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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005, 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK
A Point of View
Brian Walden
By Brian Walden

Adolf Hitler
Does understanding the enemy reduce the fear?
In his weekly opinion column, Brian Walden considers the impact the London bombings could have on British society.

Before the Holocaust and before the Nazis had taken a single British life, I heard my father tell a neighbour that the Nazis terrified him.

I was shocked. He didn't make any mention of Nazi aggression, cruelty, or intolerance.

He said something like: "The more I read about them, the more they chill my blood. I can't understand why they hate us. Why do they think like they do? I can't work the Nazis out. They terrify me. I think they're inhuman."

When a father expresses fear in front of a young son he makes a great impression.

Years later I told the story to a woman who'd been teaching at Oxford before the Second World War.

I said that I didn't know why my father, with so many reasons to fear the Nazis, had singled out his lack of understanding of them as the cause of his alarm. She was furious with me for my lack of perception.

"Don't you see it?" she said. "What could possibly be more frightening than having an enemy who can't give a reason you can understand for wanting to destroy you?"

Blind alley

Even before Thursday's attempted attacks it emerged that the terrorists who bombed London on 7 July weren't from a foreign country. They were home-grown, having been born and raised in Britain. And their message of hate is just as intense, though the grounds for it are obscure.

What the situation amounts to is that we may be killed without mercy, by people we've never met, for committing an offence so blurred that we don't know what it is.

I don't believe it will help to spend too much time trying to figure out what the motives of the bombers were. That could lead us up a blind alley. We need to concentrate on their actions rather than their state of mind.

If we worry about what went on in their heads we could end up regarding them as maniacs, which is what some people thought about the Nazis. The trouble with seeing them as crazy is that it may distract us from taking full account of how professional they were.

Sacrifices will have to be made. I don't mean in lives; I'm talking about attitudes and beliefs
In whichever country these religious bombers operate they've proved to be extremely effective. However irrational their objectives may be, they carry out their plans with great efficiency. Sometimes they're thwarted, but they've murdered a multitude already, and as events on Thursday showed quite clearly, we're not done with them yet.

Obviously, complete protection from these menacing bombers is impossible. But if Britain is to have a chance of preventing further attacks the task has to be given priority. The public will regard restraining terrorism as far and away the biggest issue in politics. Nothing else is as important.

So we ought to be clear at the outset that sacrifices will have to be made. I don't mean in lives; I'm talking about attitudes and beliefs.

Everyone of us must be prepared to look hard at our opinions. For instance, I've always believed that the most precious gift a democracy can give its citizens is liberty.

As far as freedom of movement is concerned my ideal is the years before the First World War when a Briton could travel without even a passport.

Prying cameras

I dislike the state snooping on our lives and I loathe officials demanding we answer personal questions that in my view they have no right to ask. I haven't the least regret that I've always felt like that.

But I don't pretend I can now look anybody in the eye and tell them that my libertarian society is attainable. The bombers have swept it off the agenda.

Terrorism has reached such proportions and become so successful that an accepted part of national life will be wallets full of documents and cards, that will have to be shown frequently. Plus the ever-present prying security cameras and constant suspicion of anything unusual.

Of course I prefer a society where people aren't forced to conform and can do as they please providing what they're doing isn't criminal. But this freedom is precarious. I'm not fond of meddlesome authority, but I think in present circumstances it has an overwhelming case.

How can the powers-that-be dare to take a chance? Suppose they decided that much of this irksome supervision was unnecessary and didn't bother with it and there was another bombing outrage and people were killed.

Public opinion would never forgive the authorities. Not to do everything possible to inhibit the bombers simply isn't an option. So there'll be every precaution that can be devised, including some very intrusive surveillance. Despite my longing for liberty, I admit that I can't see any alternative.

For a fortnight the leaders of Islam in Britain have been emphatic in their condemnation of the bombings. Nevertheless the Muslim clerical leadership and Muslim Members of Parliament have been robust in acknowledging that a tiny minority of Muslims have such a perverted view of Islam that they regard their religion as a licence to kill.

They claim the right to destroy all those who don't share what the prime minister has called their "evil ideology". I think we can be assured that every important Muslim body will do all in its power to avert terrorism in Britain.

But the terrorists don't only threaten Britain. Because what's happening is a kind of civil war within Islam, some Muslim governments are as much at risk as we are.

