Where We Go From Here
As the scale of the horrific attack on our country sinks in, the inevitable questions are being asked about how our intelligence could have failed and what we should do next. But this is not the time for finger pointing.
What is clear is that there has been a failure of international policy, not just by the US but by all western governments. We've all seen signs of this coming - in the attacks in the past on our embassies and in terrorism in the air. When I was in government under the Clinton administration, we tended to focus, as a policy matter, on the new threats we believed globalisation had unleashed by giving people the ability to travel freely and the information to produce weapons including weapons of mass destruction. But I don't think anyone expected terrorists would take over civilian aircraft with rudimentary weapons and use them as gigantic bombs.
The fingerprints of Osama bin Laden are all over this event. His organisation has targeted the World Trade Centre in the past and evidence of plans to take over large numbers of civilian airplanes emerged in the trials of terrorists linked to him. It is therefore reasonable to assume that he planned to take terrorism to the next level with fresh assaults on targets he had already identified.
I would expect the secretary of state to be making phone calls first to our NATO allies, then branching out to include the Russians, moderate Arab states and the Chinese to sensitize them to the depth of the US view: that this is an act of war, and that having been attacked in an act of war, the US has whatever justification an act of war gives us to respond.
Meanwhile the intelligence services and defence department will be gathering evidence, trying to identify the last known locations of Bin Laden and to draw up lists of the individuals who are the primary funders of his support network, not just in Afghanistan, but also in the Middle East, so that they can develop target lists. His network is wide but also thin and, Taliban aside, I do not believe it includes government sponsors per se.
After the diplomatic steps or "conditioning" of other countries, and assuming no formal state sponsor of this act of terror has been identified, the next step will be for the president to have the hard conversation. This will involve only a few people, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the secretary of defence, the secretary of state, the vice-president, and one or two others. (These conversations were had when I was in government and our embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.) That discussion will acknowledge that intelligence is limited but say that here are the bases, the locations, the people, as far as we can tell, and will cover the range of options for action.
The difficulty is that the least complicating power to use is air power, but that limits the ability to know whether you have achieved your objective when targeting individuals or destroying a group's capabilities. I believe the initial discussions of what force might be used in Afghanistan, if it comes to that, will place all options on the table, including the use of ground troops, although that would be enormously sensitive, complex and dangerous. The government will be very aware that it is dealing with a repeat offender.
I think it is seriously misguided to link yesterday's attack to the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict. People who don't understand the distinctions in the Islamic world tend to confuse the issues, but there is one simple fact to consider. Even when the Middle East talks were at their most hopeful and Palestinian leaders were optimistic about the prospects for peace, Bin Laden, driven by his own agenda over the US presence in Saudi Arabia and a warped view of American power, was plotting against the US.
It is a unique phenomenon for Americans to be subject to the vulnerabilities much of the rest of the world has grown used to, and the relentless pace of the 21st century news cycle will lead to pressure for immediate action. But I would expect the administration to act with extraordinary care. There will not be a rush to judgment, but the president will consult closely with leaders of Congress to act with deliberate speed.
Searching for Reason
So it has come to this. The entire modern history of the Middle East the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the Balfour declaration, Lawrence of Arabia's lies, the Arab revolt, the foundation of the state of Israel, four Arab-Israeli wars and the 34 years of Israel's brutal occupation of Arab land all erased within hours as those who claim to represent a crushed, humiliated population struck back with the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a doomed people. Is it fair is it moral to write this so soon, without proof, when the last act of barbarism, in Oklahoma, turned out to be the work of home-grown Americans? I fear it is. America is at war and, unless I am mistaken, many thousands more are now scheduled to die in the Middle East, perhaps in America too. Some of us warned of "the explosion to come". But we never dreamt this nightmare.
And yes, Osama bin Laden comes to mind, his money, his theology, his frightening dedication to destroy American power. I have sat in front of bin Laden as he described how his men helped to destroy the Russian army in Afghanistan and thus the Soviet Union. Their boundless confidence allowed them to declare war on America. But this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.
No, there is no doubting the utter, indescribable evil of what has happened in the United States. That Palestinians could celebrate the massacre of 20,000, perhaps 35,000 innocent people is not only a symbol of their despair but of their political immaturity, of their failure to grasp what they had always been accusing their Israeli enemies of doing: acting disproportionately. All the years of rhetoric, all the promises to strike at the heart of America, to cut off the head of "the American snake" we took for empty threats. How could a backward, conservative, undemocratic and corrupt group of regimes and small, violent organisations fulfil such preposterous promises? Now we know.
And there will be, inevitably, and quite immorally, an attempt to obscure the historical wrongs and the injustices that lie behind yesterday's firestorms. We will be told about "mindless terrorism", the "mindless" bit being essential if we are not to realise how hated America has become in the land of the birth of three great religions.
Ask an Arab how he responds to 20,000 or 30,000 innocent deaths and he or she will respond as decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And those basic reasons why the Middle East caught fire last September the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians, the bombardments and state-sponsored executions ... all these must be obscured lest they provide the smallest fractional reason for yesterday's mass savagery.
No, Israel was not to blame though we can be sure that Saddam Hussein and the other grotesque dictators will claim so but the malign influence of history and our share in its burden must surely stand in the dark with the suicide bombers. Our broken promises, perhaps even our destruction of the Ottoman Empire, led inevitably to this tragedy. America has bankrolled Israel's wars for so many years that it believed this would be cost-free. No longer so. But, of course, the US will want to strike back against "world terror'. Indeed, who could ever point the finger at Americans now for using that pejorative and sometimes racist word "terrorism"?
Eight years ago, I helped to make a television series that tried to explain why so many Muslims had come to hate the West. Last night, I remembered some of those Muslims in that film, their families burnt by American-made bombs and weapons. They talked about how no one would help them but God. Theology versus technology, the suicide bomber against the nuclear power. Now we have learnt what this means.