Speaker by Various Artists

Sport and terror

by David Williams

In sport it's back to business as usual in England.

"Tiger" Tim Henman makes a second-round tournament exit, the rugby world champions are beaten by France to finish a disappointing third in the Six Nations, while a glamour football side, Arsenal, is marching away with the Premiership title. Oh, and the 150th University boat race, an excuse for the well-off to break open the champers, is won by a bunch of toffs. (The only blip in this formula is the English cricketers, who are 2-0 up against the Windies. But we all know what would happen if they were playing for The Ashes...)

Unfortunately it is also business as usual in the terror stakes.

A week ago I wrote a column saying how there seemed to be an undercurrent of fear in England since the Madrid bombing, but binned it fearing I was misreading the situation. Scary statements by Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, (it would be "miraculous" if a suicide bomber did not get through) and Britain's top cop, Sir John Stevens, (Al Qaeda cells are operating in the UK) made ME feel uneasy but I wasn't sure if anyone bothered to take such warnings seriously.

After all, people here have lived through IRA bomb scares for years and the older generation still remembers World War II. Also, there have been several periods of high alert in London recently. In February last year, troops were deployed around Heathrow apparently to prevent any attempt to shoot down a departing jet. Since New Year‚s, several flights to the US and Saudi Arabia have been cancelled due to security concerns.

It seems this week I was proved right.

A poll in the News Of The World says over half of Britons are more concerned about their safety following 9/11 and the Madrid bombing. People have considered changing annual holidays (58%), visiting tourist attractions (53%), shopping in city centres (46%) and their daily trek to work (38%). (Another interesting statistic, an overwhelming 73% of respondents said police should be able to shoot suicide bombers on sight.)

The Spectator's political man Peter Oborne says "in Westminster there is an air of expectation" - the place is now patrolled by machinegun-toting cops - and people's habits are starting to change. One media couple, he says, no longer travel together by Tube in case they leave their children orphaned, while a "well-known political correspondent" is driving rather than taking the train to work. Add to that list a Kiwi weblog writer, who now bikes to work half the time.

Headlines in The Sunday Times made chilling reading this week, too. The lower front page declared: "PM told dirty bomb defence catastrophic‚" and "Al-Qaeda leader says: Heathrow our target". In the latter story, it turns out Osama bin Laden said British PM Tony Blair was al-Qaeda's top enemy. He ordered a "devastating attack" on London's main airport soon after the 9/11 attacks. Assuming the terror chief is still alive, he certainly seems the type to hold a grudge and act on it when he gets the chance. Terrifying.

Some in the right-wing press are trying to maintain calm and ensure the high street shop tills are still ringing. In The Sun, sister paper to the News Of The World, deputy political editor George Pascoe-Watson says a terror strike is a chilling possibility "but we must never change our way of life". Otherwise we hand victory to the terrorists without a single bomb going off, he says.

I favour Oborne‚s view. The headline "Tony Blair and George Bush have made Osama bin Laden's task a lot easier" rings true and looks at the wider issue, rather than the narrow view of the economy. Oborne highlights Blair's five-year-old Good Friday agreement as his administration's greatest achievement. "Its key was the belated recognition that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means," he writes. Controversial, perhaps, in our post-September 11 world, but who can argue that the world is safer after the invasion of Iraq and last week's assassination (by Israel, an ally in the war on terror) of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin?

While deploying armed police, troops and tanks can be reassuring to residents of Western cities (read: voters), it seems to me that Bush and Blair are not dealing with the root causes of terror effectively.

Like moths drawn to a light, Iraq has become a beacon for those wanting to pursue jihad against the Western infidels. Bin Laden used the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islamic holy sites Mecca and Medina, to justify his attacks (America announced its withdrawal of troops from the Arab country last April). So what did our leaders think would happen when foreign troops invaded Iraq on the flimsy (and possibly false) pretext of weapons of mass destruction?

And what was Israel thinking? Apparently it doesn't want to withdraw from the Gaza Strip like it did Lebanon, with its tail between its legs. Okay. But not only did the missile strike on a crippled man in a wheelchair provoke international outrage, it handed Sheikh Yassin the martyrdom he'd been publicly praying for. You can imagine disaffected Palestinians - frustrated over years of occupation, a massive security wall and land grabs by settlers across a line agreed more than 40 years ago - will be lining up to join Hamas after this.

The Spanish weren't happy with the way their government was dealing with the war on terrorism - so they voted them out. And Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's showed he will be no poodle by quickly stating the Iraq war was based on lies and suggesting Bush and Blair "do some reflection and self-criticism". Hardliners in America and Britain wrote the Spanish off as spineless appeasers, columnist Ann Coulter calling it a "surrender to terrorism". Do you think the hardliners are worried? Will the Anglo-American governments also pay for the war? There are still a lot of questions to answer on that point.

The first test, of course, is in America - where only 51.3% of the voting-age population exercised their democratic right in 2000. Will enough people care? Will the record-high oil prices get people stomping down to the election booths? And will John Kerry, labelled "Bush-lite" by American political dissident Noam Chomsky, seem credible to a public which is, generally speaking, more concerned about its own circumstances than the effect of hundreds of thousands of troops stationed overseas?

It's hard to say. It would be a bold commentator to call a result this early - and we saw what a difference a week made in Spanish politics. Only time will tell. However I get the feeling it will take regime change in America and Britain before the West stops fanning the flames of Arab hatred with its policies and starts tackling this problem adequately.