First reaction to 11 September in New York and Washington

Like everyone who has lived in New York and gone back to Manhattan many times, who has loved ones (close family, old friends) living and working there, who is thrilled each time by that miraculous skyline on the way in to town from JFK or Newark, we have been quite literally sickened and terribly saddened by the carnage and destruction. The scale of it is hard to grasp. It’s become conventional, but probably true, to say that nothing will be the same after this. Yet it’s still too early to try to forecast how things are likely to change.

The US response

Much depends on the nature of the eventual American response. The pressure of US public opinion and, probably, the instincts of the top American leadership will demand a demonstration of American military power of a spectacularly ferocious character. It’s futile to argue that this can achieve nothing useful apart from making millions of Americans and others in the west feel better. There’s something pre-ordained and unstoppable about it. Interestingly, Bush and other US leaders have focused in these first days on the need for solidarity with other countries, NATO especially but also Russia, even Chinanot, apparently, a first reaction foreshadowing a retreat into isolationism. They have even secured a unanimous resolution of condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. Notwithstanding predictably bellicose utterances by Tony Blair in London and George (“Lord”) Robertson at NATO, it’s inevitable that some, such as the French and even perhaps the British Foreign Office (Jack Straw has been noticeably more restrained in his language), will privately urge restraint and caution on the Americans, pointing to the potentially dire political and diplomatic consequences of any American retaliatory action which would intensify the bitter hostility of so much of the Muslim world in particular, and the third world in general, towards the United States and the west, further widening the north-south, white/non-white, rich-poor divides which are the biggest and most difficult challenge facing us since the end of the cold war.

Some American commentators in the British media have been urging that the anger prompted by 11 September should be exploited in order to attack and destroy *all* terrorist havens, wherever they exist, and whether or not there is evidence of specific connections in any individual case with the attacks of 11 September. Leaving aside questions of the legality, or lack of it, of any such global operation (if undertaken without Security Council authority) and the innocent civilian casualties that it would inevitably entail, one’s bound to ask

  1. whether it would be feasible to remove surgically any significant number of terrorist bases, given the detailed knowledge of their geography and the extreme accuracy of the weaponry that would be required,
  2. how to define a terrorist base every quasi-military training camp in Pakistan or Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, Libya? every Islamic school or madrassah teaching the virtues and rewards of Jihad? every Moslem cultural centre encouraging discussion of the implementation of fatwahs and the proper attitude towards infidels and apostates? and:
  3. what the operation, however successfully conducted, would actually achieve? For every addle-headed Jihad-trained fanatic killed or captured for trial, ten more would predictably spring up to take his (or her) place, bitterness and hatred compounded by the American or NATO action.Yet can one in all conscience ask the American people, or even the British and French and German peoples, to accept what happened on 11 September without any response, as if acquiescing?

The root causes of terrorism

The professional doves have been stressing the need to tackle the root causes of anti-American and anti-western sentiment in the developing and especially the Muslim worlds, as a better alternative to military retaliation. But what are those causes?

(a) First and foremost, American wealth and power, and the way that the rich and powerful invariably conduct themselves in relation to the poor and weak? Not much to be done about that, anyway in the short term, although it ought to remind us forcibly of the absolute imperative of hugely reducing the obscene gap between the richest and the poorest in the modern world, however long it takes (and it will take several generations from the time when the process is begun, if ever): and the mounting penalties of failing to do so.

(b) American support of Israel, and the bitterness of Palestinians and other Arab peoples who feel themselves to have been dispossessed, pauperised and humiliated by the West? A durable settlement in the middle east, with Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, living together in peace and mutual tolerance, would certainly help in removing a main root of terrorism. But simply to define the objective is to recognise how far-off it must be. The Americans could hardly have worked harder to broker a reasonable compromise settlement which would give the Palestinians a permanent state and Israel a guaranteed future within secure borders: how much likelier than Carter, Clinton and the others is the present administration, or anyone else, to succeed in that enterprise?

(c) The apparent propensity of Islam to be used, or abused, to inflame passionate indignation and to encourage reckless, even suicidal violence against its perceived enemies? It’s hard enough publicly to acknowledge this terrible problem without inviting accusations of racism and religious intolerance: harder still to conceive of any possible remedy, even in the long term, much less the short.

The one thing all three factors have in common, apart from the obvious impossibility of rectifying any of them in the short or medium term, is that a violent assault by the Americans, with or without their allies, on those who harbour, practise or condone terrorism would manifestly aggravate every one of these root causes of terrorism, making future terrorist outrages likelier rather than the reverse. It’s idle to suppose that any military action against terrorists or their sponsors might deter future terrorism: it could only encourage it. (An obvious drawback to the current demonisation of Osama bin Laden and the attribution to him of responsibility for every act of terrorism, everywhere, is the apparent implication that if he could be eliminated, terrorism would either cease or at least be much reduced. In practice, though, it would surely make little or no difference.)

War on democracy?

“This is a war, a war on democracy and freedom.” This is either meaningless, or simply wrong. A war demands an adversary, a definable area of conflict, objectives on both sides. The terrorism problem has none of these characteristics. The terrorists are not attacking western targets because of the west’s enjoyment of freedom or democracy: they exploit them, indeed need them. To call such a complex problem, demanding such complex responses, a “war”, is simply to brain-wash western opinion into the illusion that the only effective response lies in military action, answering violence with violence.

Does George W. measure up?

