One Year After 9/11: What Have We Learned?
By Rebecca Johnson
9/11: the Day that Shook the World. A year on, what perspective can we bring to the attacks and their aftermath? How best to understand such spectacular acts of mass murder? Gratuitous violence? Religious fanaticism? Jealous hatred? Were the attacks the tip of a long-in-the-planning coordinated terrorist assault on the United States, its allies and all "the West" stands for? Or was it a one-off bid by some deranged young men to get into terrorism's hall of fame? Whatever it was, more than 3,000 people tragically lost their lives that day. And the United States declared war on terrorism.
What, so far, has been achieved? The Taliban is gone and Afghan girls are now free to go to school - where there are any. Osama bin Laden has gone to ground, perhaps dead, perhaps biding his time. Al Qaeda is supposed to be smashed and dispersed, but its adherents may still be active and recruiting. A few hundred men are in US custody - controversially denied legal status - but by all accounts they either don't know much or aren't telling. And America's leaders, reducing the world to simplified notions of friend and foe, can sometimes seem to jump at every shadow.
The Taliban were undoubtedly a bad thing for the Afghan people, but was it necessary to have collateral damage of more than 4,000 civilian lives, and then put the warlords back into power, where they now strut with Western arms? The kind of consistent commitment needed to build democracy and security in Afghanistan - the necessary agenda of civil reconstruction and human rights - is clearly not seen in Washington as its priority. With the Taliban out of the running, the guns can be turned on the next 'hard' target in the crusade against evil: Iraq.
A British MP said recently that the biggest threat to world security was George Bush, not Saddam Hussein. The comment was no doubt intended for dramatic effect and predictably drew an indignant response. This MP, however, was no apologist for Saddam. He was one of the first to call on the UK government to protest against Saddam's use of chemical weapons in the 1980s against the people of Halabja and neighbouring Iran. But the tyrant was an important customer for the UK arms industry at the time, so Margaret Thatcher's government was not willing to criticise him.
Shockingly, in their secret hearts, many share the fear that the MP voiced. Outside the United States, even in Britain, America's staunchest ally, people are growing more and more anxious about the Bush Administration's simplistic, ideological approach to historically complex, multifaceted problems and causes. Frightened, too, of the dreadful odour of panic and muddle seeping from the ironed shirt collars. Violence, as Isaac Asimov famously wrote, is the last refuge of the incompetent.
The growing chorus of international voices opposing the mooted military attack on Iraq are not appeasers or cowards. They don't want to save Saddam Hussein: they want to uphold the international rule of law, and in the process spare the Iraqi people yet more suffering. They are desperately trying to save the United States from crossing a line that would fatally undermine the authority of the United Nations and surrender our fragile, fragmented world to the law of brute force.
Terrorism is asymmetric warfare. As the US found in Vietnam, and Israel has discovered after electing leaders who turned their backs on the Oslo peace process, military might does not necessarily translate into effective power - or more security. The US has the world's largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, but it was powerless to prevent hijacked passenger planes from being driven into the twin towers. It was powerless to prevent weapons-grade anthrax being sent, probably by an insider, to liberal Congressional leaders and journalists.
New war is not linear war based on calculations of military hardware. Build a missile defence shield, and asymmetric warriors will find a way to hack, jam or otherwise paralyse the electronic systems that control it. Put weapons in space, and your space capabilities will be the first to be threatened, but probably not by direct military attack.
Recognising the need to be more thoughtful in combating the complex threats of terrorism does not mean we let terror and bigotry take over, though it does require a grown-up recognition that living is risky and security is relative. If the war on terrorism means choking off money and supplies to dangerous fanatics, I am all for it; but let us also look closely at our own banks, money launderers and particularly the arms traders who do so much to supply the tools (and reap the benefits) of terror and injustice. And if this war on terrorism means we pay real attention to preventing weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands, then let's do it properly. In this uncertain world there are no right hands for weapons of mass destruction to be in.
© 2002 The Acronym Institute.