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Bryan Greetham


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Writing in 1936 Leonard Woolf lamented the ease with which his generation had come to use the word ‘liquidated’, which, he argued, indicated the extent to which they had accepted violence as a normal method of settling political and economic problems. Today, the same could be said of terrorism. Despite the public’s deep revulsion for acts of terror, the second half of the twentieth century has seen more than just the armalite-toting terrorist routinely resort to terror as the most effective, if not the most legitimate, means of influencing events.

The threat of the anonymous bomber fills most people with a sense of moral outrage unmatched by almost any other offence. The random nature of such killing strikes at the heart of one of our most deeply held moral commitments, that we are never justified in attacking the innocent and defenceless, whether they are the elderly war veteran mugged for his pension, the young child brutalised by uncaring parents, the trusting animal confined and tormented within its small prison, or unsuspecting shoppers maimed and killed on the streets of Belfast, Beirut or Tel Aviv. The depth of the public’s moral revulsion can be seen in the reaction of the crowd that witnessed Timothy McVeigh’s first public appearance after his arrest, and in the applause and cheering that greeted the sentencing of a man found guilty of randomly killing six rail commuters and wounding nineteen others aboard a packed New York train in December 1993.

Not surprisingly, the same moral outrage surfaces when governments consider the early release of terrorists, even when it’s for the best of motives. Over recent years the British, Irish and American governments have struggled, in the face of public opinion, to find the right formula that will allow the early release of terrorists to maintain the momentum of the peace process in Northern Ireland. To this end political leaders are encouraged to view these offences as merely political, rather than criminal, committed for the noblest of motives under the extraordinary conditions of war.

The problem is that consequentialist justifications of this type are corrosive of many of our most important moral beliefs and expectations, while they allow politicians to remain silent on the unique, moral implications of these offences. For example, when a Sinn Fein spokesman was asked to comment on the Shankill Road bombing in 1993, which killed nine people, including a child in a wheelchair, and injured fifty others, including a number of children, he said that his party would not get involved in what they like to describe as ‘the politics of condemnation.’

This is the familiar argument that there is always collateral damage in a

war; both sides accept this, so to condemn the killers is just to take sides. But this misses the point. The terrorist is unique amongst killers. These are not accidental killings, the unfortunate costs of war. He routinely sets out to kill ordinary people selected randomly in order to deliver a message of fear and to destroy civilian morale, both of which he expects will bring pressure upon governments. Unlike the political assassin or the gangland hit-man, the terrorist makes no distinction between those who are morally and politically responsible for oppression and those who are not.

He is insulated from the horror of his actions, because he never allows himself to acknowledge the personality and value of those he kills. He deliberately sets out to destroy the lives of indeterminate numbers of innocent people, who have done him no harm, whom he does not know and, in most cases, never sees. In this he suffers from the most disturbing moral and psychological flaw with which, mercifully, only a few of us are cursed. While we might not agree with their moral judgements, the political assassin and the hit-man are entitled to the sort of moral respect not due to the terrorist, because they do at least set limits to their actions.

Given this and the international concern to find a common approach to the problem, it is surprising that we show only a limited understanding of the nature of these offences. So loosely do we now apply the term, that even the passive civil disobedience of road protesters and environmental activists has been described as terrorism. In what almost appears to be a deliberate attempt to obscure the issues we are told, misleadingly, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, allowing some to argue that even George Washington and Nelson Mandela were terrorists.

There are those, of course, who have good reason for wanting to leave the issues obscured and confused in this way. The evidence suggests too close an examination of the issues is likely to implicate many in unexpected places. This is not saying simply that many former terrorists are now respectable politicians or retired politicians, but, more importantly, that since the Second World War many more governments have been prepared to use terror themselves routinely for political purposes.

A case of historical necessity?             

On the face of it most western governments seem to share the same deep revulsion felt by their citizens for the deliberate, random targeting of civilians. After all they are signatories to the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949, both of which enshrine the principle of non-combatant  immunity. In the Gulf War the West was so anxious to display its concern for non-combatant safety that it added to the risks of missions to ensure that targets were hit without civilian casualties. British Tornadoes flew dangerously low missions to identify targets more accurately for the bombers, even though this resulted in much higher losses among Tornado crews. Then, while allied commanders spent every evening displaying the care taken to attack only military targets, Sadam Hussein, equally aware of the moral sensitivity of western electorates to the issue, took full advantage of every stray bomb to convince us we were being deceived.

