To dub the last ten years the ‘9/11 decade’ seems a rather apt description. Virtually every facet of our lives, from the villains in our Hollywood blockbusters, to the new rules of air travel, via Nobel Prize winning Literature, has reflected in some way or another, the post 9/11 climate.
Tragedies carry within them the potential to unify our global village as we connect with the humanity of others. In the roots of the violence and in the unfolding of conflict, are the sacrificial pearls for which we paid too high a price. But if we fail to derive any lessons from the calamities which befall us, we’ve paid the highest price of all. Speaking to a Holocaust survivor, academic Mahmood Mamdani asked the man what lesson had to be gleaned from this crime. His answer was ‘never again’.
The phrase, Mamdani noted, could lend itself to two markedly different conclusions. Never again to my people, or never again to any people. At stake between the two possible conclusions, he contends, is nothing less than our common survival.
The 9/11 decade was born out of the tragedy of that day, but it went on to be moulded by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, (in no European country was support for unilateral war higher than 11%) and of course by the so-called “war on terror”, (a term which everybody from Rumsfeld to David Miliband, is now bending over backwards to reject, recognising as they must be, that you don’t defeat ideas with tanks). The buzz words which have marked the decade have undoubtedly been ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ , extolled ad nauseum, yet rarely discussed in substance. Whose freedom and what democracy?
“They hate our freedom”, a belligerent Bush Jr informed the nation after the attacks, as his Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” (the age of freedom perhaps?).
Over the next ten years, in the name of our freedom, so threatened was it we were told, our governments undertook the decimation of other people’s dignity and sold us a disgracefully deceitful tale of urgent self-preservation at all costs. At any cost ($3.7 trillion in the US). As long as we’re safe.
And yet, according to John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor, the number of Americans worldwide “who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It’s basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year.” Relatively speaking, Americans have been safe this decade. As for us Brits, we’re still six times more likely to die from hot weather (!) than from a terrorist attack. Or heart disease (17,600 times more likely in fact.)
We’re certainly a lot safer than Iraqi babies in Fallujah, struggling with chronic deformities, and safer than Afghan civilians, whose numbers killed hit record levels, in February this year. Although America has escaped Al Qaida inspired terrorism on its soil since that day, many other nations have been less fortunate. In Algeria, Egypt, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, Bali, Spain, Turkey, Somalia, Mali – to name but a few, people have been less fortunate. People have been less free.
In the name of protecting our freedom (which may not be that threatened after all… ), many of us accepted complicity in the decimation of the Iraqi people, their infrastructure, Mesopotamian culture – we accepted the murder of thousands of Afghan civilians in US airstrikes as ‘collateral damage’ – no less innocent working in their market places than those who died in those towers. No less deserving of freedom from fear, from Karzai’s US-backed kleptocracy, from drone attacks. Despite being an oil rich country, hikes in oil prices have left over 42% of Afghans living in acute poverty. A journalist friend recounted seeing children walking barefoot in the snow… The price tag of our strange kind of freedom…
Closer to home, we’ve accepted that protecting our ‘freedom’, means spying on our neighbours, students or colleagues. We’ve accepted control orders, restricting our fellow citizen’s liberty for the purpose of “protecting members of the public from a risk of terrorism” – a risk…
We’ve accepted having our phones taped, our emails hacked – we’ve accepted criminalising women who don’t conform to our notion of freedom. We’ve arrested and detained innocent men and women for undefined periods. In the interest of freedom, we’ve placed limits on free speech, invented thought crimes of Orwellian proportions (ask the so-called ‘lyrical terrorist’ Samina Malik). We’ve accepted that Europe now has the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion have risen, (Pew poll).
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that “they who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.” The decisions made in this post 9/11 climate, allegedly to preserve our freedom and democratic “way of life”, have had a hugely corrosive effect on both of these. Have we become complacent about their real value?
The personal tragedy which befell the victims and their families on September 11th was instrumentalised as acasus belli, with all the attendant ethics of exceptionalism which war implies. Military tribunals for terrorism suspects included.
This decade has seen attempts by the British government to rehabilitate torture (in the context of deportation), justify it (the case of Baha Mousa- ‘a few bad apples, under immense strain’), the introduction of extraordinary rendition which Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti refers to bluntly as, “kidnapping and torture”, Section 7, detention without trial, surveillance, profiling, and the discovery of new territories (outer space presumably) in which the Geneva convention was said not to apply (Guantanamo)…
In his now infamous speech to congress in the days following the attacks, Bush Jr pontificated: “They hate (…) our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” If this statement were true – which it is not – the terrorists would have been handed a second macabre victory in the debasement of our democratic values.
“You cannot torture people in democracy’s name,” Chakrabarti recently stated in a sadly necessary truism. And yet, the 9/11 climate has allowed just that. It has given unscrupulous politicians carte blanche with which to wage wars disguised as moral crusades , to claim democracy could be imposed by force, that there were people on this earth who hate freedom (the same people who now go out to vote under mortar fire).
We’ll look back and say the 9/11 decade was that in which the price of our freedom, of the gilded cage variety, was democracy. What Arundhati Roy calls “the modern world’s holy cow”. Reduced to a hollow shell, an imperialist slogan to serve the economic interests of a few powerful fools, the faceless fat-cats at Unocal and Shell.
And all the while, the talking heads continue to insult our intelligence by citing a concern for women’s rights, or invisible WMDs, somewhere hidden in a sand dune (why they wouldn’t have been used when the US actually invaded remains to be seen). Ali ibn Abi Talib is known to have said: “The only man who can beat me in an argument is the ignorant one.” What more is there to say of the Richard Perles of this world, who on BBC Question Time recently, claimed that Iraqi democracy has been an inspiration for the Arab revolutions… We’ve yet to see the Iraqi revolution…
9/11 was not an attack on either our freedom or our democracy. The politically motivated crime, perpetrated by largely educated, frustrated young men has contrary to popular misbelief, been elucidated at length in Bin Laden’s addresses to the world. In his first address to a broad public in 1994, the question of Palestine was central (incidentally perhaps, September 11th 1922 was when the British mandate of Palestine began..), as was the US presence in so-called “Muslim lands” – alongside issues of corruption and the subordination of principles to political objectives, (in the form of the subservience of the Saudi clerics to the Saudi government).
In subsequent broadcasts, the issue of imperialism dominates.
Ten years on, we are back where many would have hoped we might have started – with the former head of M15, Eliza Mannigham-Buller stating: “terrorism is resolved through politics and economics not through arms and intelligence, however important a role these play”.
The real threat to freedom and democracy comes from within, from our response to this tragedy and from the concessions we’ve made to fear. Ten years on, we’re like the boy in the bubble. Safe if we remain within our borders, fearful of those who might seek to challenge our sterile safety. But the ‘we’ is narrow and the safety largely illusory. Like Bubble boy, if we have the gusto to throw off our bubble for the sake of our principles, we might recapture those values our bubble of fear has been shielding us from for far too long.
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