9/11: The Burden of the Past and the Promise of the Future

By Anjum Altaf

The response to 9/11 has been challenged along two lines: that it imposed a huge cost on the world without making it much safer; and that a legal-political approach would have yielded better outcomes. Both arguments, implicitly or explicitly, presume that an alternative response was possible. A reassessment of this presumption can help highlight some less discussed aspects of our world before and after 9/11.

Prima facie it is plausible to assert that it was not necessary to frame the 9/11 provocation as an act of war. It could have been classified as a crime, albeit a spectacular one, and prosecuted using political leverage as needed. Given the near universal condemnation of the act and the swell of support for the US from nation-states, concerted political pressure on a weak Afghan state would in all likelihood have delivered the masterminds of the crime to be dealt with according to established legal procedures.

The apprehension of Osama bin Laden might have occurred much earlier but even if it had taken ten years, as it eventually did, the cost to the US and to the world would have been much lower.

There are recent precedents for the response to an Al-Qaeda (AQ) style movement. All through the 1970s, the Red Army Fraction (RAF) and the Red Brigades (RB) terrorized Europe using extremist ideologies and very violent means to destabilize states. In both cases their acts were treated as crimes and it took about ten years to completely snuff out the movements.

At its peak, AQ had no more than between three and five thousand core members. Why could it not have been dealt with along similar lines? Both the similarities and the differences between AQ and the European groups are instructive for this argument. The similarities are so striking that one is forced to take seriously the question of why they were treated so differently. Why, in particular, was the ideological rhetoric of the RF and RB never taken seriously while that of AQ was taken at face value, a stance that opened the door to a declaration of war?

The differences suggest possible answers to the question. First, both the RAF and the RB were largely confined within national borders (of Germany and Italy, respectively). Second, the motivations of the RAF and RB were entirely ideological; there were no specific criminal acts of the German and Italian states to which the groups could lay claim as the motivation for their acts of terror or which the states had credible need to defend in front of any audience. Third, the ethnic and religious identities of the contending parties were the same.

In the case of 9/11, it can be argued that AQ brought into the US the kind of ‘crime’ that was a commonplace in the global international order – that of attempting to destabilize other countries for self-proclaimed aims of national interest. How else would one classify the acts of the US government in Iran and Guatemala, of the USSR in Hungary and Afghanistan, of Iraq in Kuwait, or of Pakistan in India, to list just a few examples? It would be hard to argue that the determination of a crime turns not on the violation of a law or norm but on agreement with the self-serving rhetoric of the violator. It stands to reason that treating 9/11 as a crime, apprehending the AQ criminals alive and prosecuting them in a public trial would have forced an open discussion of the relative merits of such claims even if they were to be ultimately dismissed.

Given that the American citizenry has remained largely unaware of the long history of such US interventions (for which those at the receiving end consider the term ‘crime’ appropriate), it was far easier to cloud the issue in the rhetoric of war and ride the swell of patriotism to minimize any debate that might otherwise have transpired. The ‘otherness’ of AQ in terms of ethnicity and religion helped press all the old stereotypes into action to inflate its threat, couch the war in the frame of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ and trigger a discourse of ‘them’ hating ‘us’ because of our values.

This argument can be better appreciated in a longer time frame. In the age before the emergence of the nation-state and sovereign borders, these types of interventions did not fall into the category of crime. Alexander could attempt to subdue India, Changez Khan could roll across Central Asia, and Isabella and Ferdinand could conquer Mexico. In retrospect we can deplore such ‘violations’ but there was no framework that classified them as such. The interventionists neither needed permission from their own subjects nor were answerable to any international body charged with protecting the rights of non-subjects.

This began to change with the emergence of representative governments. Even though no global institutions existed to protect non-subjects, even if only in name, till much later, governments intervening outside their borders had to provide some convincing narrative to their own voters. This is when the ‘burden of civilization’ was born as a serviceable rationale. Thus the British takeover of India after 1857, though it did not need to be covert, was couched in the heavy rhetoric of bringing enlightenment to natives living in darkness who had to be gradually raised to the position where they could deserve to rule themselves. It was accepted that some people needed to be suppressed for their own good.

By contrast, American interventions, especially those following WWII, occurred in times when they were in violation of international norms. Therefore, they had to be covert and when they couldn’t, they needed to be legitimized. Wars of self-defense and pre-emptive actions to make the world a better place were among the sources of such legitimacy. In this perspective, one can understand how 9/11 was framed as an act of war – the US had been attacked and forced to retaliate in its defense. In order to forestall a discussion of the past, 9/11 was transformed into another Zero hour of history.