Nevertheless, despite this care taken to display acute sensitivity to their electorates’ moral feelings, western governments still argue that theirs is the art of the possible: that they can only work within the context of the prevailing moral and political wisdom. It is not surprising therefore that without much apparent moral hesitation they have routinely resorted to terror, while justifying their policies with familiar, although far from convincing, arguments designed to persuade their voters that, either they had no choice, or those who were targeted deserved what was coming to them. These arguments normally take one of three standard forms: the responsibility argument, self-defence, and the utility argument.

The responsibility argument

The first is the familiar belief that those who are responsible for the deaths of others are legitimate targets. This, of course, is easy to apply in the case of a serial killer or a dictator responsible for the deaths of thousands of his people. But how responsible are civilians who are thought to have given the dictator tacit support through their unwillingness to rise up against him? If their reluctance to sacrifice their lives in an heroic struggle against oppression is an allowable reason for killing them, the line between the vulnerable and the immune disappears almost entirely. This is the ‘total identity argument’ of the terrorist, which leaves no room for carefully identifying, say, those responsible for the political and military decisions. According to this argument everyone is fair game.

But, in fact, beyond this weak, tacit sense of responsibility the reality is that the responsibility argument has no relevance at all for those who employ terror. Governments and terrorists alike use it as just a smoke-screen. They are not concerned with what people have done, what they are responsible for, but who they are. Their aim is not justice, to right a wrong, but to damage civilian morale and send a message of fear to a government by targeting ordinary people. Most western governments believe the way to bring down Sadam Hussein, or any dictator of whom they disapprove, is either to endanger the lives of his citizens directly, or to deprive them of vital supplies of food and medicine.

The self-defence argument

A more effective justification for terror lies in the argument from self-defence, which governments and terrorists alike have repeatedly used since the Second World War. We are all familiar with the argument that all is fair in love and war, that war is hell, and when it is a question of killing or being killed anything goes. In this situation the only relevant issue is whether an action is likely to be effective or not. Questions of fair play and morality simply have no place.

Of course it is not impossible to envisage situations in which armed struggle by any means would be necessary to preserve your freedom. But these conditions are much rarer in history than those who use terror would like us to believe. And we ought to be clear about just what these conditions would amount to, otherwise we are likely to pay a significant price in terms of the very freedom for which we claim to be fighting.

Freedom consists not in the absence of rules, a situation in which anything goes, but, as T.H.Green argued, in the recognition of self-imposed duties. States and revolutionary groups reveal the nature of the freedom they fight for in the means they employ to earn it. When they deliberately target non-combatants, who bear no responsibility for military and political decisions, they assume the same totalitarian values they generally claim to be fighting, in that they recognise no difference between the state and the individual, the public and the private. Both, they assume, are equally legitimate targets.

In his book Just and Unjust Wars Michael Waltzer argues that two conditions must prevail to justify resorting to terror on these grounds: first, a government must be faced with an ultimate threat, what Waltzer describes, using Churchill’s description of the situation in 1939, as a ‘supreme emergency’,1 which, second, must be imminent. Both conditions must be met together. If a threat is serious but not imminent, there are likely to be opportunities to find alternative solutions to the crisis. Equally, if a threat is imminent but not serious, even if alternatives cannot be found, to kill non-combatants would be worse than the danger itself.

Take, for example, the case of an innocent man sentenced to death by a cruel dictator. Despite all appeals from governments and civil rights organisations, the dictator is unwilling to listen. Then, at the last moment, the prisoner’s friends present him with a plan to blow up the visitors’ centre full of parents, wives and children, so that he can make his escape in the resulting confusion. In such circumstances, while we could understand the unfairness of the condemned man’s plight and the desperation he would be feeling, it would be impossible to lend any moral endorsement to such a plan.