Superior attitude

I think there may be a change in our relationship with these governments. Both sides need the help of the other. Governments, like those of Pakistan and Egypt could already have, or are able to find out, information about British terrorists that could be invaluable to our intelligence services in preventing future atrocities.

Naturally Muslim governments will want something in return. Egypt complains that we have in the past granted asylum to people it regards as terrorists. Whatever the truth of that, we have a rather superior attitude to governments without full democratic credentials.

Tony Blair and President Musharraf
Blair needs the help of Pakistan
That may or may not be justifiable in quiet times. But can we afford such an attitude in an era when we need all the help we can get to prevent our own people from being murdered?

If a friendly government condemns terrorism and helps us combat it, can't we leave the improvement of its democracy for another day?

This might sound like the sort of common sense Britain has practised throughout its history. But in recent years there's been a demand for higher standards.

This was quite understandable. All the "isms" having collapsed and many countries being new democracies, it was felt that democracy should be enjoyed by everybody.

But this supposed that the leading powers wouldn't be engaged in a major conflict. Neither the scope, nor the nature, of the battle against Islamic extremists had been fully grasped. Now it has. And so I think Britain faces a difficult choice.

The extent of the difficulty becomes clear when we take on board what's advocated by influential neo-conservatives close to President Bush. Despite their label, neo-conservatives aren't port-drinking members of the Old Money, Boston establishment.

Risky policy

They're radicals, most of whom used to be on the political Left and they believe that all existing Muslim governments are useless as allies. They're corrupt, undemocratic, unpopular and quite likely to be secretly dealing with the terrorists, say the neo-cons.

The whole Middle East should be destabilised, because the only hope the Muslims have is democracy. Until the people are given a free choice in a fair election, nothing will come right.

The actual world is an untidy place, where all sorts of unexpected and illogical events happen
One might applaud the intention behind this apparently democratic agenda, but it's a risky gamble at best. Suppose the people don't choose leaders who support democracy, but decide they feel more at home with religious fundamentalists. We'd have ditched the governments that don't support the terrorists for governments that might.

In reality the British government won't have to make a stark choice, because these geopolitical fantasies are dreamed up by policy wonks.

The actual world is an untidy place, where all sorts of unexpected and illogical events happen. Which is why governing people successfully is the hardest of all jobs.

As for me, I seem to have beliefs that can't be applied but need to be stored perhaps until better times come. I wonder if my father would have understood why?

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

Does government turning suspicion on its own people help in any way? Have you considered that your acceptance of reduced civil liberties might be one of those aims of the terrorists in the first place?
Steve, UK

By any definition of what is normal or acceptable in the human race, these terrorists can rightly be described as inhuman. So yes Brian, your father would have understood perfectly.
Geoff Beale, Dorset, UK

Brian Walden seems oddly keen to hand victory to the terrorists by abandoning the freedoms won through the sacrifice of so many in the Second World War. Terrible though these latest bomb attacks are, the numbers killed are small compared to the 3500 killed and 33,000 seriously injured on our roads each year - and we haven't heard a public clamour for traffic cameras on every road. He should realise that we can only defeat this fundamentalist terrorism with the active co-operation of the Muslim community - and that a distrustful surveillance society is likely to alienate their youth, not persuade them.
Adam Warren, UK

I don't believe there is no other alternative than to completely control the people of this country. What would be the point of living if all life was documented, watched and controlled? We cannot allow terrorists and other groups acting with violence to take away our lives in order to save our lives.
Graeme Stewart, Aberdeen, UK

I find this kind of approach worrying from a distinguished journalist. As we saw in the Second Gulf War our own Government can do insane things in the name of preserving security. When journalists say that 'public opinion' won't tolerate more outrages, I'm not so sure. Freedom and liberty are vital. The public is similarly sickened by killing people on suspicion, unnecessary wars and torture.
Brian Jenner, Bournemouth, Dorset

I agree. We need to take a very practicable approach to this problem.
Andrew Brown, England

I think you've been caught up in the media hysteria. not only do I disagree with you that we should give up out liberty because a few people have been sadly killed. but also because giving up the liberties you suggest would do so little to prevent a repeat. The people on the bombs would all have valid travel documents and ID cards... unless you propose 'Muslim only' carriages on trains.. and I'm sure you don't.
Alistair Twiname, UK

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