On my first visit to Lebanon since my release as a hostage in 1991 I visited a refugee camp. I met some young people who were on a computer-literacy course. They had made good progress. "What about your future?" I asked. "What future?" one replied. "To get a job in Lebanon is virtually impossible as jobs go first to Lebanese citizens. We have no right of return to the place our grandfathers came from, and how can we go abroad when we are refugees? We are trapped."
That young man uttered the sentiments of thousands of displaced people in the Middle East and beyond. As I left the classroom I thought it remarkable that more young people did not join "terrorist" groups. The point I want to make is this: war, as well as being a blunt instrument, fails totally to deal with the root issues underlying terrorism. In the political realm it requires statesmen and women; individuals who can think beyond the next election and who have the wisdom that comes from making an attempt to understand cultures other than those of the west.
Western democracy has many attractive features and has brought manifold benefits. It takes no intelligence to recognise that it also has its dark side and that it cannot, nor necessarily ought it to be, exported to all parts of the world. If the optimistic statements made by some British and US politicians before the Iraqi war - when it was stated that the conflict would be concluded in weeks - were truly believed then one can only despair at the level of understanding demonstrated.
The destructive eruption following 9/11 has struck at the roots of democratic freedom. The arguments will continue for a long time about which particular category terrorist suspects belong to. The fact is that on the basis of suspicion alone people have been detained, and in some cases subjected to processes that should not be part of a civilised nation.
Let me give a personal example. I was detained by a group of hostage takers in Beirut because they suspected me of engaging in dubious political activity. They blindfolded me and kept me in poor conditions without any contact with the outside world. They subjected me to physical and mental abuse during a lengthy period of interrogation. Had I not been able to convince them of my innocence I would not be walking free today. What is the essential difference between the methods deployed by my captors, who were labelled terrorists, and those of the authorities that detain suspects in Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere? They have been detained on suspicion and treated in a way that no civilised nation ought to condone.
One must make reference to the belief that sometimes evidence obtained under torture has been used against suspects. Such measures should have no place in a society that respects the rule of law. Such methods must be outlawed. One does not fight terrorism by adopting the methods of the terrorist. When one does, the terrorist has won a victory, for he has succeeded in undermining some of the fundamental values of society.
The process has seeped through to Britain, where men have been detained in Belmarsh by legislation rushed through by politicians seemingly anxious to maintain credibility. I don't doubt that some politicians have the public interest at heart; nor do I doubt that it is possible that some of those detained are dangerous. However, it must be stated that the avoidance of due process leads us into deeper difficulties. Our connivance with the war against Iraq is linked with the shallowness of thought that appears to be part of parliamentary decision-making. It seems decisions are taken without any concern for the long-term consequences.
The moral framework of the nation is shaky and it is little use political leaders lecturing the young on morality when their own conduct is so dubious. As a member of the church I am obliged to say that, although some have spoken out against the matters to which I have referred, the church as a body has hardly been vociferous about them. In case any critic accuses me of displaying an anti-western bias, let me say I believe that as a member of a free society one has the responsibility to look at the beam in one's own eye first. Having lived in most parts of the world I am not ignorant of the defects of others. I recognise that there are states that are corrupt. There are evil dictators and brutal regimes. I am aware of the economic imbalance in many Arab states and elsewhere.
But I do not believe the world's wrongs will be resolved by warfare or economic dominance by one nation over another. We must grow into a world community where difference can be celebrated rather than seen as divisive. To progress we need people of stature who will be able to demonstrate compassionate wisdom and political acumen that brings hope to those in despair.
It is likely that such people will have been forged in the crucible of suffering, and through that experience will have learned that suffering need not destroy. They are the ones who can bring hope to this world and enable us to regain the moral dignity that is an essential part of our heritage as human beings.
This is an extract from Terry Waite's essay on conflict and personal liberty, which appears in You're History!, published today by Continuum at £9.99 email@example.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005