So, simple straightforward self-defence will not do. We cannot argue that we have our backs to the wall, so we are justified in resorting to any means. As we have already seen, our moral concerns about this strategy have left us willing to add risks to military missions in order to avoid killing non-combatants, even though this might result in more deaths for those involved. But, although there must be more than just defeat involved, it is easier to identify what would not be sufficient than to say what would. It would not be sufficient, for example, if, in addition to defeat, it were necessary to kill innocent people in order to save the face of the leader, or even to avoid minor territorial adjustments, constitutional reforms, or the payment of indemnities to the victors. More serious contenders might be the loss of national independence, crimes against humanity involving the ethnic cleansing of racial minorities, the forced mass migration of people from their homes, or even the suppression of religion or traditional culture and customs. The point is the dangers must be of an unusual and horrifying kind. 

Of course, the problem is that we are almost always told that the war we are about to fight does involve such threats. We are told that it is better to be dead than red and, in the First World War, that the Germans were performing the most unimaginable atrocities. In Nazi Germany the vicious propaganda of Nazi publications, like Julius Streicher’s Der Stuermer, presented the Jews as the ultimate threat to the ‘ancient decency of the Volk.’ Lurid tales were retold of supposed Jewish sexual crimes and ‘ritual murders.’ The notorious forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was used by the most fanatical followers of Hitler to whip up fears of an international Jewish conspiracy that would sweep like a rapacious pestilence not just across Germany and Europe, but across all civilisation.

Echoing the same fears, Hitler says in Mein Kampf, ‘If the Jew, with the help of his Marxist catechism, triumphs over the peoples of this world, his crown will be the dance of death for mankind, and as once before, millions of years ago, this planet will again sail empty of all human life through the ether...’2  Such ideology, designed to convince us that the enemy really does represent the ultimate threat to our freedom and way of life, is necessary to anaesthetise our moral sensitivity to the use of terror.

But, in fact, war is very rarely fought over ultimate threats to the values and cultural survival of independent nations. One of the few examples to fit the criteria was the threat posed to Britain by Nazi Germany after the fall of France in the summer of 1940 and before Hitler shifted his attention to Russia in June 1941. Poised for invasion, Germany threatened not only occupation and annexation, but the nazification of traditional British culture, institutions and way of life, as well as a system of totalitarian rule based upon the personality cult of the leader, the subjugation of the legal order and the control over private morality.

Given this it would seem the British were more than justified in targeting the German civilian population by bombing German cities. But at this point the strategy must meet the second criterion: the threat must be imminent. The more certain a German victory appeared in the absence of terrorist bombing of civilian populations, the more justified terror appeared. It is not just that German victory would have been such a terrifying possibility, and that this assessment was accurate and not driven by panic or self-interest, but that it was also expected in the immediate days and weeks ahead.

This situation did indeed exist, but only for at most a few weeks, and certainly not up until 1945, when the Allies were still bombing cities, like Dresden where 100,000 were lost. Throughout July and August 1940 the Luftwaffe fought to gain air superiority over the skies of southern England. However, it soon became clear that they could have no easy victory. Then, in early September, Germany turned aside to bomb London. At this point it was clear to the British that invasion had to come in the next few days or not at all, but nothing came. On 15th. September the Luftwaffe unsuccessfully made its last great effort; a day that is traditionally associated with British victory in the Battle of Britain

After that date it was clear to all that Britain would not be brought down

by military conquest. Indeed the fighter pilots had already been rewarded with a tribute to their success in one of Churchill’s most well-known wartime speeches, which included the lines, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’3  The Luftwaffe had failed to win air superiority and, as if to rub salt into the wounds, on the same night the RAF raided the tightly packed barges and small ships in harbours from Boulogne to Antwerp, the very craft that were to have launched Hitler’s invasion of Britain. On 17th. September Hitler postponed the invasion ‘until further notice’,4 and on 12th. October he cancelled it for the winter, although effectively it was for good.

The immediacy of the ultimate threat was gone by the end of 1940 and the war took on a new shape. Neither Germany nor Britain could strike the final blow: Germany could not invade Britain without air superiority and Britain had no forces with which to invade the continent. Both sides were driven back to attrition. The German bombing offensive continued until 16th. May, which saw the last heavy attack on Birmingham. After that the Luftwaffe was busy preparing to co-operate with the army against Soviet Russia. In June 1941 150 divisions, including three million German soldiers and nearly 3000 aircraft, were relocated to the Russian front. The ultimate threat of invasion was clearly no longer imminent and precautions against air-raids became more of a burden than the air-raids themselves.

