‘War on Terror’ memorialising

It is Belhadj’s voice more than that of the others that has the greatest potential to disrupt the official 9/11 memorialisation. It threatened to make a mockery of their declared humanitarian intentions, as it exposed these governments’ past complicity in the crimes of the region’s dictators, including Gadaffi.

Though the significance of the dramatic transformations that have occurred since the attacks have been lost on some of the official memorialisers of 9/11, still desperately clinging to the status quo ante, others have eagerly added their voices to the ruptures, embracing the promise of change embodied within them.

In the media, the diverse perspectives on the impact of 9/11 have run the gamut, from those that have examined the deleterious impact of post-9/11 domestic legislation on civil liberties and particularly on the rights of European and US Muslims, who came to be viewed ‘through the prism of counter-terrorism,’ to those who considered the economic impact, focusing on the winners and losers of the ‘war’ economy and ‘climate of fear’ it produced.  In the international realm, many considered whether the ‘war on terror’ policies have been effective in ensuring western security. There were those who argued that the 9/11 attacks on such a powerful state by non-state and transnational actors ‘changed the world’ as we know it, and those who wondered whether the securitisation of terrorism created more problems than it solved, or whether the US would have been better off had the issue been resolved through ‘politics and economics’ rather than ‘arms and intelligence’. Others, such as Francis Fukuyama, whose post-Cold War triumphalist ‘end of history’ thesis was embraced by the neocon architects of the ‘war on terror’ agenda, insisted that in 50 years time people would not remember this period for the seemingly existential battle embarked upon by the US against radical Islamism, but rather as the period marking China’s rise and the US’ relative decline in the international system.

Then there were the reflections by politicians, which dealt in much loftier terms with similar issues. US President Barack Obama, continued his attempts to distance himself from the ‘war’ discourse for which his predecessor had been much maligned, when he spoke of the need to focus on a ‘future of peace’ rather than ‘decade of war’, in which the ‘free people and sovereign’ states of the Middle East would figure more prominently. This was certainly meant to be a nod in the direction of the ‘Arab spring’, whose participants have expressed a desire to overhaul relations with the west based on equality and respect for sovereignty, as well as confirmation of former promises to draw down US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. But one can also view it, coming only three days after Obama’s ‘big jobs speech’, as an acknowledgement of the growing crisis plaguing the US economy and the fact that the trillions spent on war over the past decade have negatively impacted the US’ ability to weather the economic storm, therefore requiring a less hubristic role for American foreign policy in the future.

As Yale Professor David Blight explains, the memory of an event is shaped by the contingencies of subsequent history and in that sense ‘memorials’ are always ‘about the present in which they are erected.’ The present, according to Fareed Zakaria, one of the ‘liberal hawks’ who provided intellectual legitimacy for the early stages of the ‘war on terror’, has little in common with US reality at the time of the 9/11 attacks: ‘On the day before 9/11 the US was at peace, had a large budget surplus, and oil was $28 a barrel. Today the US is engaged in military operations across the globe, has a deficit of 1.5 trillion dollars and oil is $115 a barrel.’

Yet in a sign that despite the detrimental impact of 10 years of war on US power, the Obama administration would continue to indulge in some of the patriotic hubris that characterized former President Bush’s ‘war on terror,’ Vice President Joe Biden said that though the acts constituted ‘a declaration of war by stateless actors bent on changing our way of life,’ they could not undermine the nation’s ‘resolve’ and instead created a ‘9/11 generation of warriors’.

And there were reminders of the binary world view that had come to define the ‘war on terror’ era, in which a US, presented as a beacon of democracy, human rights and liberty, was distinguished from the dark and retrograde forces of Islamist extremism that sought its destruction. If it did not seem completely out of place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when much of the world was prepared to give Americans the benefit of the doubt and allow for cathartic jingoism, that proud American exceptionalism seemed completely misplaced ten years later, considering the millions of post-9/11 victims of the US ‘global war on terror.’ They include the victims of the two destructive wars and occupations of western Asian states, Iraq and Afghanistan, in which hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, millions of refugees created, as well as the thousands of victims of the policies associated with the attempts to locate, detain, interrogate, eliminate and/or ‘bring to justice’ those terrorists with whom the US has been at ‘war’, many of which violated both domestic and international law.  These policies included torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention without due process, and, a recent Obama addition that, in light of Congressional discussion on the latest defence bill seems unlikely to be removed from the ‘war on terror’ arsenal: targeted assassinations. Without a hint of irony, Bush proclaimed in his memorial speech that ‘A world of dignity and liberty and hope’ is waiting just around the corner, and ‘the surest way to move toward that vision is for the United States of America to lead the cause of freedom.’

As important as the memories evoked on this 9/11 anniversary, were the experiences and voices of those who have deliberately been left out. Yet, despite their absence from official narratives, these forgotten 9/11 victims have managed to infiltrate the public discourse. We could hear them calling for justice and dignity in the streets of Tunis during the uprisings against the brutal dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose intelligence and security collaboration with the US in the ‘war on terror’ garnered him much praise from western capitals, as well as the access to military hardware that enabled him to bolster his repressive security apparatuses and suppress the same ‘people power’ that Obama came to reluctantly praise.