It’s illuminating that Clinton, who was in Australia at the time of the attacks, got himself to the scene in New York before George W. Bush, who was actually in the country on 11 September. The initial panicky transportation of the President from one end of the country to the other before his advisers recognised the symbolic importance of his return to Washington (and a visit to New York), and his inarticulate first utterances on what had happened, gave a disastrous impression: Mayor Giuliani of New York has emerged as incomparably more articulate, displaying far more real and inspiring leadership under stress, than his President. As one e-mail correspondent friend has commented, –
>> Can there be room for anything but black despair? The American leadership seems the worst possible for handling this sort of crisis, and the prospect must be for yet more of the very same mistaken policies and responses which ultimately provoked yesterday’s attacks. Moreover, this must surely finally burst the great American economic bubble, again with disastrous consequences for the rest of us. << [dr]


And another friend well expressed one of my own first reactions to the President’s early comments:
>>In particular, the epithet “cowardly”, always levelled at the perpetrators of such deeds, seems to me to miss the point spectacularly. Those behind these extraordinary events can undoubtedly be called many things — callously indifferent to human life on a satanic scale, fanatics driven by a perverted religious quest etc. The one thing they cannot be called, I should have thought, is cowards. After all, they were fully prepared to lay down their own lives, along with the thousands of others they sacrificed without scruple, for their misguided cause. In different circumstances, they would be regarded as heroic figures, as, indeed, they have been hailed in parts of the Muslim world. If they were cowards, they would be easier to deal with because they would, presumably, be responsive to the same checks and balances – not least an instinct for self-preservation – as reasonable human beings. I don’t begin to have an answer to how democracies should respond to this kind of threat, which can clearly draw on organisational resources far greater than anyone had previously suspected, but I am sure we are not going to find one without a better understanding of the sort of people – or “folks”, as Bush with jarring and characteristic inappropriateness called them – we are up against.<< [mh]

Our American cousins

As always, a human tragedy has produced heroism, self-sacrifice, dedication, compassion, making one proud to belong to the human race. In Britain the welling-up of fellow-feeling for the American people, immediate victims or not, and the prospect that the British casualties in the tip of Manhattan will run into many hundreds of dead, have been a useful reminder of the extraordinarily solid linkage between the two countries, on the professional, business, cultural and especially family and personal levels. Our governments may be kidding themselves with their oratory about the “special relationship”, but the striking demonstrations of sympathy and solidarity with the Americans in our streets and squares in recent days, from Buckingham Palace to Grosvenor Square, represent a reality beyond the reach of politicians.

What’s the alternative?

I realise that this commentary has been sadly negative. If, as seems clearly to be the case, violent retaliation against someone anyone risks making matters worse, what alternative reaction am I proposing? I have no alternative to propose, other than a start to the long-term global reforms that might eventually assuage the anger, bitterness and frustration which characterise so many people in the developing world. But it’s no justification for a course of action likely to aggravate rather than to resolve a problem, however nightmarish, that its critics have no better immediate course of action to propose. If I knew the short-term answer, I would no doubt be Prime Minister, or perhaps Northern Ireland Secretary, not a disinterested observer enjoying the freedom to pontificate about what should and should not be done, unhampered by any responsibility for doing it. I have no doubt which role I prefer.

14 September 2001

And three months later….

I need to modify quite a lot of what I wrote just three days after “11/9” in the light of later events and much further thought and discussion.  It seems clearer now (December 2001) that a military response to what was in effect a military-scale attack by a foreign rgime and its al-Qaeda associate was not just inevitable, but fully justified and probably productive in its net effect. There is now overwhelming evidence of the sheer scale, global reach, sophistication and resources of the al-Qaeda network, unique among terrorist organisations. Destroying its main national centre, along with the overthrow of the rgime that harboured and was integrated with it, must greatly reduce the risk of further mass atrocities, without of course eliminating it. The Americans deserve applause for their (largely successful) efforts to minimise civilian casualties in a discriminating military operation.  Its success showed again that air power alone is unlikely to achieve serious political results and that action by troops on the ground (in this case mainly Afghans) is essential. The reactions of other Muslim countries and of Muslim communities elsewhere have proved much less hostile than many of us had predicted.  Those who persist in condemning the Americans’ military action can legitimately do so, I think, only from a position of all-out pacifism, holding that violence can never be justified in any circumstances, whatever the provocation or threat:  which entails acceptance of the inevitable consequence that violent rgimes uninhibited by moral scruple about the use of force will always prevail against liberal democracy.

If the Americans had refrained from the use of force, left al-Qaeda and the Taliban in place in Afghanistan, and relied for their response on closing bank accounts and applying diplomatic and economic pressures on rgimes thought to harbour or connive at terrorism, the likelihood of future atrocities on the scale of 9/11 would have been far greater than it is following the US military operation in Afghanistan.  Of course the risk is still there:  but it has plainly been greatly reduced.

However, there are some new misgivings:

  • Why has Mr Blair thought it necessary or desirable to assert such a high profile for Britain in dogged support of the Americans?  Full vocal support has been fully justified, but was it sensible to get out so far ahead of the Germans and the French, effectively at the expense of a coherent EU position and of reviving doubts about our European versus our transatlantic commitment when the chips were down?  Among other things, it exposed us to humiliation when our evident enthusiasm for sending in thousands of British troops was casually rejected by Washington.
  • The US determination to go it alone in their Afghan operation (apart from a few symbolic British “special forces”) may foreshadow a new and ominous form of interventionist isolationism in whose decisions the views and concerns, even interests, of America’s allies may count for little or nothing.
  • The idea that Afghanistan, with its centuries-old history of war-lordism and violence and the conflicting national interests of its neighbours, can be turned into a modern liberal democracy by a few thousand multinational soldiers “led” by Britain but under ultimate US control, with some cosmopolitan UN administrators and negotiators seeking to implement pious resolutions of the Security Council, all within a year or two at most, seems implausible.  What appears to be the American instinct – overthrow the Taliban, wipe out al-Qaeda’s Afghan base, if possible get rid of bin Laden, establish a generous international relief  programme, and then get out – is surely right.
  • What happens now?

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