This should have signalled a change in strategy and the abandonment of indiscriminate bombing of civilians, but in fact quite the reverse occurred. At the beginning of the Battle of Britain in June 1940 Bomber Command was told that indiscriminate bombing was prohibited. Targets had to be identified and aimed at. However, on 30th. October 1940, when the imminent threat of an invasion had gone, the War Cabinet agreed, ‘...the civilian population around the target areas must be made to feel the weight of the war.’5 Bomber Command was instructed just to aim at the centre of cities with a ‘crash concentration’ against a single city. Indiscriminate bombing was now required.

By early 1942 this had gone one stage further: aiming at military or industrial targets was now forbidden. Bomber Command was required to  attack built up areas, not docks or aircraft factories. The Air Ministry insisted that bombing ‘...should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and, in particular, of the industrial workers.’6 In his infamous minute, Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s confidential scientific adviser, argued, in fact on the basis of fallacious statistics, that area bombing could destroy a third of German dwellings by the summer of 1943.

Targets were chosen, according to A.J.P.Taylor, mainly for their publicity value to impress the public, the government and the Americans. Towns like Lubeck and Rostock, Taylor argues, were not important in the German economy, ‘But they were medieval towns, full of wooden houses, and burnt well.’7 A British post-war survey calculated that the German economy suffered a loss of production in 1942 as low as 0.7 per cent of total production and 0.5 per cent of war production. Yet the public were consistently told, and still are today in television documentaries, that each night’s bombing raid was striking a blow at, as one of the latest documentaries describes it, ‘the industrial might of the Third Reich.’

Without the imminence of the ultimate threat, that leaders claimed had forced their hands, it was as difficult to find moral justification for terrorist bombing as it is today for the Oklahoma or Shankill Road bombings. The ultimate threat posed by German victory had long passed when allied bombing reached its climax in raids on German cities in 1945. Indeed, by July 1944 most English people had decided, whether right or wrong, that the war was as good as won. Holidaymakers again enjoyed the beaches from which they had been excluded for five years, which was, as Taylor argues, ‘...a most practical symbol of victory.’8              

Nevertheless, in spite of this moral vacuum, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians not only continued, but increased in its scope and effectiveness. The arguments of Cherwell and others had provided the important precedent for the fire-bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities and, of course, for the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here the situation was quite different from the brief period of a few weeks in the summer of 1940. Not only was the threat of invasion from Germany and Japan no longer imminent, it simply did not exist.

The scientists and technologists at Los Alamos, including the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Joseph Rotblat, realised this all too well. Many of them were refugees with a clear sense of what the consequences would be if the Nazis were to develop the atomic bomb first. The ultimate threat this posed drove their efforts to match the Nazis’ progress and get there first. But when they discovered in November 1944 that German scientists had in fact made little progress, they realised the imminence of this ultimate threat no longer existed. Yet, unfortunately, it was now out of their hands; they had no political power to prevent its use. In the event it was never used against Germany, but against a nation that had never posed the same threat to US citizens of defeat and total destruction of their civilisation and way of life, as Nazism had to Europeans.

But, sadly, the moral cost of legitimising such strategies of indiscriminate killing didn’t end there: this was only the beginning. It was a portent for all civilians living in the post-war world. The veil had now been torn: terror bombing, a strategy that was unthinkable before the war, had been legitimised. As Taylor points out, at the beginning of the war the British Chiefs of Staff had insisted that Britain would always observe the principle of ‘...refraining from attack on civil population as such for the purpose of demoralisation.’9 In the House of Commons Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, declared, ‘Whatever be the lengths to which others may go, His Majesty’s Government will never resort to the deliberate attack on women and children, and other civilians for purposes of mere terrorism.’10

Yet, by the end of the war Britain and the Allies had retreated from this high moral position, claiming that Germany had set the example, even though, irrespective of the balance of immoral acts, the war had been fought to defeat the values of Nazi Germany, not imitate them. In the long term, of course, the real significance of the Allies’ use of terror lies in the fact that it legitimised what has now become a standard strategy in post-war diplomacy for terrorists and governments alike. In the nuclear age exploiting the insecurity of ordinary people through terror has become an indispensable part of defence policies.

