for him”. Yet every pronouncement has the opposite effect. It drives people indoors. Tourists are told to stay away and a curse is laid on all public transport.

On the other hand, there must be a positive advantage in doing the opposite. Panic is the bread and butter of terror. Scaremongering politicians and bulging jails are what the terrorist wants. He seeks to summon them at the pull of a trigger or the banging of a bomb. They convert a mortuary statistic into what he craves, the true weapon of mass terror, the newsflash and the screaming headline. Why offer him his wishes on a plate?

The reason is that hysteria makes good politics. I cannot see what added value comes from the European summit on Friday that has not been achieved in countless meetings since 9/11. Indeed if there are measures that cannot be taken without such a meeting it is shocking. The trouble is that merely bidding Europe’s security services to go about their vital business with all the resources they need is boring. When bombs explode hyperbole is at a premium, as is its comrade-in-arms, kneejerk response. Ruthless calm and furious common sense seem contradictions in terms.

The Madrid bombing is said to be “Europe’s 9/11”. To Spain the loss of life and resulting trauma have been comparable to America’s twin towers tragedy. But Europeans have one advantage in measuring their response. They can learn from two years ago. The learning may not be easy.

It takes an effort of will to recall how America, with Tony Blair rightly alongside, reacted initially to 9/11. A surge of world support was generated and directed at catching the perpetrators. China and Russia, France and Germany, even Syria and Iran, were on board. The Saudis who had financed the Taleban and al-Qaeda sensed that enough was enough. Yassir Arafat queued to give blood. Mr Blair saw his finest hour in flying the world to convert revulsion into coalition against Osama bin Laden. After 9/11 nobody was “soft on terrorism”. The sea in which al-Qaeda had swum for a decade was ready to be drained.

Two years saw that opportunity dissipated, catastrophically. I refuse to believe the Pentagon thesis that Mr Blair’s was never a real coalition, that Arabs would soon bow to fundamentalist pressure and needed to be taught a violent lesson. I imagine 600 dead American soldiers might agree. Either way, Mr Blair’s strategy was never given a chance. The devastating bombing of Kabul was deplored across the Middle East. The one group on the ground with the means and the motive (money) to grab bin Laden, the Taleban, was toppled before being seriously tested.

That bin Laden has not been neutralised two and a half years after 9/11 is the pre-eminent scandal of the new world order. Afghanistan has been restored to warlords and heroin traders without achieving the stated objective of that restoration, the arrest of the man responsible for 9/11. Worse, the Taleban is back on the warpath. We can only hope that the latest campaign to “find Osama” succeeds. That the capture of this dreadful man will be greeted with dismay by America’s enemies is a measure of the West’s diplomatic failure since 9/11.

If the Arab coalition dissolved over Afghanistan, the Western one dissolved over the invasion of Iraq. It stands to reason that assaulting Saddam diverted attention from the campaign against al-Qaeda. It stands to reason that driving al-Qaeda into the arms of a post-Saddam Iraq was madness. The shadowy Wahabbis now said to be moving freely about Baghdad would have been killed instantly by Saddam’s militias. If ever there were a time not to topple Saddam it was with al-Qaeda still on the loose.

It stands to reason that the Iraq venture was always going to aggravate not relieve the so-called War on Terror. Western governments which drop thousands of bombs on foreign cities can hardly be surprised if some of their citizens seek revenge. It stands to reason that 8,500 dead Iraqi civilians (at the latest count) would be a recruiting poster for any passing dissident eager to kill an American. One of the more odious arguments I heard in Baghdad last November was that it would be convenient to have all global terrorism concentrated in that one place. So much for a more stable Iraq. And tell it to the Spaniards.

The violence, insecurity and administrative chaos visited on Iraq by the Pentagon this past year has offered al-Qaeda a new sea in which to swim. The tiny minority of Arabs who might have supported the Wahabbist jihad in 2001 has swollen to a dispersed army, eager to take violent revenge on the West for its aggression in the Middle East. And of course those most involved in the invasion of Iraq are in the front line. That too stands to reason.

The British Government claims incredibly that Britons are safer as a result of its policies in the Middle East since 9/11. That London has so far been spared is merciful. I hope it speaks much of the quality of British security. Nor would I oppose all David Blunkett’s measures to curb suspect immigrants. These are no ordinary gangsters whose chief nuisance is to each other. We are dealing with men out to create civil mayhem. With due safeguards, suspending habeas corpus does not seem unreasonable. But such pollution of civil liberty is a measure of how vulnerable Downing Street has left Britain today.

Osama bin Laden has been awarded an astonishing portfolio of triumphs by Western diplomacy. He has brought about the downfall of two autocracies and one democratic government. He has torn Europe’s political unity asunder. He has devastated the American budget. He has toppled Cabinet ministers and BBC bosses. He has turned public buildings into fortresses.

The PLO terrorists, Abu Nidal, Carlos the Jackal, the Red Brigades, the IRA, Colonel Gaddafi, the Iranian and Syrian networks all killed thousands of Western civilians in the 1970s and 1980s. Today the risk of dying from a bomb explosion remains minute, compared even with other forms of violent death. Over the past year it has also been greater from American and British bombs than from those detonated by terrorists. Al-Qaeda may well be new in ideology and resources. But its weapons are much the same, bombs, and its output the same, dead bodies. Democracies succumb to terror only if they choose to do so, which should be never.

I cannot see what purpose is served by Europe proclaiming this new outbreak of international violence as different from all previous ones. Why make al-Qaeda seem grander, more awesome, more threatening and thus more appealing to its followers by all this pomp and ceremony? To do so flies in the face of reason. The trouble is that reason blows no trumpets, bangs no drums and wins no elections. There is no ferocity in common sense.