I wants to make your flesh creep,’ is the Fat Boy’s refrain in the Pickwick Papers. In Berlin last week, I was at a conference which the Fat Boy would have enjoyed. The subject was terror; the threat that weapons of mass destruction in terrorist hands would pose to the West, during the foreseeable future. One point impressed itself, instantly and forcefully. The proceedings were dominated by scientists, discussing anthrax, smallpox and chemical weapons in the most matter-of-fact manner. There was agreement that given the difficulty of acquiring plutonium or enriched uranium, the terrorist nuclear threat was still over the horizon. But as for all other threats, horizons contract and dangers close in. Everyone there seemed convinced of the inevitability of terrorist outrages.
Among the speakers, there was a recurrent contrast between the Americans and the British. When Americans were speaking, optimism kept on breaking through. It was as if they believed that there could be an answer, if only the authorities would find enough money. One American claimed that since 9/11, albeit including Afghanistan and Iraq, the federal government has spent $450 billion on security needs. He did not give the impression of regarding this as excessive. Indeed, it seemed as if he thought that another few hundred billion or so might provide an answer. All this gave one some insight into the reasons for the Bush administration’s profligacy over the federal deficit.
By contrast, the British seemed prim, priggish — and realistic. Partly because we could not afford American levels of expenditure, there was a radically different emphasis. The Yanks wanted to outspend their foes; we preferred to out-think ours. We did not believe that we could drown them in gold.
We were also more pessimistic. One word, in a British expert’s presentation, seemed to summarise all this: resilience. The Americans gave the impression of believing that money could avert danger. The British had no such illusions. Our scientists of terror are working in a world in which everything is being done to counteract the threat. If the answer lay in vigilance, high technology and the practical applications of intelligence in both senses of the word, there could have been comfort in the Berlin proceedings. A lot of conscientious public servants are devoting their best efforts to protecting the rest of us.
But they would be the first to admit that this is not enough. Dispassionate academics, they did not want to assert more than they could prove, but their conclusions were inescapable. They expressed a breezy inevitability about the forthcoming onslaught. When it came to terrorism, the question was not whether but when.
Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of MI5, evidently agrees. In the gentlest possible way, she too has been trying to accustom her political masters to the inevitability of a major terrorist assault on the UK. Last Wednesday, I had lunch with an ambassador. I told him about the conference and the universal belief in not whether, but when. His reply was chilling: ‘You’re the fifth person this week who’s said that to me.’ We looked out of a library window in St James’s, across stucco and statues and the first spring blossom, to the towers of Whitehall and Westminster. We wondered if we were looking at a future slaughterhouse.
There are four reasons why we are exceptionally vulnerable to the new terror. The first is technological progress. With every passing year, it becomes easier to create terrible weapons. The second is hatred. For at least the next few decades, the Islamic world will produce very large numbers of fanatics who loathe the West and all its inhabitants. Reasons three and four follow on, and are closely linked. Most previous terrorist organisations had to acknowledge some restraining factors. ETA, the Basque separatist movement, was reluctant to kill large numbers of Basque civilians. The IRA suffered when it murdered women, children or ordinary Catholics. But this does not apply to Islamic terrorists. They regard the whole of the West as a free-fire zone.
If they should kill innocent Muslims, Allah will make amends once everyone arrives in Paradise. Moreover, unlike almost all previous terrorists, the Islamic zealots are happy to die. A ready availability of suicide bombers who are content to commit indiscriminate butchery among people whom they despise makes life hard indeed for the security services. Hence their grim and resolute pessimism.
Yet I thought that I had discovered one possible method of counterattack. In many countries, the illicit drug trade is the treasury of terror. The IRA and the Protestant paramilitaries both finance themselves from drug proceeds. So does al-Qa’eda. In Afghanistan today, German troops are protecting poppy-growers who merely want to live off the proceeds of the heroin traffic from the warlords who might plunder the poppy harvest in order to finance terrorists. According to a UN report published two years ago, the illegal drug trade has an annual turnover of $500 billion. Most of us distrust such rounded figures, but then again, most UN employees whom I have met are conscientious, hardworking individuals who would try to deal in facts rather than grotesque exaggerations. Anyway, even if they are overestimating by 100 per cent, a quarter of a trillion dollars would finance a hideous amount of terrorism and crime.
In 1939, confronting Europe, Britain faced a pair of dreadful adversaries. In moral terms, there was a strong case for arguing that Stalin was a worse leader than Hitler. But there was an even stronger case for insisting that the United Kingdom should not try to deal with too many enemies at once. Hitler was the immediate threat. It made sense, therefore, to ignore Stalin’s crimes and to do everything possible to appease him, preferably at other nations’ expense.
When dealing with our latest foes, life is easier. We have to fight the terrorists, because they insist on fighting us. But as regards the drug dealers, there is no such necessity. We are not compelled to make war on them; it would be much easier to destroy them by legalising the drug trade on which their revenues depend.
The British government could not accomplish this on its own. If, in breach of several international conventions, we made it legal for adults to purchase drugs under strictly regulated conditions, this would have only a marginal effect on the illegal drug trade turnover. We would also be roundly condemned on all sides. But the logic of our position would be irresistible. Within 10 years of Britain’s deciding to legalise drugs, condemnation would give way to imitation.
I made those points in Berlin. Hardly anyone from the floor agreed with me. Afterwards, large numbers of fellow delegates came up to discuss the subject. Hardly any of them disagreed with me. They generally prefaced their remarks by saying: ‘I couldn’t possibly say so in public, but I’m glad someone had the courage....’
There is nothing admirable about taking drugs. Nor is there anything admirable about legalising the drug trade out of weakness. But we are weak: given the nature of the terrorist threat, and the difficulty of combating it, we are as weak in strategic terms as we were in 1939. We are entitled to limit our vulnerability and to shorten our front line.
We are not certain to defeat the terrorists, but we have to fight them. We have been fighting the drug traffickers for years, and are no nearer to defeating them. Let us therefore pick and choose our foes. By legalising drugs, we would make it easier to fight terrorists and we would increase our hope of winning, or at least of minimising our losses.