9/11: a perfect pretext, a terrible legacy

The tragedy of 11 September 2001 was used by authoritarian forces in the United States as a political opportunity. The ensuing damage to liberty, legality and democracy has been deep, says Mariano Aguirre
Mariano Aguirre
10 September 2011

The spectacular terrorist attacks that the United States suffered a decade ago changed the world for the worse. They provided a perfect pretext for far-right political forces around the world to impose their agendas, in ways that weakened the political capital of their democratic opponents. The new hegemony established in the aftermath of the attacks imposed huge human, political and financial costs that are still being paid throughout the world.

Most immediately, the events of 11 September 2001 fueled the interests and ambitions of extremist and anti-liberal tendencies in the United States. They had been working since the 1960s to repel and turn the anti-authoritarian social wave that reached a peak in the anti-Vietnam war and feminist movements. These authoritarian tendencies found in the tragedy a political opportunity.

The orchestrated rallying behind the flag of a limitless “war on terror” became a dramatic turning-point in the field of civil liberties. Hitherto illicit activities turned licit and acceptable: censorship, surveillance, extra-judicial prisons, unfair trials and torture. These infringements or suppressions of freedom and democracy were, in an Orwellian narrative, justified as necessary to protect freedom and democracy.

When the masters of the world started to act - and to think - in this way (for example, by discussing whether torture could be useful, rather than reaffirming total opposition to it)  they found they couldn’t stop. The panoply of measures included the unlawful “extraordinary rendition” (transfer) of non-combatants (to avoid the Geneva convention) around a world-circuit of subterranean prisons. The survival of the offshore extra-judicial prison at Guantánamo in eastern Cuba, alongside other secret-state structures - a decade on, and under a new US administration - reflects the power and ambition of the legal and democratic reshaping of the post-11 September years.

But the rise of the anti-liberal right was not confined to the US. George W Bush and his team (and cheerleaders) benefited from a diverse global coalition whose largely secret collaboration committed itself to the new security order. Many states and leaders supported the wars in Afghanistan and/or the later one in Iraq, cooperated in the transnational transfer of prisoners, and acted as freelance torturers for American and British intelligence. They included most European governments, the Australian prime minister, the Colombia’s president, successive Israeli governments, and many dictators in the Arab world (including Muammar Gaddafi). The “war on terror” made room for any politician with authoritarian tendencies.         

11 September was the catalyst of the radicalisation of some political ideologues, demagogues and groups in the Islamic world. This was met by reinforced repression from conservative pro-western Arab regimes (such as Hosni Mubarak’s). In the west, the fall of the twin towers threw a shadow of fear, rejection and racism over immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. In both the US and Europe, far-right sentiments and narratives (such as “Eurabia”) spread their influence.

The fear of a new 11 September will continue. The tributes ten years after should serve to reflect on the evil that was created and how to stop it.

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