Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Who's next?
And what do we do about it?

In the 1930s, Aldous Huxley observed wryly that it would take a Martian invasion for humankind to unite; something like that happened briefly yesterday for Europeans as the whole continent stopped in silence for three minutes at midday. Here in Rome the Italian tricolour, the European stars and the city banners had all been at half mast for the previous three days and the shock and solidarity went way beyond media hype and political leaders in dark suits and with grave faces.

But already yesterday, from the moment the Spanish election results were clear, the bickering began again. It is louder here to be sure as is the Italian custom but the underlying issues cut across the continent. They are issues which deserve to be debated carefully, not dispassionately but with accuracy and with as little mystification as possible. It probably will not happen and the tones will be strident and based on deep-seated prejudices walled in by powerful rhetoric and doubtful logic.

But here is an attempt to move in the other direction.

On the increasingly likely hypothesis that the Madrid bombs were a radical Islamic attack, they are traumatic to Europeans for two reasons. The first is the scale of the carnage; the biggest previous attacks, Bologna in 1980 and Omagh in 1998 did not reach three figures. The second, and I think more disturbing element is the alien and for most people totally incomprehensible aim of the attack. Whether it was the IRA, red or black terrorism in Italy, or Spain’s own Basques, these were objectives that most of us can relate to, understand and put in historical and cultural context and then elaborate ways of fighting back.

There is a parallel here in the United States between Oklahoma and 9/11. The first was horrendous in scale but was the work of a lone (American) fanatic. The results are terrible for the bereaved and for the city but did not change society. 9/11 clearly did and not only because of the scale of death and destruction but because of the near invisibility of the enemy.

It has always puzzled me why chemical weapons have been banned soon after their invention while other more traditional weapons continued to kill. Is it worse to die from mustard gas burning your lungs or shrapnel disembowelling you? The reason, or at least one reason, is the perceived insidiousness of gas as opposed to an explosive shell. So it is with this new kind of terrorism.

Most of Europe has had direct experience of terrorism in the last forty years. Sometimes the targets were random, the French Secret Army Organisation, the OAS, the Italian right, sometimes the Basques and both sides of the Northern Irish divide. Other times it was targeted, the Italian left, the Basques again and Ulster again. There were moments when both society and governments were put under serious stress and there were deep divisions. Today’s threat is different because it seems to come from outside our society and threaten the whole of it as much as we can understand.

So we should have the Martian effect with all of Europe united and united with the US. We don’t because since the threat is so vague, there cannot be a single response or even agreement on how the threat is articulated.

The first political effect of the Madrid bombs was that enough Spanish voters changed their minds, either by changing their vote or by actually going out to vote in order to change opinion poll predictions. There are three possible reasons as far as I can see: they punished the lies and equivocations of the government, two: they felt that Zapatero and the PSOE is better equipped to deal with the new emergency and three: a technical reason, that the higher turnout was made up of previously half-committed PSOE voters.

If the second reason is dominant, then, broadly speaking, we have two possible motivations. First, that those voters feel that by withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq, they will be safe from future attack; the appeasement, or Danegeld argument. Secondly, that this radical Islamic terrorism is best faced by a combined effort of the international community under as broad an umbrella as possible (in Zapatero’s case, he wants to see the UN take over in Iraq).

Coming back to Italy (and the UK, Denmark and Poland all of whom have troops in Iraq), the debate has to be put in terms of how best to deal with the threat which we face (and no doubt even those countries which opposed the war as well). Radical Islamic violence is not just or even primarily aimed at the so-called “West”. Moderate and secular Islamic countries bore the initial brunt of the movement for most of the ‘90s – in Algeria, in Morocco, in Egypt and in Afghanistan. Invading one of those secular countries however brutal a dictatorship Saddam’s Iraq was, has only stoked the fires of Islamic radicalism, allowed it into Iraq, provided fertile recruitment ground for many others, Arab and non-Arab.

But Iraq has been invaded and is policed by a largely foreign force which cannot be removed without causing a complete disaster for west and east alike. So the only way to begin to rebuild consensus and begin to dry up the sources of Islamic radicalism is to make the soldiers into peacekeepers rather than occupiers and give responsibility to the international community. Angelo Panebianco in to-day’s Corriere argues that the Spanish threat to withdraw the troops is the equivalent of Munich 1938. He has misread time and place; the parallels are with Dayton 1995 which began the Balkan piece process. To widen the legality and the responsibility of the foreign presence in Iraq is the opposite of appeasement.

This is hardly an original hope but it is one based on the methods used to successfully stop political radicals in Italy from using terrorist methods. Mr. Zapatero’s victory on Sunday is a model for those in the rest of Europe who were against the invasion of Iraq and who were convinced that tanks and missiles encourage terrorism rather than curb it. The left in Italy, Britain and Denmark will use it in June’s European Parliament elections; the right and Tony Blair are warned that their military support of the US has a political price tag.

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