11 Sep 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.