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August 12, 2006

Let's treat the plotters as common criminals, not soldiers in a global war

Matthew Parris

SOME WILL SEE this as a good week to bury liberal scruples. Prepare yourself for the distinct possibility of a flight home by the Prime Minister, a recall of Parliament, one of those impassioned rallying speeches at which Tony Blair excels, and for renewed talk that "the rules of the game have changed". Prepare yourself for a crude conflation of Israeli war aims with the security of the West, and of Hezbollah with al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgency. Prepare for a Reid-fest on the airwaves, and for renewed muttering about arrest withouttrial, house arrest and shifting the burden of evidence. "Join up the dots," Mr Blair urged us last week. This weekend, dot-joiners will be on the rampage.

How sides seem to have been switched since the last century turned. Rebels and mutineers used to insist that there was a war on, and governments used to insist that there wasn't. Hardliners took the view that people who blew things up were common criminals, to be dealt with case by case. Liberals argued that it was more useful to see them as idealists in a warped and misguided army.

Now it's the other way round. Hardliners see a war between opposing forces. Liberals see a more fractured picture, a rebel cast of dangerous but messed-up people, idiots, nutters and psychopaths, some organised, some clever, others out of control: essentially a matter, however grave, for the police.

Do not forget how serious were those 20th-century threats to our security. Early in 1979 my boss in Margaret Thatcher's office, Airey Neave, was killed by a bomb not 200 yards from our workplace at Westminster. I was a Member of Parliament in the 1980s when the Irish Republican Army was trying to blow us up. I was in the bar of the Grand Hotel in Brighton just a few hours before the explosion that could have killed half the Cabinet. In the decade that followed I was close enough to hear the explosion at Canary Wharf. As an MP my name appeared briefly and mysteriously on a list the police found of 200 individuals targeted by the IRA, and I was given instructions on how to check for bombs beneath my car every morning. In the years that followed, alone in my isolated farmhouse in the constituency, I came to expect occasional, random visits by the Derbyshire constabulary, checking all was well.

And through all this time the line urged upon all of us, the line taken by the British State and by those countrymen, commentators and Fleet Street leader writers who were of an uncompromising disposition - the line taken by all for whom the watchwords were "no surrender" - was clear and strong. These so-called "terrorists" were common criminals. The IRA's claim to be an "army" was self-glorifying nonsense. They were nothing of the sort. We would not dignify them with the name of idealism. We should never give encouragement to their implicit claim that they were fighting a "war" in which British civilians and British infrastructure were legitimate targets. The long conflict in Northern Ireland was hardly to be credited even with the name of "conflict": it was The Troubles - a big, bloody nuisance which, if we held firm and kept our nerve, would one day go away.

And - fingers crossed - in Ireland it will. We should be proud of that. That, to me, was fighting spirit in the truest sense of the term: a determination not to panic, not to pile in to every scrap that others try to pick; and a quiet resolve not to flatter troublemakers with the name of warriors, nor elevate idiocy to the status of ideology. Mere troublemakers can do tremendous damage, of course, so the calm needs to be steely; but it must be suffused with a secret confidence that we are in our essentials so strong, and our tormentors are at their core so dysfunctional, that in the end they can never amount to more than a big, bloody nuisance.

And that is what al-Qaeda and the ragbag forces of Islamic fundamentalism amount to: a big, bloody nuisance. To deal with the murderous plot that may have been uncovered this week, sharpened vigilance, extra intelligence-gathering and the ordinary criminal law should suffice. The statutes, enforcers and spies we and our allies already have, have proved themselves up to the job. We should greet with suspicion attempts by politicians to muscle in on what has been, at however critical a level, an operational matter.

We should reserve special scepticism for those who claim that the rules of the game need to change, on the supposed grounds that fanaticism and zealotry have created a new kind of danger. Such people seem to insinuate that our criminal law is designed only to deal with criminality of the self-interested sort - as though the Theft Acts were virtually the sum of it. But since lawmaking began, the State has had to police crimes, often terrible crimes, of passion, of envy, of hatred, of unselfish madness and of zealotry.

Or it is insinuated that what distinguishes these new dangers from the old is that they are "coordinated" by a "shadowy network". But throughout history much serious criminality has involved conspiracy, including conspiracies of an international sort. Have we forgotten the Cold War so fast? The laws and the law-enforcers, as well as our intelligence services, have centuries' practice at cracking codes, tracing associations, and monitoring communications across the country or the world. Let this continue, but let us not pretend the need or the skills are new. Watch out for the commentary that "after this week's discoveries, nothing will ever be quite the same again" - and prepare to spit. There is nothing new here, only new configurations of ancient troubles.

I cannot accept the characterisation of our troubles these past few years and days as amounting to a War on Terror, or a war on anything. There is an immense risk that if we see it this way we may be conjuring into existence networks and loyalties that were flimsy and uncoordinated until we dignified them with the name of Terror and advertised their prowess across the globe.

Gestalt can border on madness. I distrust people too insistently driven to "join up the dots". Dots may be just that: dots. They are susceptible to being joined up in very different ways. It is always easy for the dot-joiner to make himself look more perceptive and alert than the naive, doubting fellow who can still see only dots. That is how it must have felt to be a doubter in 1930s Germany, as clever, vigilant men joined up the dots and saw an international Jewish conspiracy. The chaps who, behind the apparent world, can discern the shadowy outline of witches, papists, communists or capitalist plotters will often appear cleverer and more prudent than the chaps who can't.

I look at Orion and I do not see the Hunter, his belt or his sword. I see a group of unrelated stars. Whether, however, we discern Great Bears, ploughs, crabs, crosses or only chaos, this kind of star-gazing is harmless because we cannot by imagining shapes create the things we have imagined. More dangerous are the constellation-makers among our presidents, prime ministers and newspaper leader writers: it does lie within their power to breathe life into the monsters they think they see. If they keep shouting that we face a clash of civilisations, a war of the worlds, they may drive bigger numbers on both sides into the arms of the smaller numbers who do want to rally volunteers for a battle.

Our enemies want a fight, so here's a novel suggestion. Let's not oblige. Let's keep our tanks and helicopters and cluster bombs locked within our armouries; let's keep listening and watching and arresting and bringing to court; let's keep our liberties and accord them theirs; and let's carry on treating these people for what they are: a big, bloody nuisance.





































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