Do We Need a War on Terror?

(In this topsy-turvy world in which Israeli commandos are perceived as pirates, and terrorists and “aid workers” armed with clubs are seen as innocent victims, I thought I would share a speech I delivered to young students at a Hertfordshire college as part of the Institute of Ideas conference on the war on terror.)

I have agonized over how to address this major issue of our time to a young audience. It seems like yesterday I was your age. When I came to the UK, I was just 22. I am still living in the same tiny flat into which I moved when I was a graduate student! One minute you are 22, and the next minute you are, to use a Yiddish phrase, an alter gephumpheter of 56. That translates as old fogey. In fact, though it is still a few years away, I am counting the calendar pages until I get my senior citizen bus pass.

When I first came to this country, it barely resembled the Britain of today. In fact never have I seen a country alter itself as I have seen Great Britain do so in this generation gone by since my arrival in January 1976. When I was a student, you would be turfed off a bus if you spoke in a loud voice or made a noise; at the very least you would be reprimanded by the neatly dressed conductor. On the other side of the coin -- literally -- a bus ticket was sixpence and you could go upstairs and smoke to your heart’s delight. When I went to someone’s house for dinner I would be yelled at for using a fork to eat my cake. Behaving in a proper British manner was de rigeur. Multiculturalism was not on anyone’s agenda; my American accent made me very much a foreigner. In those day the iceman cameth, and the junk collector clattered into my mews once a week in his pony trap. Taxi drivers called my dad "guv’nor"; men tipped their hats to ladies.

Thirty-five years on, Britain is a brash, in-your-face multicultural cavalcade.

So, what has all of this to do with the war on terror? Let me explain: at last night’s “Question Time” at Queen’s School, there were many accusations being thrown about that had no foundation in fact, and what pained me was the idea that very young people, whose brains are like sponges, were not being provided with an historical perspective. So here is why I mentioned my early years in Britain: in the 1970s, the IRA -- Irish Republican Army-- dominated life in this country.

Wherever one went a bomb might go off. Although on most occasions the IRA sent warnings ahead of bombings, many civilians were killed on the British mainland. I will never forget my mother calling me from Philadelphia every time she heard a news flash on American TV saying a bomb had gone off in London.

I will never forget coming out of the Tesco supermarket in Church Street market and hearing an almighty boom -- it was the Harrods bomb of December 1983. It was so massive that I heard it so many miles away. I will never forget sitting in my office at Anglia Television in Park Lane and being thrown from my chair when the bomb went off in Hyde Park. We were sent home from work that day, but when I got home my phone was ringing -- it was my mum telling me another bomb had gone off in the bandstand in Regents Park.

When Lord Mountbatten was killed by the IRA in August 1979, my neighbor Dr. John Miles-Thomas stormed into my flat and berated me for “sponsoring terror!” Americans in Boston were funding IRA actions, and every American got it in the face at that time. And so on and so on. I have only limited time today to talk, but my point is that thirty years on I hardly think about the IRA anymore. U.S. Senator George Mitchell was instrumental in bringing the two sides to the table, and a rocky but remarkable peace was at last achieved after a hundred-year conflict.