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Friday, 9 September 2011

9/11 - Ten Years On


Like most of the world, I presume, I find myself this weekend remembering that Tuesday in September ten years ago when we watched with horror as the hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the world was changed. If nothing else, the media won’t let us forget it; for the last week or longer we’ve been bombarded with specials, pictures, analyses, talking heads, etc., a phenomenon which will reach its peak on Sunday.

This alone makes me reluctant to write this – there’s more than enough being published on the subject. Yet, despite this, I feel a need to not let the day go by without reflecting on it myself. The first thing that occurs to me is how successful Osama bin Laden was with the diabolical action he and his followers planned and followed through. Terrorism has as its primary aim the spread of terror – fear – and confusion, the provocation of reaction in response to the initial act of terror; a reaction which serves to bring the agenda of the terrorists to the fore, to win attention for their cause, to help them recruit followers so that their agenda can be followed through on, to force those they see as their foes to act on their terms. In all of these goals Al Qaida was successful.

More of the long term goals of the Islamicist terror organisation have also been advanced. Ten years after 9/11, after a decade of war which has caused the deaths of thousands of western troops, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis, and the spending/waste of hundreds of billions of dollars, Afghanistan is still not pacified and it looks like the Taliban (even if only as part of a very slightly more moderate coalition) are poised to return to some kind of power in a chaotic Afghanistan still dominated by warlords, corruption and fundamentalist Islam. Iraq has been wrecked; a brutal secularist-inclined dictator has been removed but fundamentalist Islam is several orders stronger in the country than it was ten years ago. And more hundreds of thousands have died. Fundamentalist Islam still rules in Iran. Nuclear-armed Pakistan – most frighteningly – is on the edge of falling under Islamicist control. Only Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s primary goal, still remains fragilely under the control of the House of Saud but even here rich fundamentalist Wahabists, who do not belong to the clique around the king, continue to finance Islamicist radicalism globally.

While Al Qaida seems to have lost some impetus in the past few years, it remains as dangerous as it was ten years ago – if not more so. The group has fissioned, spawning dozens of autonomous cells worldwide, many of them composed of second or third generation immigrants who are completely at home in the countries of the west in which they are located.

The other major question is the effect the 9/11 attacks (and those following them in Indonesia, London, Madrid, Mumbai, etc.) and the “War on Terror” instituted under the leadership of the USA have had on those societies which see themselves as based on ideals of freedom and democracy. Here too the balance after ten years is sombre. It is understandable that security became an aspect which increased in importance for those societies under attack after the fall of the Twin Towers. What is questionable is the extent to which other values have been subordinated to the perceived demands of security and how high the price of this subordination has been.

There are values which belong to the fundamental building blocks of open, free societies, values which have developed and been achieved over the course of hundreds of years, often as a result of long struggles and suffering on the part of many brave people. Values like habeas corpus, due process, the right to a free trial and legal representation, the inadmissibility of purported evidence obtained under duress or torture, the rights of innocent, uninvolved civilians to integrity of life, limb and property, the presumption of innocence until proof of guilt, rights of privacy.

An Afghan child injured in a US bombing raid
All of these rights and values have been seriously compromised in the past decade, both in those democratic societies considered under attack as well as in those countries where various military actions have been carried out, countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Homeland Security Act, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition of suspects and their torture in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Mubarrak’s Egypt and Ghadaffi’s Libya, the treatment of many of those who have attempted to make abuses of the law public (whistleblowers like Bradley Manning), lies told to the world (Saddam Hussein’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction), the bombing and killing of innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (“collateral damage”) all represent betrayals of the values which Al Qaida was attacking on 9/11 and which the western authorities in various governments, particularly in the USA and the UK, have ostensibly been defending.

Those who wish to justify such things will claim necessity as their reason; the ongoing situation demands them, they are the lesser evil and, in such a war context, the end justifies the means. Yet all these arguments are questionable. Ten years after its inception, the so-called War on Terror shows no sign of being brought to a successful conclusion, even if Osama bin Laden was finally run to ground this year (on the territory of a putative ally of the US). Many of the actions justified according to this rationale have been counter-productive; one need only look at the negative results the pictures of the abuse and humiliation of the suspects held in Abu Ghraib had on Muslim public opinion worldwide.

The War on Terror is a dangerous and misleading misnomer. You cannot fight a war against an idea or a concept – and the Islamicist terror which found its expression in 9/11 is the expression of a (ghastly and horrible) ideology – wars are fought against people. Ideas and concepts can only be combated by other ideas. And the ideas at the basis of the open and (generally) free societies of the west, the values which the USA understands as the foundation of its democracy, are worth defending and proclaiming. Moreover, if we are convinced of their worth, then we must surely be confident of their power to prevail over the half-baked idiocy of those ideologies which are presented by simplistic fundamentalists (of whatever persuasion). But this cannot take place as long as our leaders and decision makers betray these very values in their proclaimed measures to defend them. The cynical saying regarding the destroyed town of Bến Tre in Vietnam in 1968, attributed to an unnamed US major by Peter Arnett, comes to mind; “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

An open, free society will always be vulnerable, to an extent, to the attacks of those who reject its values. That is the price we pay for freedom. But we can only defend and spread that freedom by ourselves adhering to those values which are its foundation.

The victims of 9/11 deserve no less.



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