Once declared, the ‘war on terror’ elicited all the accompanying rhetoric; it would not only avenge humiliation and ensure justice, it would make the world safer, spread democracy to places where dictators reigned, and liberate women living under oppression. Left unsaid, since the past had been obliterated, was the fact that it was the US itself that had derailed democracy in many of these places and installed the dictators who were now to be replaced. And that the plight of women, or of dissidents struggling for civil and political rights, had heretofore never been a concern warranting a call to arms. Given the burden of history, all this could not have been said without exposing US officials to criminal charges of the kind that those from smaller countries (Serbia, Croatia, etc.) were expected to face under international law.

There was thus no alternative response to 9/11 except a ‘war on terror’ quite independent of its costs and consequences. It is of course quite probable that US officials underestimated the cost and duration of the war (indeed the selling of the war made such underestimation inevitable) or that alternative ways of waging the war could have resulted in lower costs. The fact remains that is difficult to conceive of a viable alternative response given the magnitude of the provocation and the prior understanding of history by the citizenry. Hence the almost immediate decision to commit to war and a strong discouragement of any questioning of that choice.

Ten years later, the costs of the war, the fact that it has exacerbated the very dangers it was supposed to quell, and the huge encroachments on individual liberties are all forcing into the open the very issues that the war was intended to bury. A potent new source of global instability and uncertainty has emerged. It is a fact that there is no nation-state that can do in the US what the US can do in other countries relying on the imbalance of power. What remained unanticipated, a failure of intelligence, was that changes in technology might enable a non-state group to commit an act of terror of such magnitude inside the US. The imbalance of power now stands reversed because non-state actors only need a few successful acts to destabilize the world or impose a huge cost on it while nation-states need to prevent each and every such attempt to feel secure. Even so, the uncertainty can never be reduced to zero.

The open-ended war against terror poses a further dilemma. The pronouncements of NATO powers justifying the war to their citizens fuel the resentments of those whose lived experiences are consequences of what they consider criminal acts in their countries. This is clearly an unsustainable situation that signals a shift towards a different equilibrium in the future.

The framework of rights can possibly provide a glimpse of that future. Rights to date have been wrested by citizens, workers, minorities, women and children. But all these rights have protection, to greater or lesser degree, inside national boundaries. There has been no equivalent protection of the rights of non-citizens. The citizens of Egypt, for example, had no effective recourse against the alleged complicity of the US in the violation of their rights. There was no forum to which such a charge could be brought for deliberation.

Ten years after 9/11 we are beginning to conceive a world in which such acts would be more openly questioned, where violation of the rights of non-subjects would trigger legal consequences, where countries would not be able to exempt themselves from international conventions, and where, when such acts are committed, the perpetrators would be subject to prosecution.

9/11 was a major crime committed by a murderous gang. The response to 9/11 began to lift the veil from the imbalance of global power in which this was just one crime among many and highlighted the fact that the world would only become a safer place when all such crimes are reduced by a credible threat of prosecution and arbitrary retaliations are ruled out. The rights of all citizens of the world need to be formally guaranteed and effectively protected. For that to happen there is need to advance to the stage where justice is no longer selective or subservient to power.

This article is a follow on to September Eleven.

Back to Main Page

  • skynut
    Posted at 05:00h, 11 September Reply

    The US of A, as a sole ‘Super’ power, has the opportunity to set standards, and precedence, when it behaves nationally and internationally.

    To focus. The KEY question for South Asians is whether the actions of USA were based on Law or Power, when it reacted to what happened on 9/11?

    Perhaps on a philosophical level, we will also need to answer the question whether only one approach is at all possible?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:10h, 12 September

      Skynut: The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has a discussion of whether many of the US actions were based on law or power. It is by David Cole, Professor of Law at Georgetown University: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/sep/29/after-september-11-what-we-still-dont-know/

      As to whether only one approach is possible, my response would be that the use of power should be bound by some laws if the law of the jungle is to be avoided.

    • skynut
      Posted at 06:38h, 13 September

      The implications for South Asians have to do with International Law….

      And on the rationale for the violent reactions which the USA carried out the the above mentioned article says…

      .. ” Its rationale for many of these actions, formulated by a young Justice Department lawyer, now a Berkeley law professor, John Yoo, was that as commander in chief, the president was free to take any action he deemed necessary to “engage the enemy,” even if Congress or international law expressly forbade it. In short, the president was above the law.”

