No one could fail to be moved by the dreadful stories coming out of the United States last week, or the instances of heroism and self-sacrifice that emerged in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the east coast. The scale of the destruction was simply too great to grasp, and there was a natural human impulse to focus instead on what happened to individuals. The couple who jumped to their deaths, hand-in-hand, from the burning skyscraper; the passenger who called his wife from a doomed plane to say he was going to fight back: these were glimpses of the human spirit at its best, of the courage to act even in the face of certain death and of the emotions – love, affection, comradeship – that inspire it. It was stories like these, and the quiet dignity of New Yorkers during the grim rescue operation, that made the horror even remotely bearable in a week when many people found themselves weeping openly and unable to sleep.
That grief has been made worse, over the last couple of days, by terrible fears for the future. "War", The Mirror declared baldly on Thursday; "Bush vows to lead world to victory", the International Herald Tribune said a day later. There is a sense that we are drifting into an open-ended conflict with a so-far-unidentified enemy, although Afghanistan and Iraq appear to be the most likely targets. And while the anger of ordinary Americans is understandable, their leaders' rhetoric has more than a whiff about it of impotent rage. Talk of a "war on terrorism" is frighteningly reminiscent of the "war on drugs" that has been waged with such ferocity, and so ineffectually, by successive administrations.
Many Americans have expressed not just anger and grief but incomprehension, reminding me of conversations I had during my first visit to the States 20 years ago. As I travelled across the country to interview relatives of the hostages held in the American embassy in Tehran, what I encountered again and again was an ignorance about the outside world that took my breath away. The father of a US marine talked movingly about his son, then looked at me despairingly: "Why have the Iranians done this to my family? We gave them the best telephone system in the world." I asked him what he knew about America's support for the Shah, whose secret police force, Savak, tortured and murdered his opponents. It rapidly became clear that he knew nothing about the Middle East, or his own government's role in keeping this thuggish autocrat in power.
This story has always encapsulated, for me, the bewilderment ordinary Americans feel about the loathing they inspire around the world. Middle-class citizens (and I except from this the millions of poor whites, blacks and Hispanics who endure the kind of poverty you would expect to find in a developing country) live in affluent cities and suburbs. Their commitment to peace, justice and democracy is genuine, as is their religious faith. In a world full of unpleasant regimes, dogged by civil conflicts and terrorism, they see themselves as a beacon of liberty, which is why the President declared that "freedom itself" was under attack last week. They do not understand that there are whole swathes of the world where the US is perceived much less benignly. At the very least, it is seen as a culture obsessed with celluloid violence and weapons, yet preternaturally afraid of any of its military personnel dying abroad. Bush denounced the hijackers as cowardly, yet that epithet could be equally applied – perhaps more so, given the deranged courage required of the suicide bomber – to the bombing of Iraq and Serbia.
The American government's ruthless pursuit of its own economic and military interests is the reason why many Palestinians, Chileans, Rwandans, Guatemalans and Indonesians – I could fill the rest of this paragraph with the list – have suffered decades of occupation, torture, death squads, poverty, civil war or exile. For them, America's freedom and prosperity have been achieved at a staggeringly high cost elsewhere in the world.
This is not an easy thing to write, so soon after last week's dreadful events, and I am aware that hundreds of Britons, as well as many thousands of Americans, were among the casualties. But to understand the etiology of terrorist attacks is not to excuse them. Just as successive British governments had to recognise Irish terrorism as a political and not just a military problem, in order to broker the current ceasefire, the US needs to address the causes of terrorism if it is to achieve the security it urgently seeks. There is not much evidence that it is doing so, which is why Nato's offer of support to the President is morally wrong and a gargantuan political error. It will make things worse, and may well put more European lives at risk.
The attack on America is specific, very likely a response to its disastrous support for Israel, and a reflection of the unparalleled despair felt across the Middle East about the ever-worsening plight of the Palestinians. That does not justify it in any way, but it is not an assault on Nato and certainly not a "War on the World", as another apocalyptic Mirror headline claimed. This is the kind of language that dismays even America's friendly critics, not to mention more than 5.5 billion people who are not American citizens. We are entering a period of unprecedented instability, where the stark choice is between tackling the causes of terrorism and declaring another unwinnable war, inevitably signalling more deaths. To begin with, they are likely to be in the Middle East, as if that region has not suffered enough. But every American missile launched in revenge over the next few weeks will keep international terrorism alive, no matter how many individual terrorists it succeeds in destroying. If freedom and democracy are to be defended in the long term, that can be done only within the rule of law. Hunt down the perpetrators, yes – but try them in a court of law. Don't murder them in retaliation.