Beware mimicking the actions of the fanatic


The central fact of the appalling events of September 11th was that civilian aircraft were used as weapons of mass destruction to kill over 5,000 people and destroy the lives of thousands more. It was an act of premeditated murder that was rightly and unequivocally condemned by all shades of political opinion in Ireland.

Many of those who, like myself, had often been critics of US foreign policy and its consequences visited the US embassy to express our sympathy with the people and government of the United States. I did so with sincerity.

What took place was an appalling destruction of human life. Those who died in New York and Washington were ordinary citizens who had gone to work, who had families, children and loved ones. Witnessing the sight of people running from blazing buildings, or jumping in despair, filled television viewers with horror.

Such images will last forever. The fact that New York seems so familiar with its imposing skyline made them more proximate.

How is one to respond? Language itself is inadequate in a number of respects. It is inadequate to respond sufficiently to the grief and loss of the relatives of those who have died. It is inadequate to express one's admiration for the heroism of the firemen, the policemen, the emergency services who went to the assistance of those who were injured and so many of whom, while engaged in that act of mercy, lost their lives.

Language is strained in our efforts to express solidarity in the tasks of healing and recovery. What we say, and the words we choose, should be directed at understanding what has happened, its sources, and what we might do to prevent it ever recurring.

Words, we should acknowledge, remembering Vaclav Havel's advice, can liberate, but they can also kill.

In responding to the horrific events of September 11th, we are not assisted, practically or morally, by those who speak of a war of civilizations, or of a clash between Islam and the Western world. Demonising the leaders, representatives or peoples of the Islamic nations would be disastrous.

Rather than seeking to demonise, we have to try, however painful and difficult it may be, to seek to understand how some of them have become the sites of such actions as led to the tragic events of September 11th.

We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of accepting the logic of terrorism. It is not that Western values were under attack from Islamic values. That is not so. Innocent people in New York were attacked by fanatical terrorists. That is the issue we should deal with and we should remember that the killing of civilians is as abhorrent to those who sincerely believe in the values of Islam, as it is to those of different religious and humanist values in the West.

It is a time to make a beginning in the task of understanding Islam rather than demonising it.

Serious parties of the Left have always and unequivocally condemned terrorism for its generation of fear, its negativity, its assumption of the futility of political discourse, its calling forth of the response of deeper repression and indeed violence on the part of the agencies of the state.

Those on the Left have an alternative vision of society which they are willing to offer in the democratic forums of the world. They have no truck with terror or fear. They are also able to draw the distinction between opposing aspects of foreign policy of a country and respecting the people in whose name it is advanced. They are not intimidated by those who seek to trivialise this distinction.

To have opposed US foreign policy does not disqualify one from reacting with horror to an appalling attack on US citizens or from condemning such action unequivocally.

There has to a response to the recent events. That is morally required. It has to be a considered response conforming to moral principles rather than reacting blindly to the logic of terrorism. What has been quite appalling, however, is the manner in which some of the televised coverage, such as that of Sky News, has begun building up for an act of retribution, for war. It is the same television service that turned the bombing of Baghdad and Belgrade into a video game.

The right to life is an indivisible principle and losses of life in one part of the world do not, and cannot, justify the taking of it in another place. It is better to describe what took place on September 11th as an attack on humanity.

Making the world safe from such attacks will require an international effort. It is a time, however, for strengthening and extending the international institutions, not for weakening them by a unilateral and militaristic response. Our response should be as complex as required. Those who sponsor international terrorism, we should remember, do so from funds that are moved with relative ease through the international banking system.

Those who are responsible for killing over 5,000 people in the space of an hour should be punished through an international process that is accepted as fair by the United Nations.

New mechanisms of co-operation between states should emerge from those countries, including ourselves, signing up to implement a large number of international conventions which to date they have refused to do.

The existence of pockets of despair does not justify what has been visited upon workers and their families in the United States. Yet there are features of our world that are crucially related to the sources and threat of terrorist attack.

The despair of Palestinians, abandoned by the international community to refugee status since 1947; the continent of Africa, forced to repay debts of dictators and the puppets of colonial powers at the cost of providing universal access to health and education; the children of Asia forced with their families into bonded labour; armaments production and sales that exceed by over 60 times the World Health Organisation's annual expenditure on the world's four main preventable diseases - all these constitute examples of the failure of international policy. It is a world that has armaments production and an unaccountable market at its centre.

We must work with the US and the international community in addressing issues that concern all of us and that cannot be disposed of either by an uncritical reaction or unilaterally.