      SouthAsian, the point is not what should or could have been done or needs to be done but what did happen.

      And what did happen is that the law of the Jungle prevailed.

      And therefore another precedence was set for the powerful, for times to come.

      We are further burdened by the past and there is little promise for the future.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:38h, 13 September

      skynut: The NYRB article was a documentation of what did happen and an enunciation of what actually should have happened if international conventions had been honored. A new essay on NYRB by Professor Mark Danner has appeared that goes into more specific details. It also reiterates the point I made that in this gloomy scenario there are some signs that promise a change. Just the fact that these violations were so blatant and people have begun to talk about them more openly suggests that it would not be as easy to repeat them in the future. These two paragraphs from the essay make this point:

      Americans, believing themselves to stand proudly for the rule of law and human rights, have become for the rest of the world a symbol of something quite opposite: a society in which lawbreaking, approved by its highest elected officials, goes unpunished. Thus President Obama’s exhortation that the country look forward and not back takes on a different coloring: the country has entered a twilight world when it comes to the law and is unlikely soon to emerge from it.

      At the same time, in the Middle East itself, where torture had underpinned the power of every national security state, the most notorious images of the state of exception—the obscenely twisted naked figures at Abu Ghraib, the kneeling hooded prisoners in their orange jumpsuits at Guantánamo—provoked a debate about torture and human rights that had heretofore been impossible. Egyptians, forbidden to talk about Egyptian torture, could freely discuss, analyze, and condemn American torture, and thereby initiate a discussion of human rights and dignity that was a motivating element in the early upheavals of the Arab Spring.

      In conclusion, Professor Danner also mentions the cost to American society:

      Meanwhile the one element that, since the early Roman dictatorships, all states of exception have shared—that they are temporary, that they end—seems lacking in ours. Ten years later, the improvisations of panic are the reality of our daily lives. What was the exceptional has become the normal.


    • skynut
      Posted at 02:05h, 14 September

      An optimist can find rays of hope in the darkest of nights. However he does not need to rely on a rational discourse. The question is not resolved with the articles of a few good intentioned intellectuals.

      At a rational level, all evidence indicates that the US of A, has and continues to use and see power as a major instrument in its policy to deal with real or imagined adversaries.

      The powerful continue to do what they want to do , until they are prevented from doing that by another equal or more powerful force.

      Laws of physics seem to prevail in the political domain as much in the material. With whatever debate 9/11 has generated, it is quite strange actually very curious, as to how someone could conclude that the world has in anyway moved closer to a law based international order rather than towards the law of the jungle.

      I live and work too close to the families which are being killed at an increasing rate by the lawless drones, to hear let alone understand what the American Intellectuals are talking about.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 02:50h, 14 September

      Skynut: In this instance it does seem to be the case that you are failing to understand what the authors of the articles are saying. They are saying clearly that the US was/is indeed violating the law and using unchecked power to deal with its adversaries.

      As to the future, if you believe that the laws of physics prevail in the political domain as well then you must believe that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, it is certainly not equal but there is a decided reaction. This is what the Danner article was alluding to. At a very huge cost, what was previously taboo has become part of the human rights dialog. The war of terror could have sown the seeds of the liberation of the Arab world from the choke holds of neo-imperialism.

    • skynut
      Posted at 07:49h, 14 September

      That point is understandable, what is not understandable is the optimism they show towards the future as a result of the sterile debates in the west.

      The revolutions in the middle east were long over due. The Shah of Iran was not overthrown nor Batista ..as a result of any tower being struck in the US of A.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:59h, 14 September

      Skynut: I am not sure why you think the debates are sterile. What is your expectation of how change would occur? Think back to the huge costs of the two World Wars and the debates that ensued afterward. It took a long time for the ideas to coalesce but now one cannot conceive of a similar conflict in Europe. Yes, it is a slow process but what is the alternative to debates? The important fact is that things that could not be talked about freely earlier are now part of the discussion.

  • Mike Jeans
    Posted at 15:54h, 12 September Reply

    9/11 holds a special place in my heart since, as you may recall, I was there! I arrived the evening before in order to undertake three interviews at Clifford Chance in down town Manhattan the following morning; of course these never occurred and I ended up experiencing a quite extraordinary six days before I managed to get a flight home. My children were distraught at being unable to contact me for nearly three days.

