It's not the Wild West, Mr President

Compassion radiates outwards; the closer people are to us, the more keenly we feel it when tragedy befalls them. To most of us, that starts with close family (partners, children, parents, siblings), continues through friends, fellow Britons, citizens of other countries whose culture we share (or which we have visited), and then the rest of the world, with the compassion diminishing at each stage. At one end of the scale, we may grieve for years, even a lifetime; at the other, we register mild regret as we read the morning newspaper. The cynical journalist's judgement - that, in news terms, five dead in London equate to 10,000 in China and that, if there has been an earthquake in Peru, the people of Barnsley will be more interested in a Barnsley woman's broken leg than in hundreds of dead Peruvians - is simply a recognition of human nature. There is nothing racist, chauvinist or narrow-minded about it. If compassion does not begin at home, we risk becoming figures of ridicule like Charles Dickens's Mrs Jellyby or, worse, hypocrites.

It is, therefore, wholly understandable that British emotions are touched when more than 5,000 people die at the hands of terrorists in New York and Washington; that people are more deeply troubled than they are by countless deaths in Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Congo. Most of us cannot imagine life in a poor African village or a Latin American shanty town, but New Yorkers lead lives much like ours, commuting from suburb to office, speaking the same language, nurturing the same aspirations. It is even more understandable that America itself is in deep shock, and that support for vengeance is almost unanimous.

But this, as we are so often told, is the age of globalisation, a phenomenon that is impossible to stop and from which no country can stand aside. If that is true, we must somehow learn to globalise our compassion, to extend our imaginations so that we can empathise with millions of Africans, Arabs and Latin Americans. To them, the US is an imperial power, and it is no less so because it imposes itself at least as much through money as through arms. It has left a trail of grievances around the world. American-made weapons pound the Palestinians; an American-sponsored war creates misery for the Colombians; American-led sanctions lead to the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children. In the past, an American-supported dictator perpetrated unspeakable cruelties in Indonesia; an American-prompted coup overthrew a legitimately elected government in Chile; an American strategy, for heaven's sake, once built support for Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. The US ideology of market liberalism has led to obscene global inequalities. US national interests block agreements to control global warming and arms sales and to set up an international court of justice. US companies block the manufacture of cheap anti-Aids drugs. US banks demand interest payments that cripple the economies of around 50 countries.

Here in Britain, we tend to see the best of America: its generosity, its openness, its freedom, its democracy. We admire the enterprise that generates the money to lend and the drugs to fight disease in the first place. But, to much of the rest of the world, the charge sheet is long and damning. If we fail to understand this, millions of poor people (or those who claim to represent them) can hit back brutally, as they have now shown.

Terrorism must indeed be fought. It can be fought through better security and better intelligence. Its financial lifelines can be weakened if some of the secret arrangements that the western banking system so gladly provides (yet more profit being available) were abolished. But the best way of fighting terrorism is to remove the grievances that sustain it. This is not appeasement, provided those grievances have some basis in justice. Small groups of lunatics will always be a threat but, if there is no wider base of support, they can be beaten, as the European groups of over-privileged adolescents (the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Angry Brigade, and so on) were in the 1970s. But terrorists who can draw on deeply felt, widely shared and long-established grievances can never wholly be defeated, as the Irish republicans and the Palestinians have never been. Their support may be tacit, rather than explicit, but that makes them all the harder to defeat, because so many of those who sustain them are not themselves guilty of anything. Imprison or kill the ringleaders, and more will emerge to take their places, strengthened, not weakened, by the martrydom of their predecessors.

In other words, the terrorism we saw in America will not be defeated by the kind of Wild West shoot-out that President Bush seems to envisage. Nor will it by bombing Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, which would simply add to the anti-American anger in the Muslim world. It is a question of justice, and of being seen to be just. Already, the US appears to be acting a little more even-handedly in the Middle East. If this is the beginning of a larger change of heart, both in the US and in the rest of the western world, we have at least a chance of avoiding further deaths as horrible as those of 11 September.

Dangerous idiots

The Daily Telegraph has begun a series called "useful idiots", quoting members of the "liberal left" who suggest faults in US foreign policy and counsel caution in retribution against terrorists. (The term comes from Lenin, who referred to "useful idiots" in the west who assisted communism.) NS and Guardian writers are naturally prominent. Undaunted, the NS launches its series of "dangerous idiots". And where better to start than Barbara Amiel, the wife of the Telegraph proprietor Conrad Black, who writes in his paper: "We are at war . . . And we must strike while the iron is hot." But this week's prize goes to Mark Steyn who, in the Sunday Telegraph, quoted President Bush's threat against those who "harboured terrorists". "Terrific," wrote Steyn, "and all the better for being unclear as to whether it applies not just to Afghanistan but also to alleged allies like Canada, which allow terrorist groups to operate . . . within their borders." To quote the Telegraph: "We'll keep you posted."

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win