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True Social Justice in a Disorderly World

What does the world have to do to tackle terrorism at its roots?

April 9, 2004

What does the world have to do to tackle terrorism at its roots?

The war on terrorism has polarized the global community. While there is broad agreement that poverty is often the root of terrorist acts, opinions diverge on how to address the problem. Former NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson argues that Europe has no choice but to join the global fight against terror.

Few people would disagree with the proposition that order and the rule of law — combined with an open, honest democracy — are preconditions to any reordering of society in the best way.

Even fewer would disagree with the proposition that — if a society is threatened from outside by aggression or internally by repression or a collapse of civil order — then producing a fair and stable society is completely impossible.

But here is a paradox worth focusing on. We all duly recognize that security — internal and external — is fundamental to creating a fairer, better, more balanced and more socially just society.

Yet, populations and politicians are increasingly unwilling, especially in Europe, to face up to the consequences of that fact.

Expenditures on security and safety in a dangerous world are still unfashionable and unpopular and very low in the spending priorities of most taxpayers.

The consensus, which suddenly rallies when the nation has been attacked or when disaster strikes, is absent when the threat is diffuse or distant — or apparently non-urgent.

Here we are after a nightmarish massacre of civilian train travelers in Madrid, a bomb found on a French railway line, with memories still fresh of Bali and Istanbul and Kenya and Casablanca — never mind the horror of 9/11.

Yet, is there the appropriate sense of urgency at the kind of threats facing people today?

Is there a real readiness at a global level to get in place the serious measures required to tackle that world of disorder looming over all our futures?

Yes, of course, European Union leaders adopted a new portfolio of measures to respond to the evil criminals who murdered so many in Madrid.

But do they sufficiently rise to the enormous challenge? Do they get to the roots of the security diseases — infections capable of being eradicated, but certainly not with sticking plaster?

What, too, of the other modern paradox? Among European populations, the biggest and hottest political issues today is immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. Yet, there remains a complete unwillingness to see that the remedy to be offered is not over here — but over there.

We do face waves of people fleeing disorder, violence, unrest and instability. That is a fact. So why is there such a reluctance to vote for the aid and the peacekeepers which will keep the refugees at home where they would prefer to be anyway?

As Secretary General of NATO, one of my most difficult and frustrating tasks during 2003 — in my last year in office — was to persuade countries to send troops to serve in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Two Prime Ministers asked me the same question: "How do we persuade our people that it makes sense to send our young soldiers so far away to Afghanistan?" I replied: "Tell them that either we go to Afghanistan — or Afghanistan comes to us."

It is as simple as that. Across two continents, we already feel the cost of the Taliban's failed and rogue state.

Refugees, asylum searchers, 80% of the heroin sold in our streets, the backwash from multinational criminality feeding like carrion crows on drug and prostitute trafficking, and gun, people and tobacco smuggling — they all touch us.

Afghanistan is as close to you as the nearest drug dealer — and he is probably closer to you than the nearest rat. And they say that in London, you are never more than 10 meters away from a rat.

Against that huge cost we already pay stands the tiny sumthe ordered world gives to keep barely 10,000 troops providing security in Kabul and to the aid budget of the government of the brave and farsighted President, Hamid Karzai.

That relatively tiny price needs dramatic improvement — or we stand to pay a price bigger than we will ever afford.

We can, and indeed must, be optimistic and confident as we acknowledge and face the new challenges.

I do want to underline the fact that facing down the new threats will take courage and leadership by politicians. It will take strength of character and patience by populations. And it will take sacrifice and expenditure by taxpayers.

There is no other way. You don't get safety and security and peace on the cheap. And if we were ever to doubt that proposition, then I say look at the miserable history of the 20th century — and reflect what might have happened without these qualities.

I will, of course, concede that it is very easy to be foolishly pessimistic. Especially after the blood spilled in Madrid, there is a dread about where these criminal killers will strike again.

The bombs on France's railway system, however, expose the nonsense hat which side you took on Iraq determines where the next blow will fall.

Terrorism has gone global — and it has gone wanton as well. Now there is no defined political objective, no targeting of the enforcers of the state. It has become blood, death and destruction for its own sake. Terrorism cannot be appeased.

Globalization has made illegal money the lifeblood of the new network of security threats.

Over and over — throughout the past decade — regional conflicts, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, civil war and terrorism have been facilitated and sustained by illicit financial networks embedded in the world’s legal financial system.

How easy it was for al Qaeda’s bankers to have $500,000 wired from a bank in Dubai for anonymous use in automatic teller machines in Florida and Maine.

How difficult it has been, even with the backing of United Nations resolutions and 150 nations, to find out who raised or sent those dollars.

But is a grave, and naïve, mistake to think that al Qaeda is the only global group organizing terror. It is equally naïve to think that the capture of Osama bin Laden would alone bring an end to extreme fundamentalist mass murder.

Single terrorist acts produce alarm and worry — they rarely cause widespread panic. They rightly revolt and anger us, and for those they affect they pain us greatly.

But if the nihilists of terror were to use smallpox, or again try anthrax, or move on to sarin or plague or ricin, then the scale of devastation would be beyond comprehension.

The liberation of smallpox in an airport, for example, could in a couple of weeks produce hundreds of thousands of fatalities in a host of countries.

Health systems would be swamped — civil society as we know it would be in balance. This no longer science fiction — just plan C or D for those who worship the religion of human destruction.

These then are warnings we must heed. The threats are real and the moment we relax they can happen. But there is always a danger in over warning – exciting complacency and a delusion of invulnerability.

The answer to the question I posed at the outset may well have been self-evident — but in many ways it still poses the biggest question of all.

In order to make our own society more socially just, fairer — and to provide the real opportunities for every citizen — what are we willing to do to make sure that a disordered world outside does not permanently prejudice anything we may desire to do inside?

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from Lord George Robertson’s remarks at the John Smith Memorial Lecture, at the Smith Insitute in London, on March 31, 2004.