    It may seem a strange thing to say but, in retrospect, I feel that I was privileged to have been in New York at that time. It has certainly had a major impact upon my life and reinforced my view that ‘love’ can overcome all ‘evil’.

    I well remember going to a nearby church and praying that ‘revenge’ would not be sought – but we got Bush’s ‘war on terror’ instead and all that has followed. I also visited a clothes shop in Park Avenue about three days after the event – it was staffed by two Muslim ladies (I was looking for something to take back to Rebecca); nobody had been into the shop that day. We prayed together seeking reconciliation between religions and the misguided leaders of these religions who seek ‘holy’(??) wars. There is but one God who guides the whole human race; this is, as you know, a fundamental (perhaps naive, but hopefully not) belief that I hold.

    This evening I attended, together with James & Rebecca, a Service of Remembrance in Westminster Abbey. We were privileged to get tickets through connections with the ‘organisers’. Many faiths were present amongst the attendees. The sermon was given by an Anglican Syrian priest, whom I know quite well, and his message resonated so completely with what I have tried to explain above – love is all powerful, hate is all destructive. The Pakistani’s article is argued well and logically but, in my view, ignores some fundamentals about the nature of religious beliefs and the way that such beliefs may drive the human race in good or bad ways. Very sadly the scars of the past overly influence the promise of the future; it’s down to those of us who believe in the future of the human race, regardless of any faith that we may have, to try to convince people that the future does hold ‘promise’.

    Mike Jeans (London)

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:08h, 12 September

      Mike: I respect your feelings. My article was not focused on the individual. It goes without saying that for every person or family that suffers from incidents like these, there could be no bigger tragedy. And individual responses to such incidents cover the entire spectrum from hate to love. My aim was to highlight the larger forces that embroil human beings into endless and growing cycles of violence. How do we extract ourselves from these cycles? Religions have been with us for a long time and have been forces for both good and bad; there seems no reason to believe that religious beliefs or feelings would put us on a radically different path in the future. Rather, I put my faith in what you have called the belief in the future of the human race whose well-being is common to all religions. The magnitude and imminence of the tragedies that confront us, both political and environmental, might force us to change our ways and cooperate regardless of our religions.

  • Chan Chowdhry
    Posted at 16:00h, 12 September Reply

    Certainly the author brings an alternative approach which is refreshing and level headed. The reassessment of the response to attacks on the twin towers is desirable in light of the cost and collateral damage it has caused. The invasion of Iraq is an integral part of the response. Over a million people who held a protest march against Iraq War in London and many other cities of Europe have been vindicated . They all knew going to war was wrong and would result in loss of life and a huge financial burden on tax payers.

    The author erred in his judgement in asserting that political leverage should have been tried. No country could have negotiated with Al Qaeda and Taliban ( Rulers of Afghanistan at the time of attack) at the time of attack. How can one negotiate with terrorists especially when they show no remorse over what they have done? Al Qaeda even threatened further strikes .The immediate response of USA after 9/11 attack was not only desirable but right one too. However the invasion of Iraq was illegal and wrong. It was a crime against humanity and those who are responsible i.e. Bush, Blair et al need to be tried for war crimes.

    We live in a civilised world and hence the comparison with the Changez Khan era is not an appropriate one. Countries and their citizens by and large accept national boundaries and do not attempt to grab land which belongs to other nations.Mankind has sacrificed a lot over last 500 years to respect property laws and the right to peaceful co-existence with each other.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:19h, 12 September

      Chan: You have misinterpreted some of the points I tried to make. By political leverage, I did not intend negotiating with terrorists. My argument was that political means to put pressure on the Afghan government (like sanctions, embargoes, blockades) supported by the entire world community could have yielded the handover of the terrorists. I could be wrong, but arguably this was an attempt worth making.

      The point I made by the example of Changez Khan was the same as yours. I used it to highlight the difference between then and now. What was the norm at that time is no more acceptable or legal today. Hence, interference in the politics of other countries (and not just grabbing land) should be treated as a crime that is liable to international prosecution. The exceptions should be well-defined under international law.

  • Satjit
    Posted at 09:38h, 13 September Reply

    An interesting article that is well reasoned; however I would beg to disagree with a large part of its reasoning.

