Radio - Rachel Cooke

Fear is all about us right now - even sand dunes can turn into objects of terror

It was stupid of me to write, as I did last week, that I find the radio comforting. No sooner had I put the words down than, metaphorically speaking, my radio bit me on the bottom. Fear - of bird flu, terrorist attacks, the imminent demise of the polar bear - is all about us right now, and not just in the news. On Wednesday, I caught Shifting Sands (Radio 4, 9pm). Ostensibly, this was about dunes and, as befitting one who prizes her copy of the Observer's Book of Sea and Seashore, I listened to it with a nostalgic smile. Or I did for the first ten minutes. It soon became apparent that dunes are not the gently billowing mountains I took them for. They have the power to move - to stalk the planet, covering everything in their path with the rasping dead dust of sand. Some scientists worry as much about dunes as they do the ice caps.

The presenter, Hermione Cockburn, has a girlish voice and she teased out of her experts a lot of interesting stuff (it was, for instance, the Normans who brought rabbits to burrow in British dunes, in an early attempt to farm them). But beyond such whimsy, we were on sinister territory. Dunes are like volcanoes: they slumber, and then they awake.

During the years of the dust bowl, when it was unusually dry and windy, Nebraska's dunes were highly active; now, thanks to more damp conditions, which allow vegetation to grow, they are sleeping like babies. Perhaps you can see where this is going. Within around 50 years, the change in our climate will be significant enough to "remobilise" many of the world's biggest dune fields. From the air, they look so benign, like miles of finest corduroy. But this is misleading. As one boffin put it: such a reawakening will "reactivate the ground beneath people's feet". Whole worlds will be as footprints under snow.

Later in the week, Talking to Terrorists (Radio 3, 23 October, 8pm), was just about the most enlightening thing I have heard on the subject of the enemy in our midst. Radio 3's drama gets better and better. It is magnificent. Talking to Terrorists began life as a stage play, one based on months of interviews with real people - politicians and peacemakers, fighters and their victims - which were then improvised by actors and worked into a narrative. I bet it worked better on radio than on stage. The voices came to you with an intimacy; when you listened in on a conversation between, say, radical young Muslims in Luton, it was as if you were eavesdropping.

All the voices - from "Mo Mowlam" to "Terry Waite", from Kurdish freedom fighters to Palestinian schoolboys - felt so authentic. Most electrifying of all were the insights provided by a (nameless) psychologist. Perhaps he was a composite. If not, someone should track him down and offer him a documentary series as soon as possible. Teenagers, he informed us, make good terrorist recruits because they do not deal in consequences; it is all too easy to persuade them that they are changing history. Yes, it is often grim being part of some cell - quite boring, actually. But then there are moments when the very fibres of your young body seem to be on fire. "It's what's called a peak experience," he said, dryly.

It was also this man who noted that, before the 11 September attacks, the bombers chose to investigate the culture they planned on cancelling out by visiting topless bars; there is no record of them visiting an exhibition of paintings by Vuillard. A better summation of the skewed ideological war between east and west I've yet to hear.