They can also be heard in the streets of Cairo and Jordan, where recent protests have demanded real autonomy and self-determination in order to devise a foreign policy that more accurately reflects the will of the Egyptian people, rather than entrenched interests in Tel Aviv or Washington. They can be heard in the desperate pleas of the hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay, protesting against their inhumane treatment over the years and demanding that they, along with the rest of 171 remaining untried prisoners, 89 of whom have been cleared for release, be given a ‘just and public trial’ or ‘set free without conditions.’ Included amongst these voices is Shaker Aamer, a 44-year old Saudi born, British resident, held in Guantánamo since 2002 and cleared for release in 2007. According to his former lawyer, Mr. Aamer had been subjected to and witnessed such an ‘unprecedented’ level of torture that he would most likely never be released.

Finally, the voices of the forgotten 9/11 victims can be heard in the demands of Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the rebel military commander of Tripoli, for an apology and compensation from those responsible in the US and the UK, its partner in ‘war on terror’ crimes, for facilitating his ‘rendition’ to torture and ill-treatment at the hands of the CIA and the Gaddafi regime. Though British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to include this case in the upcoming Gibson inquiry into the involvement of British intelligence services in the torture and abuse of British and foreign nationals abroad since 2001, there is little hope this will provide the redress Mr. Belhadj is seeking. The inquiry has been criticized by human rights NGOs and lawyers representing victims whose cases it will consider, due to its lack of transparency and integrity. The Obama administration has yet to initiate any process to investigate or hold to account those responsible for devising and/or implementing the illegal policies associated with the ‘war on terror’, or to provide justice for the victims of those policies.

It is Belhadj’s voice, after the discovery of the compromising cache of secret documents in one of the security offices sacked by the rebel forces as they advanced on Tripoli, more than the others that has the greatest potential to disrupt the official 9/11 memorialisation. Not only did this revelation challenge western leaders’ attempted use of NATO’s relatively successful intervention in Libya to paper over the past ten years of disastrous western interventions in the region, as well as the generally obstructionist position they took to the original ‘Arab spring’ uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. But it also threatened to make a mockery of their declared humanitarian intentions, as it exposed these governments’ past complicity in the crimes of the region’s dictators, including Gadaffi.

It may well be that a devastating economic crisis, in conjunction with the pluralisation of centres of power in the international system, will lead to a different ‘present’ in which it is no longer in the US interest to construct an enemy image so evil that it requires the expenditure of trillions of dollars to fight it abroad and keep the ‘homeland’ safe.  In that case, we may hear less about the savage Islamist enemy ‘other’ committed to threatening ‘our freedom’ and ‘changing our way of life’.

In the last chapter of his renowned work, Orientalism, Edward Said turned his attention to the United States. In the post-World War II period, as this professor of comparative literature and lifelong activist argued, the ‘Arab Muslim’ other came to occupy a prominent position in the American political and cultural imagination as a result of the US’s increasing hegemony in the region. Bearing in mind the power-knowledge nexus at the core of his work, Said argued that as the ‘American imperium displaced’ France and Britain from occupying ‘centre stage in world politics’, US academe claimed the mantle of Orientalist discourse. It is in this light that we must view the ‘war on terror’ discourse, complete with its descriptions of the backwards and violent Islamist (rather than the Muslim/Arab of its colonial predecessor) in need of taming via ‘democratization’ (the US’ version of the ‘civilising mission’), as the latest manifestation of that imperial project. Just as the fantasies of the nineteenth century Orientalist discourse were dispelled by the reality of the anti-colonial struggles fought in the name of the same freedoms and rights that the great powers claimed they desired to spread, the delusions of the ‘war on terror’ discourse have been demolished by the reality of the region’s renewed struggle for sovereignty, equality and self-determination.

It is unfortunate that realization that the US like Europe before it, cannot define, speak on behalf of, or control western Asia and North Africa for its own benefit has been driven by instrumentalist rather than ethical and humanist concerns. It is nonetheless important that this realization occurs. However, it may not be enough for the forgotten victims of 9/11, many of whom are now, or may soon be, in positions of power in their respective countries, to merely end western intervention in the region and forget that it ever happened. The grievances of these victims are serious and pressing and may not be assuaged by lofty declarations of solidarity, spurious inquiries, or pledges of aid. These victims may need more - they may need official recognition, apology and redress. Whether for reasons of realpolitik or a true reckoning with its past - of the kind the former colonial European powers were never able to achieve - the US and its allies in the ‘war on terror’ may have no choice but eventually to oblige.

About the author

Corinna Mullin is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Tunis as well as a Research Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her current research focuses on the dynamic relationship between the Arab revolutions and international relations, focusing in particular on: legacies of western intervention in the region, the role of international actors in transitional justice, as well as the impact of the revolutions on Tunisian and Egyptian foreign policies.