    What happened on 9/11 was an act of war against America, pure and simple. For three The British government was ‘at war’ with the IRA, it was not a police crime, it was terrorism. The difference was that despite fighting for a united Ireland (Northern Ireland reuniting with the Irish Republic), Sinn Fein, the military wing of the IRA was hunted down by the Irish Government (the Republic of Ireland). That is where the difference with Afghanistan lies. This was a country ruled by zealots (the Taliban) for whom terrorism (even against their own citizens) was a way of life. They not only agreed and supported Al Qaida’s views and actions, they practiced them. The fact that Al Qaida felt at home in that country says it all. Besides the Taliban were not someone bothered about world opinion. The destruction of the Buddha statues comes to mind. So long as other nations were willing to recognise the legitimacy of the Taliban, the world could not be a safe place. Finally, it is important to note that the fact that the Al Qaida are based out of Afghanistan is not a consequence, but a cause of the war in Afghanistan.

    So the question of dealing in a political manner with this government on Afghanistan was a non-starter. As for the rest of the Islamic world and getting its support, in reality that was a non-starter. Scenes of men firing rounds of ammunition in the air, in celebration of the 9/11 act, showed the difference between fine words spoken at the time to show the world that they were a civilized nation, and the true feelings of its citizens. I was in the West Bank (not the more hard-line Gaza strip) shortly after 9/11 and despite the fact that over two thirds of the aid to Palestine comes not from its oil-rich neighbours and friends, but from the hated West, the overwhelming feeling was that ‘America had it coming’. This was even before Iraq or indeed the war in Afghanistan.

    The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens against external aggression. That necessitated a response that we may today criticize, but one in the long term will be beneficial, both for the region and the wider world. Besides, the West had no option; its citizens were at risk and the government needed to take appropriate action. War, is the last resort; the events of 9/11 made it, inevitably, the only response possible.

    I believe that in the West we have become very short-termist in our thinking and ten years is too short a period to pronounce on whether or not the War on Terror has been success. I am reminded on the response by Zhou en Lai (the Chinese leader of the 1960s) who when asked if he thought the French revolution was a good thing, said, “it’s too early too tell”.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:11h, 13 September

      Satjit: An act of terrorism is first of all an act of terrorism. What transforms an act of terror into an act of war? That is the central question in this discussion. Clearly all acts of terrorism are not treated as acts of war. Had they been the world could have descended into chaos because terrorists would know that all they needed was to commit one act to initiate war which might well be their aim.

      For this reason I gave the examples of the RAF and the RB which constitute the closest parallels to Al-Qaeda. The Irish case I had not mentioned because I felt it was different. This was an old political conflict in which one side was employing acts of terror. Yet, all through the conflict the political dialog was never abandoned and the conflict was resolved through a political agreement, not by the defeat of one side in a war. That is why one does not expect any more acts of terror to arise in that situation – that part of the world has indeed become safer.

      There are many regimes that one doesn’t like in the world but that does not provide a unilateral license to declare war on them. There needs to be an international protocol to deal with such situations.

      Also, one of the points I made was that this was not the first instance of external aggression in recent history. I hope you do not disagree with that. How should the world deal with external aggressions? That too is central to this discussion.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:25h, 14 September

      Satjit: It is the individual stories that give a sense of the costs of such responses. Read this account to judge if this cost is worth paying, if citizens have to suffer this kind of treatment, and, most importantly, if this kind of cost can be sustained. You will see from the newspaper report that two F-16s were scrambled because two passengers took too long in the toilet. What will bring this fear to an end?



  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 20:31h, 27 September Reply

    This article by Alexander Downes (Professor of Political Science at George Washington University) is a useful complement to the argument made in the post and provides a lot of factual material to support the case it makes.

    According to the article, the three factors that drive US actions are the following:

    First, there are few external constraints on the exercise of American power.
    Second, U.S. leaders face few hurdles to initiating military action abroad.
    Finally, Americans tend to personalize their conflicts. Almost every target of U.S. intervention in the post–Cold War world has been labeled another Hitler.

    Although: Not only is regime change difficult and unpredictable, but it is usually strategically unnecessary for the United States because so few countries pose any threat.


  • Sakuntala Narasimhan
    Posted at 03:39h, 12 September Reply

    Professor Altaf,
    Very well written and argued. It makes me furious that a country that seeks to “enforce” human rights and “democratic norms” in other countries, can hunt men down like “rats” (as the US president put it, literally) — Saddam and Osama — and kill them. What about arrest, a due process of trial and then punishment based on judicial decision ? Even the most vile terrorist is entitled to a trial… makes me sick.

Post A Comment