Security is the watchword of our time. Great Britain still lacks a Department of Homeland Security, but the quest for security dominates politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Not for the first time, yesterday, security was the theme of the Queen's Speech, the elaborate ceremony in which by tradition the government unveils its legislative program for the coming year. The speech is written by the prime minister and read by the monarch to the assembled legislators of both houses of Parliament.
This was Tony Blair's 10th Queen's Speech and it will be his last. In his time in office, Parliament has passed four laws on terrorism, six on immigration, and no fewer than 23 on crime and justice in general. Yet the public feels more insecure than ever before.
That is not necessarily because these laws are badly drafted or inadequately enforced — though some of them are. It has to do with a deeper anxiety — a growing realization that our civilization is vulnerable and that we cannot always rely on our governments to protect us from the barbarians at the gate.
In the last week, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of the Security Service MI5, told the British that about 30 separate conspiracies involving some 1,500 individuals are currently under surveillance. All of them involve Islamist terrorists, some of whom are linked to Al Qaeda. The home secretary, John Reid, said yesterday that these plots were under central direction, with a strategic pattern.
Yet there is no talk of the nation being at war. Politicians prefer to talk of "security" because it is less disturbing. Even the Bush administration talks less about the "war on terror" than it used to do.
The trouble is that security is an unattainable ideal. There has never been a time when the world was wholly secure. Insecurity is part of the human condition.
The yearning for security emerged as a consequence of the deadly threats to Western civilization of the past century. The shock of World War I, which shattered the informal "concert of nations" that had kept the peace since the Napoleonic wars, gave rise to the idea of "collective security" under international law, laid down by global institutions. Collective security became fashionable in the 1920s, but it proved powerless in the age of the dictators. Neither the League of Nations then nor the United Nations now has prevented wars and crimes against humanity that have occurred on an unprecedented scale.
One need only think of the fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish state over the past century to see that the "international community" — with a handful of exceptions — has sometimes behaved less like the world's policeman than like a global lynch mob.
This abysmal record of collective security was forcibly brought to mind this week by the spectacle of the Alliance of Civilizations, one of those absurdly self-important U.N. gravy trains, which purport to set the world to rights, but actually do a great deal of harm.
With much fanfare and signing off of expense accounts, the Alliance of Civilizations published a report, which revealed that the cause of pretty much all the trouble between Islam and the rest of the world was — you guessed it — Israel. Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, welcomed this pernicious propaganda as a contribution to dispelling the notion that a global jihad might be under way. "The problem is not the Koran or the Torah or the Bible," he declared. "The problem is never the faith, it is the faithful and how they behave toward each other."
Out the window goes any idea that a reformation of Islam might be overdue by quite a few centuries. Mr. Annan presupposes moral equivalence between Islamist jihad, with explicitly genocidal aims, and the attempts by Jews and Christians to defend themselves. The fact that terrorists use Islam, including the Koran and shariah, or Islamic law, to justify their actions is treated as irrelevant.
Among the members of this august panel — the majority of whom come from mainly Muslim countries — is John Esposito, now a professor at Georgetown University, who as the Clinton-era guru wrote on the eve of 9/11, "Bin Laden is the best thing to come along … if you want to paint Islamist activism as a threat. There's a danger in making Bin Laden the poster boy of global terrorism."
Then there is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whose hostility toward Israel is a matter of record. In 2002 he denounced the "very powerful" Jewish lobby, which he compared to Hitler and to other "very powerful" monsters, all of whom "bit the dust" in the end.
Nor must we forget Hubert Védrine, the French foreign minister who wrote after the Camp David talks in 2000 that "Israeli propaganda" blamed Yasser Arafat for the talks' collapse.
But the most remarkable choice of panelist must be Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran — the powerhouse of the worldwide Islamic revolution. This really is inviting the devil to drive out Beelzebub.
Back here in Britain, Mr. Blair has been indulging in a little wishful thinking himself, suggesting in a speech this week that if Iran abandoned its nuclear ambitions it might help to resolve conflict in Iraq. Mr. Blair also told James Baker's Iraq Study Group that the biggest factor in getting moderate Muslim support for Iraq would be a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The trouble with these two propositions, which apparently echo ideas that have emerged from Mr. Baker's commission, is that Iran has no interest in a resolution to either conflict. Instead, it is determined to keep America and Britain embroiled in Iraq and to force Israel to intervene in Gaza and Lebanon. Hamas has just reiterated its refusal to recognize Israel after consulting Tehran, while Hezbollah is preparing to renew last summer's conflict, this time with U.N. troops to protect its positions. Meanwhile, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report confirms that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons, despite the threat of sanctions.
Neville Chamberlain thought he was bringing home "peace with honour" from Munich in 1938. He received neither. Peace is not on offer in the Middle East, with or without honor. It would be better for "realists" such as Mr. Baker to weigh up the relative cost of stay-the-course compared to cut-and-run. If there is to be war with Iran anyway, it may be better to fight it sooner rather than later, when it might become a nuclear one.
There is a hopeful lesson from the history of Islam. Jihad against the West tends to come in waves. They may last for generations, but eventually they subside. Within a century of the Turkish siege of Vienna, Mozart and Beethoven were composing marches alla turca to feed the Viennese fashion for all things Turkish. The present wave may not have peaked yet, but it will. The question is not whether America will stay the course in Iraq. No, the question is whether Western, that is, Judeo-Christian, civilization has the will to defend itself — and to defend those in the Muslim world who aspire to belong to it.