Lessons of 11 September, and how the 'war on terror' has brought only more war and more terror

11 September 2003

Two years is but the blinking of an eye in world history, especially in this new and fast-moving century. The events of two years ago today, however, now seem strangely distant, reminders of a past, perhaps more innocent, age.

The images of hijacked planes smashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on a crystalline day in New York still have the power to shock. It is still hard to see a plane flying above skyscrapers anywhere without recalling the date, 11 September, when we first understood that such spectacular acts of destruction were possible. The stories of heroism and survival retain their inspirational power, as does the determination of New Yorkers to stand by their city.

Many of the assumptions and judgements made in the aftermath of what will always be known simply as 11 September, however, now seem sorely misplaced, even wrong.

Lofty conclusions

Contrary to what many believed, the world was not changed forever by these co-ordinated attacks on American power. There were terrorist atrocities before and since, though none so daring in conception and execution, or as costly in lives, as those of two years ago. What was changed was the mood of America. Optimism and confidence gave way to defensiveness and fear. Security became the watchword for all. A weak and untested President found himself immeasurably strengthened. Americans rallied to the banner of patriotism he held aloft; the world's sympathy and support flooded in.

Most of the loftier, more universal conclusions drawn from 11 September, however, have not been justified. At worst, they have proved dangerously counterproductive. The hopes expressed, among others, by Tony Blair for a more united world, in which the gap between rich and poor could be narrowed to mutual benefit, have not been fulfilled. If anything, the divisions have widened. The pictures of those hijacked planes and the wreckage at Ground Zero have not been heeded as a warning of anything except the vulnerability of the Western world. They have done nothing to raise aid budgets or divert investment to the developing world. They have done nothing to enhance understanding of the Islamic world. In the United States, at least, almost the reverse has been true.

Security vs liberty

Civil liberties have been circumscribed as at no time since the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the Cold War. The supposed requirements of Homeland Security take precedence over everything else. Other countries, Britain included, have quietly followed Washington's lead. But neither individual countries, nor the world, have become significantly safer as a result. So long as there are disaffected groups, with the means and imagination to attack, acts of terrorism are going to be a fact of life that governments must steel their countries against, while recognising - as the Israeli security fence has shown - that total prevention is an impossibility.

The 'war on terror'

Of all the conclusions drawn from 11 September, however, the "war on terror" declared by President Bush in its wake has been at once the most dangerous and the most futile. Few would dispute the designation of those attacks as terrorist acts. Whether, as Mr Bush and others determined at the time, they also constituted acts of war is a point that can be debated.

The attack on Afghanistan, launched as a massive reprisal for the attacks on New York and Washington, is defensible as an attempt to root out the bases of al-Qa'ida, the group held responsible for the 11 September attacks, as for other attacks on US interests elsewhere. President Bush prepared for the campaign cautiously and mustered a coalition. A new government was established under international auspices with international protection.

There is room for scepticism here; the dominance of the United States in the campaign and the fragility of the new government without US support, the re-encroachment of warlords and the return of the opium poppies all pose questions about how effective or worthwhile the military campaign was.

When it comes to Iraq, there is no place for even that degree of scepticism: the result is clear. Here we have a war embarked upon unilaterally, on the basis of spurious intelligence, to change a regime for which there was no tenable replacement - except an inadequate army of occupation.

Unlit beacons

This is where Mr Bush's "war on terror" has brought us. Two years on, its successes are minimal; its failings stand as monuments to US misconceptions about the world and the reach of state power. The chief villains identified by the US are all still at large. Afghanistan is far from pacified. The Taliban are regrouping. Iraqis lack basic services and law and order - even though it is the duty of the occupation forces to provide them. The Middle East is in flames and the road-map is in shreds. The beacons of democracy that were going to shine from Baghdad remain unlit.

This may be a uniquely pessimistic moment - another blinking of an eye, that will soon yield a vision of something better. Mr Bush is returning to the UN. US public opinion may be shifting away from its fearfulness. But as the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad so graphically showed, the whole region is as much a magnet for unruly armed force as ever. The "war on terror" has produced only more war and more terror. It is not a noble memorial to those who died on 11 September, and certainly not the one the rest of the world had hoped for. The better memorial is the spirit shown by the victims and their families in the face of an unprecedented atrocity - and that is the one we should honour today.