- One evening in August 1942, as Adolf Hitler took dinner
with his staff, his thoughts turned to the likely shape of the world after
a German victory.
- Could this empire of his actually endure? He was confident
it would: "People sometimes say to me: 'Be careful! You will have
20 years of guerrilla warfare on your hands!' I am delighted at the prospect!
. . . Germany will remain in a state of perpetual alertness."
- This remark, contained in Hitler's Table Talk, made a
great impression on me when I first read it 15 years ago (I used it as
an epigraph to my novel Fatherland) and it has acquired still greater resonance
since September 11.
- At the moment, Western leaders are talking about a campaign
against terror that might last 50 years; Hitler guessed that the Third
Reich's struggle to suppress terrorism would last even longer: "We
may have a hundred years of struggle before us; if so, all the better -
it will prevent us from going to sleep!"
- Obviously, there isn't much comparison between Hitler's
definition of terrorism and ours. He was envisaging a threat emerging from
those nations that he had conquered in the East and subsequently filled
with German settlers. And his police methods would have been immensely
more brutal than those of America: the Luftwaffe wouldn't exactly have
been dropping peanut butter and chocolate bars over its target zones, and
Ribbentrop certainly wouldn't have been working night and day to restore
a democratic government.
- Nevertheless, there is a slight sense - how can one put
it delicately? - that the Führer was on to something. All governments,
be they elected or imposed, strive ceaselessly to maximise their power,
and never is this more easily done than during wartime. In Britain, as
A J P Taylor observed in English History 1914-1945, this process began
during the First World War, when "the state established a hold over
its citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed
and which the Second World War was again to increase".
- Terrorist wars are, if anything, even more insidious,
for there is never any definite victory after which pre-war conditions
can once again prevail. The conflict is endless: populations, in Hitler's
lip-smacking phrase, must always "remain in a state of perpetual alertness".
If the Government's proposed new powers of arrest and detention, interception
and suppression are pushed through, we may take it as absolutely certain
that the rights that are being taken away will never be restored. That
is the lesson not only of 1914 and 1939, but of 1911 (the Official Secrets
Act) and 1974 (the Prevention of Terrorism Act).
- All this comes at what may be a turning-point in human
history. One of the most successful weapons of the Afghan war is something
called a Predator UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), operated not by the American
military but by the CIA. This missile-armed, pilotless spy plane flies
quietly and slowly through enemy airspace and transmits pictures back to
US Central Command in Florida and to the CIA headquarters in Virginia.
- It was a Predator that, on the first night of the war,
took a photograph of Mullah Omar's car fleeing Kabul (a photograph of the
numberplate was later dropped over Taliban positions as part of America's
psychological warfare operations). It was also a Predator, we are told,
that last week followed Osama bin Laden's deputy, Muhammed Atef, to a hotel
where he met the senior leadership of al-Qa'eda. CIA officials watched
the pictures, waited until everyone was inside, and then called up three
F-15s to destroy the hotel.
- The point here is not the destruction of Mr Atef and
his chums, for whom few need shed a tear, but the sophistication of American
technology, of which the Predator is but one example. Total surveillance
cover, the ability to intercept every satellite phone call (and, in the
West, every cell phone conversation, too), infra-red imaging, computerised
voice- and image-recognition, near-instantaneous data retrieval - whatever
is going on in Afghanistan, it is certainly not the sort of war we are
used to. Every commentator on this conflict - and I write as one who supports
it - seems to have got it wrong. What's frightening isn't the prospect
of the Americans becoming bogged down, as in Vietnam; what's frightening
is the almost contemptuous ease with which they are winning it.
- And what can be done on the battlefield can be done with
equal efficiency on the home front. I do not mean that David Blunkett intends
to have Predators cruising up and down above British motorways (although
I wouldn't put it past him), but rather that the new technologies have
the potential to destroy human privacy, and the Government now means to
exploit the situation under cover of fighting terrorism.
- For example, the proposed emergency regulations will
oblige Internet service providers to keep details of all their customers'
Internet traffic and email messages and pass them to the police, for criminal
as well as terrorist investigations. At the same time, confidential records
collected by one branch of government will now be made available to other
- Minor matters, you might think. But add this to all the
other Orwellian manifestations of modern life (DNA testing, surveillance
cameras, computerised credit card transactions: the list is at once trivial
and overwhelming), add it to the erosion of individual liberty that has
been the pattern of the past 87 years, and add it, finally, to the prevailing
atmosphere of war hysteria, and one has a recipe for a kind of technological
- It would be a peculiar paradox if, supposedly in defence
of the supreme Western ideal of personal freedom, we allowed the creation
of a society in which personal freedom was permitted only under Home Office
licence. Yet such may be the price of our "state of perpetual alertness".