2001 : WHAT NOW?

sir_john_maddox's picture
Editor (Emeritus), Nature; Royal Commissions on environmental pollution and genetic manipulation
Royal Commissions on environmental

The first thing Edge must do is to emphasise the obvious: there is no "technical fix" for terrorism. Terrorists fit into normal society, are trusted by their colleagues and then they betray that trust. Until so much is known of how the human brain thinks that it will be possible to read out people's secret thoughts by some non-existent non-invasive technique, diagnosing the condition of "terrorist" is science-fiction. In my opinion, it will always be so.

The second is to insist that we all use words more carefully. That is not a plea for political correctness but for accuracy and politeness. We are not embarked on a "war" because, as others have pointed out, no enemy has been identified. The phrase "muslim terrorist" means a terrorist who happens also to be a muslim, but gives offence to muslims when the two words appear cemented together. Yet our goal in what lies ahead should be to drive a wedge between the terrorists and the wider communities to which they belong. (How shall we feel if it turns out that not all those behind the destruction of the WTC were muslims?) But we should be unafraid of saying that the Koranic concepts of jihad and fatwah are incompatible with the tolerance and the rule of law on which Western Europe and North America have prided themselves (not always correctly) since the ending of the crusades.

Third, we must urge consistency. There is a chilling similarity between the breakdown of the rule of law on 11 September and the illegality with which single-issue NGOs often set out to dramatise their aims, by "liberating" laboratory animals or pulling up GM crops.

Fourth, the campaign against terror must be made internationally constitutional as soon as possible. There are obvious difficulties; not all members of the coalition now being assembled have equal regard for human rights (and even the United States still practices capital punishment). The United Nations spans an even broader spectrum.

It will be disastrous if the United States becomes the sole source of strategy in a long campaign extending over decades. That will only reinforce convictions (however wrong-headed) that its undisputed military and economic power is used exclusively for its own self-interest and which may have contributed to the attack on the WTC. What is needed is a consortium of governments sharing US values ("liberty and the pursuit of happiness", for example, but not religiosity) yet able by openness and deliberate demeanour to persuade the world that it is acting in the world's interests. Is that too much to hope for?