In September 2001, I was a proud New Yorker. As an Iranian who had emigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, I had experienced wars and revolutions firsthand. But I was still awestruck at the spectacular devastation downtown, the eerie silence uptown and the grieving relatives at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 where I volunteered after work.
9/11 was a global event which generated global empathy and solidarity for the United States. Flags few at half-mast all over Europe, as Le Monde’s Jean-Marie Colombani proclaimed: “We are all Americans”. Across the world, even in countries riven by war, ravaged by famine, or cursed by oil, people genuinely sympathised with the victimised land of plenty.
Even then, however, I was greatly worried by the awareness that every action calls for a reaction - and that history will judge them together. That worry grew in subsequent weeks and months as the sheer shock-and-awe of the attacks raised emotions that were then used to justify - and threaten - revengeful shock-and-awe wars waged in the public’s name. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were to dominate the decade, and provoke intense debate over whether they were legitimate acts of self-defence, regime-changes justified in the interests of democratisation, or imperial wars for control of territory and resources.
These interventions ensured that the lasting legacy of 9/11 was not the immediate empathy it generated around the world but its waste, as what appeared to be “eye-for-an-eye” policies and violations of lives and rights eclipsed the grand rhetoric (of anti-terrorism, the responsibility to protect, or the spread of democracy) used to promote them. The number of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 - estimated from United Nations figures and US government records - is around 150,000. The numbers can be disputed, as can responsibility for them, but even the lowest plausible figure will be many times the number of Americans and others killed on 9/11.
A restrained response could have avoided so much of this suffering. After all, Muslims around the world had condemned the 9/11 attacks alongside everyone else. By September 2006, however, Mai Yamani was writing in the Guardian that “We are no longer all Americans”. America’s excessive reaction had lost it much of the initial sympathy it had mustered.
More recently, HDS Greenway expressed the point in the New York Times: “Of course overreaction is what terrorists hope to provoke. If judged by that standard, 9/11 was also one of history’s most successful terrorist acts, dragging the United States into two as yet unresolved wars, draining the treasury of $1 trillion and climbing, as well as damaging America’s power and prestige.”
It didn’t have to be so violent. In Afghanistan, where I worked between 2002 and 2005, the overthrow of the Taliban was very much welcomed by ordinary people, even though its motivations were little understood. But the guest overstayed his welcome with ten years of haphazard statebuilding based on external concepts, irrational models, arbitrary timetables, mediatised pressure to show that it was doing something - all watered by an aid curse which created corruption among international companies as much as local government officials.
In Iraq, the toppling of a secular regime, authoritarian but with little (if any) proven linkages to 9/11, led to the opening of sectarian conflicts, tribalisation and the reversal of any ion of modernity. When liberation became mixed up with liberalisation, and post-conflict statebuilding was hampered by ongoing wars, it is not surprising that the entire enterprise fell under deep suspicion.
The biggest impact of 9/11 is that war and the projection of power became an instrument of domestic and foreign policy alike. In place of the “peace dividend” anticipated at the end of the cold war, 9/11 unleashed a controversial preventive war against countries supposedly harbouring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and a “war on terror”.
In the absence of a universally accepted definition of terrorism, this became a war with no clear end that exposed itself to severe international criticism on several grounds:
* it approached terrorism as an entity that could be defeated by military means (rather than as a tactic and method)
* it focused on extremist ideology, but in failing to see the connection between terrorism and western policies in the middle east it touched only symptoms rather than roots
* it politicised and militarised terrorism in ways that came to pervade geopolitics and regime-change strategies, rather than dealing with it as a crime to be addressed via judicial, police and intelligence action
* it allowed support to be given to regimes with poor human-rights records in the name of stability and at the cost of ignoring other security problems
* it sanctioned brutal practices in places such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, thus seeding further dangerous animosity
* it reduced civil liberties, increased military budgets and instigated a culture of fear in the name of security, as well as an overall climate where those who asked “why” were regarded as quasi-apologists for terror
The polarising trap
Today, the terminology of the global “war on terror” has changed, part of wider shifts in which (for example) the death of Osama bin Laden has brought an informal end to at least a phase in the struggle, and the possibility of some of the Taliban turning from insurgents into politicians is closer. Yet even if every single al-Qaida cell and affiliate is located and destroyed, so much damage has been done. The potential of more is ever-present. The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and in the AfPak region have increased insecurity both for the people of those countries and those in the west, as they have led to more resentment, suspicion, anti-American sentiment, and thus more grounds for violent terrorist reactions.
Meanwhile, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration attitudes have peaked in both Europe and the United States. The unprecedented terrorist act in Norway by a far-right fundamentalist showed that terrorism is not only the hallmark of Islamists and revealed the extent of nativist hatreds in western societies.
It was not the 9/11 attacks that perpetuated all this as much as that single sentence uttered by President George W Bush on 20 September 2001: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. Such simplistic dualities were soon implanted in public minds through the media, and governing international relations: us vs them; the west vs Islamic fundamentalism (or Islam, tout court); “good" interventions vs evil regimes; reformists vs Islamic fundamentalists; free world vs evil; allies vs countries linked to terrorism. The results were painful for many, including would-be citizens of a sophisticated global order.
A decade later, after recovery from the shock both of the 9/11 attacks and of the reaction, a new wave is rising in north Africa and the middle east. Its adversary is not just unaccountable power but the simplifications of a polarising worldview.
The toppling of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (and perhaps soon elsewhere) is this time being instigated primarily from the inside by ordinary people who are neither “with us” nor “against us” - but for themselves. The process may also be described as a return to complexity. To understand the meaning of these events in the next decade, better than was the case with 9/11, we must allow reason and rationality to be the guide rather than emotion.
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