Terrorism thrives when we turn a deaf ear

We may, as we are always being told, live in an irresistibly globalised world, where capital and goods (though, it usually turns out, only western goods) must flow freely across national boundaries. Human sympathy flows less freely. Few countries have had so bloody a post-war history as Indonesia, where a succession of military regimes, often with western money, equipment and moral support, have terrorised and slaughtered millions, particularly in East Timor and Aceh. Only spasmodically did news of such atrocities reach western media audiences. Bali itself shows how parochial we remain in our sympathies, with the British media underplaying the event until it became apparent that the number of British victims probably exceeded those from any IRA bombing, and with the US media showing far more interest in the Washington sniper. Meanwhile, Australia, home of the greatest number of victims, has lost its innocence, according to a bellicose Clive James in the Guardian. Indonesia, however, lost its innocence long ago.

The danger is that indifference (which is bad enough) shades into antipathy, that our natural empathy for people like ourselves leads us to dehumanise the rest of the world. Western politicians promise to "strike back" and demand that Asian leaders "crack down" on Muslim groups; exactly who gets bombed or arrested hardly seems to matter. Mr James rightly argues that the bombers are most likely theocratic fascists (though, as John Pilger writes on page 11, there should be no rush to judgement in a country as complex as Indonesia) who are more interested in the infection of Muslim countries with western liberal ideas than with poverty and injustice. He and others like him - who include many in positions of power - seem oblivious to the need to convince millions in developing countries that the west has the better answers to their plight, and thus to prevent theocratic fascism from gaining more recruits. Dropping bombs on them or stationing more US troops on their soil seems unlikely to convince them. During the cold war, many westerners said they would be better dead than red; at least as many may now say they would be better dead than veiled. But the choice will not be so clear to those to whom global markets and western values seem to have delivered only destitution, disruption and violence. To them, the western promise of eternal prosperity may seem less plausible than the promise of eternal paradise.

The confusions in the thinking of western leaders and commentators are well illustrated by the frequent analogies with Hitler and appeasement. The fascist danger arose from an ideology that controlled the military apparatus of advanced European nations, with precise ambitions of territorial expansion. Fascism could be defeated on the battlefield; Germans repented of Nazism once the war was lost. But al-Qaeda is not an organised army that can be engaged as the Wehrmacht was; nor does it have a political leadership that can be appeased or resisted as Hitler and Mussolini were. Rather, it is a network or even, as one Indonesian writer has suggested, a brand that is franchised to any Islamic group that wishes to pursue its own local grievances. The west can disrupt terrorist bases, as it has done in parts of Afghanistan, but the effect, as Bali shows, can be only temporary and, if innocent civilians are killed, perhaps counter-productive. That western leaders do not understand what they are dealing with is shown by their belief that Saddam Hussein - an old-fashioned, bloodthirsty tyrant, with conventional strategic ambitions - is somehow part of the same problem. It is a measure of their ineptitude that, as Lindsey Hilsum reports (page 14), such a vile man seems set to become an Arab hero.

To demand understanding of the grievances that give rise to terrorism is not at all the same thing as to demand understanding of the terrorists themselves, still less to excuse their actions. Bin Laden's motive - and the motives of those who organised the Bali bombing - may well be to impose a rigid theocratic tyranny on most of Asia and the Middle East. Critics of the US may respond that its motive is to impose its rapacious capitalism on the same area. Many may wish a plague on both houses, and observe that neither has done much to improve the lot of the deprived and dispossessed in the potential terrorist breeding grounds listed by John Kampfner (page 18), and that the US has been responsible for quite as much terror around the world as any group of Islamic fanatics. In a contest for popular support, the two would start, as far as most of the Muslim world is concerned, on roughly level pegging. Liberal democracy on the western model has potentially far more to offer. It just has to prove it.

School sports day

The past few weeks have shown how the elite fee-charging schools command the media's education agenda. They stirred up a fuss about this year's A-level results, brought down a quango head, nearly ended a cabinet minister's career, forced her to set up an inquiry, and had tens of thousands of papers re-marked. At the end of it all, just 168 pupils turn out to have been denied university places they should have had. It has been left to Charterhouse's head, the Rev John Witheridge, to speak the truth as a man of God should. Schools that did badly in the exams, he told the Times, had been "venting their spleen". They were concerned about slipping down the league tables: "there was a need to blame someone". The Battle of Waterloo, it was said, was won on the playing fields of Eton. It is far from clear that the games surrounding the annual league tables of A-level results will have a comparably useful outcome.