Is this the worst of times?

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Is this the worst of times?

9.11...the Bali bombing....the Moscow theatre siege... Has there ever been a more frightening time to be alive?

 Well...umm.....yes. In fact, most times.

This may be a time of terror — but it is better than a time of war, even a time of cold war, with its standing promise of nuclear annihilation always just a couple of human errors away.

For centuries up to 1945, war was a normal and recurring part of European life. War that could kill in an hour more people than 'terrorism' has killed over decades.

Not only is this not the most frightening of times, people are not that frightened.

Listen to Donald Rumsfeld, or radio shock jocks or read tabloid headlines and you would think that the world is facing an unprecedented danger and that's it's not safe to go out — or to stay in.

Never has the world faced a threat like — well, fill in the blank — Osama bin in car boots. Read them out fast enough and they all blur into one amorphous, deeply terrifying thing.

We should be afraid, we should be very afraid.

But are we? Sometimes it feels like it.

A different perspective came recently when watching a BBC travel program. It featured some salesman for the travel trade pointing out that British tourist numbers fell only slightly — four per cent I think was the figure — in the year after the Gulf War.

And he thought the impact of the Bali bombing and other recent terror strikes would be smaller and more fleeting.

So it would seem we are more terrified in conversation than in action.

It would appear that in fact we are not really that frightened, nor should we be.

So let's all take a deep breath. Agree there is a problem and try to put it into a calmer perspective.

How will history judge our present times?

Certainly the Twin Towers will be seen as a watershed in global history. The United States has been a different nation since then, with different concerns driving a different foreign policy.

New doctrines of 'pre-emptive defence' and 'regime change' have seen Washington become simultaneously more internationally active and more unilateralist — less willing to consult and discuss, more ready to act.

But that's the response, what about history's assessment of the cause — of terrorism.

That depends largely on the world's — and mainly the US — response. Because on its own terrorism is not very potent. It can kill, but it can kill at the level of criminal activity, not war.

The aim of terrorists is not to kill two hundred people in Bali, or three thousand people in America, although they are happy to achieve that end. The real aim is to change the world.

They can't achieve that with bombs and box knives. Their hope is that they can cause an outraged America to seek revenge so violently that they destabilise the world order — and specifically bring down some of the autocratic regimes in the Middle East on whom America relies.

If that deadly chain reaction is achieved they will have changed the world, and terrorism will be the defining quality of our age when history comes to write it.

But if they do not provoke that outcome the current global terror will be just a footnote to the age. No more important in future decades than the "urban terror" of Italy's Red Brigades and Germany's Baader-Meinhoff.

Interestingly, those European terror cells were formed by the disenchanted children of the privileged classes — people very similar to Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.

It is hard to keep a sense of perspective when the overheated press would have you believe that we are all living in a minefield.

What we are really living in is a vastly and instantly reported time of small-scale insurgencies.

Traffic accidents are an infinitely greater immediate danger, and issues like economic inequity and environmental degradation far more important issues for the future of the planet.

International terrorism, as we now know it, is something new and it is not going to go away.

But, like other crime, it does not make life impossible and the best way to fight it is with calm, precise action rather than the very blunt instrument of war.

November 2002

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