The Utility argument

Given this, governments have sought other justifications to bolster their moral authority. As the conditions justifying terrorism on the grounds of self-defence exist only rarely, and even then only for short periods, governments have more often turned to the utility argument to legitimise the indiscriminate killings they plan to carry out. ‘We are justified in targeting innocent civilians’, they argue, ‘in order to reduce the total number of lives lost.’ An indispensable component of military planning throughout the Second World War, this has become the underlying rationale of military and political projections in the post-war period too.

Bomber Harris, who led Bomber Command in the Second World War, was convinced that raids on German cities would end the war sooner and at lower cost in human life, although quite the opposite was the case. As we have seen, the bombing of oilfields, docks and aircraft factories would have been more effective than terror bombing, which dented German war production by as little as 0.5 per cent in 1942. Despite this, the utilitarian justification for terror prepared the ground for the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with all its implications for the future safety and freedom of ordinary people everywhere.

There are few examples in history that endorse quite so well the belief that means do affect ends: that the quality of the freedom we fight for is determined by the means we employ to gain it. The war fought to defeat totalitarianism ended with the victors embracing its methods. Like totalitarian regimes, the Allies acknowledged no difference between the Japanese state and the Japanese people, between the public and the private, arguing instead that the state is nothing less than all those living within its borders, all of whom are legitimate targets.

By the same standard, in the post-war nuclear world citizens in western democracies have been forced to accept that they will be dealt with in much the same impersonal manner, not only by those countries that threaten them, but by terrorist groups within their own society and, indeed, by their own government, when it calculates what they should know and how many of them represent an acceptable loss in a nuclear conflict.

Obviously, in utilitarian terms a policy of nuclear terror is preferable to all out war, that is if you rule out in the first place negotiations to remove the threat of nuclear weapons altogether. So the threat of random killing on a massive scale became a vital component in post-war politics. The ‘demographic targeting’ of large cities, threatening destruction on an incomprehensible scale, forced governments to spend more on their own weapons, which they could only justify to their electorates by increasing their own fears of attack and annihilation. A balance of fear was thereby created, based upon each side’s professed willingness to do more evil than the other.

So, ironically, the same electorates that deplore the terrorists’ random

killings have consistently elected governments that declare themselves willing to act in exactly the same manner. We accept that governments are morally right to act in accordance with the belief that the more people they threaten or actually kill, the more likely it will be that the other side will be pressurised into negotiating.

In July 1950, with North Korean forces racing southward towards Pusan, the House of Representatives applauded a Congressman, who urged that the cities of North Korea be atom-bombed unless they withdrew in a week’s time. By the 80s the same strategy was still being proffered in the form of a ‘demonstrative’ use of nuclear weapons, just to show the other side how many we can kill. It is not surprising, then, that we find the same belief, that terror can force people to negotiate with you, in the reasoning of terrorists, like the IRA, who bombed the London Docklands in February 1996, when the British Government insisted that they would only talk to the IRA after Sinn Fein had taken part in elections.

Of course, governments justify this strategy on the grounds that it is for the greater good, but this too is a two-way street. The Oklahoma, the Shankill Road and the Tel Aviv bombers no doubt say much the same: ‘it’s the only thing we can do’; ‘our hands are tied’; ‘no one in government will listen to us unless we threaten, blackmail and take the lives of ordinary people’; ‘we’re fighting for the people, for the greater good of all.’ And, as governments of both sides hold each other’s cities hostages to the threat of nuclear annihilation, they no longer possess the moral authority to condemn terrorists for adopting the same strategy.

