After 9/11


Universe Column

By David Alton

It is often said that one of the first casualties in war is truth.  By definition, armed conflict involves subterfuge, the laying of false trails and the dissemination of propaganda.  Establishing the truth is, therefore, never an easy matter.  So far our national leaders have been as open as they dare be and have showed commendable integrity and determination.

They know that if we weaken in our resolve to bring to justice those who were responsible for the devastating events in America we will simply store up any number of similar attacks for the future.

None of this means we cannot question individual actions of Government or that we should not keep reminding them of the two criteria in international law that have permitted the use of force: proportionality and self defence.

The world community has not authorised a blitzkrieg of blanket bombing of civilian targets; it has not authorised revenge attacks; it has not countenanced a non-existent military solution. If this military action was born out of a desire to uphold international law and justice then it must remain focused on precisely that objective. Otherwise we will sink to the standards of those who were responsible for mass murder in America and truthfulness will be joined by many other casualties.

We also need to be truthful about our motives on the domestic front, especially in bringing forward a whole range of legislative measures – many of which seem aimed at asylum seekers.

This week Parliament has been asked to sanction a whole host of new laws as a response to September 11th.  We have a perfect right to ask whether any of the new proposals would have prevented the terrorist attacks and whether the laws are either just or necessary. Legislate in haste and repent at leisure.

Helping to create circumstances in which Afghan people can live in peace, freed of tyrannical leaders, is the best way of stemming the flow of refugees and asylum seekers.  Even before September 11th some 4 million Afghans had tried to flee the Taliban dictatorship. The protestors who gathered at Downing Street last week should remember that.  We need something like the imaginative and enlightened American Marshall Aid Programme that led to the reconstruction of post war Germany. In some ways it was the finest hour and the finest achievement of our own Lord Longford who was the British Minister sent to Germany to facilitate reconstruction and reconciliation.

Collecting intelligence rather than more legislation is the best way of deterring terrorists. Two years ago the Home Office warned that Islamic militants might seek to bring in anthrax and smallpox. More resources devoted to intelligence gathering help us to guard against those who seek to weaken and destroy our society.

During the 1990s good intelligence stopped the Iranian Government from buying a chemical plant from Poland. It does now seem curious that the Iranian resistance has been listed as a terrorist organisation while we seek to normalise relations with the Government of Iran – who have been responsible for terrible abuses of human rights and who are still listed by the American State Department as a State that sponsors terrorism.  We need to have great care about the friends we choose.

We also need to systematically engage in the work of reconciliation and conflict resolution. As we know from Northern Ireland this requires patience and a long-term commitment but it is the civilised way, the only long-term way.  The Government could do a lot worse than persuading and resourcing some of our own elder statesmen and women to set up initiatives in places of conflict aimed at creating dialogue and ways forward.

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