Only option to live dangerously

Martin Kettle

Even at the time, Tony Blair’s message to the nation was sombre. “I cannot recall a time,” he said on the first day of 2003, “when Britain was confronted, simultaneously, by such a range of difficult and, in some cases, dangerous problems.”

Inevitably, Blair singled out the mounting international crisis over Iraq in his next breath. But Iraq, which looms so large in retrospect, by no means monopolised his gloomy survey of the year to come. The intelligence flowing across his desk pointed to a continuing threat of attack by al-Qaida, Blair went on. The lack of progress in the Middle East peace process had the potential to wreak havoc too. And then there was North Korea.

Twelve months ago, all this struck some observers as needlessly pessimistic. Politically, it seemed a bit too gloomy and disjunctive. At the end of 2002, most people in this country were again optimistic about the future, ICM reported. The economy seemed buoyant. Few people thought they were in much danger from terrorism. Yet 12 months later, Blair’s apprehensive message seems closer to the mark. Today, sombre warnings chime more closely with the current national mood. Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq has been a catalyst in creating this

change. Yet we need to beware of looking at everything through that unique prism. Blair’s serious misjudgment over Iraq should not be made to bear too much of the weight of explanation for the wider new pessimism. Opponents of the war may need to be reminded that public opinion currently approves of the invasion by nearly two to one.

As 2003 has drawn to its close, it is surely al-Qaida, rather than the repercussions of Iraq, that casts a darker shadow over Britain’s future. If the mass of intelligence flowing across the prime minister’s desk pointed to a continuing terrorist threat a year ago, then how much truer is that statement today? We are a target, Blair said a year ago. Well, we are no less of one today. The threat from al-Qaida is real, he went on. That threat is no less real now. There is no such thing as 100% security against a serious enemy, he added. That is also every bit as true now as then.

Since 9/11, most western governments have operated on the assumption that their countries will be a target some time. This is not mere general prudence. It is cold-eyed and urgent realism. In the past few weeks alone, al-Qaida and its allies have mounted two assassination attempts on Pakistan’s leader and have carried out a pair of devastating missions in Istanbul. We know they have the means and the motives. We must assume they merely await their opportunities.

It is only a matter of time before some flaw in our own defences allows an attack to take place in Europe that is as devastating as those that occurred in Istanbul. How far this would be a consequence of Blair’s pro-American policy over Iraq is an inevitable question, but recent terror-related cancellations of Air France transatlantic flights imply that Osama bin Laden is no respecter of individual national stances on the war.

No one who flies to a place like Saudi Arabia can be unaware of the risks they currently run. Last night’s car bomb in Riyadh was a fresh reminder that these can be dangerous places for people from open societies.

This forms the all too credible background to the decision by the government to deploy sky marshals on selected passenger flights across the Atlantic and on some other routes. The decision has been denounced by the pilots’ union as dangerous, and mocked by some commentators as too headline grabbing. Yet if, as most of us want, the planes are to be kept flying in the face of the terrorists’ fanatical determination to bring them down, then what are governments supposed to do?

In 2004, there is a greater likelihood than at any time since 1945 that large numbers of civilians will be the victims of an act of pitiless aggression. Most of us deal with this fear by ignoring it. For a Blair or a Darling, there is no such luxury. Just occasionally, perhaps, we should have the humility to see the awfulness of the world that they inhabit, and which they strive so unavailingly to control.

The Guardian, London