Moral anaesthesia: a modern necessity

Obviously, given our revulsion for the random targeting of ordinary people, we should find it difficult, if not impossible, to stretch our moral convictions to justify these strategies, but that is exactly what we have done over the last fifty years as our moral sensitivity has been numbed by the purveyors of conventional moral wisdom. The collective abhorrence of murder on any scale, let alone mass murder as nuclear war would be, is an important moral interdict within all societies. But the mass murder within the Nazi extermination camps was undertaken by surprisingly ordinary individuals, whose moral interdicts had been eroded unnoticed in much the same way. They were inured to the daily killing they saw. For their own stability they had created a normality that anaesthetised their moral sensitivity.

We are no different in accepting as normal the daily work of military and political leaders, whose plans envisage mass killing in such numbers as to make the work of Hitler seem like the fumbling attempts of a mere amateur. As Robert Scheer said, ‘Our problem has been that we expect the voice of terror to be frenzied, and that of madness irrational. It is quite the contrary in a world where genial, middle-aged Generals consult with precise social scientists about the parameters of the death equation, and the problem of its maximisation. The most rational, orderly, disciplined minds of our time are working long hours in our most efficient laboratories, at the task of eliminating us.’11

To habituate someone to killing on any scale, let alone mass slaughter, it is necessary to switch off their empathetic reactions: that capacity to experience vicariously what your victim feels. It should surprise no one that to get servicemen to do something they would never have done otherwise (to kill those they do not know and who have never done them any harm), it is necessary to search for moral safety in distinctions that depersonalise and

demonise the enemy. Surgeon Commander Morgan O’Connell, a naval psychiatrist with the British task force in the Falklands War, admitted bluntly that his was less a medical, than an ideological, responsibility to fill the minds of servicemen with ideological fictions:  ‘...we indoctrinate them in the forces,’ he admitted, ‘Otherwise they wouldn’t fight.’12

However, to shape the thinking of ordinary citizens in the same way, as an accepted function of modern government, is not only totalitarian, but ultimately permissive of all sorts of moral outrages against innocent individuals. We only recognise the horror of our actions when we acknowledge the personality and value of those we kill. In so doing we acknowledge they have rights, which cannot be discarded in preference for utilitarian calculations that treat them as mere numbers.

It is not surprising, therefore, that during the Cold War most governments looked with deep suspicion on any influence that might lead to a fuller understanding of those we were led to regard as the enemy. Glimpses of real Soviet people expressing their hopes, values and anxieties might lead us to discard ideological simplifications. To assuage any moral qualms those in the West might have for plans to annihilate tens of millions of Russian men, women and children, P.M.S. Blackett argued, ‘ was necessary to believe the USSR to be innately aggressive and wicked. Once a nation pledged its safety to an absolute weapon, it becomes emotionally essential to believe in an absolute enemy.’13 Most political, military, moral and religious leaders in the West came to accept this as convincing justification for a military doctrine which, in earlier times, they would have denounced as wicked, immoral and inconceivable. 

Not surprisingly terrorists, too, have learnt the same lesson. One loyalist gunman in Northern Ireland admitted, ‘Any doubts were drowned by hatred. We dehumanised the other side and branded them as animals. We didn’t think in terms of them being people.’14 This sounds crude from the mouths of terrorists, but no more so than those crude simplifications entertained about ordinary Russian people during the Cold War. They are the moral necessity of our time. Without them it is difficult to preserve the electorate’s faith in the respectable Amani-suited, post-war Western politician and the ‘genial, middle-aged Generals’ from the charge that they too share the same moral and psychological flaw as the Oklahoma and Shankill Road bombers. Without the moral authority to condemn terrorism, the post-war politician is left fulminating without conviction and negotiating without resolve.


1  Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1984. p. 251.

2  Cohn, Norman. Warrant for Genocide. London: Serif. 1996. p. 206.

3  A speech in the House of Commons, August 20, 1940.

4  Taylor, A.J.P. English History 1914-1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1970. p. 608.

5  Ibid. p. 630.

6  Ibid. p. 669.

7  Ibid. p. 671.

8  Ibid. p. 707.

9  Ibid. p. 628.

10  Ibid.

11 Quoted in Horowitz, David. From Yalta to Vietnam. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1971. p. 349.

12  The Guardian, November 1, 1982.

13  Blackett, P.M.S. Studies of War. London: Oliver & Boyd. 1962. p. 94; quoted in Horowitz. ibid. p. 317.

14  The Independent. November 20, 1993.