Posts Tagged ‘9/11’

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

September 11, 2011

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.

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9/11: Socrates, Machiavelli, Christ and Gandhi

September 14, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

A year ago, a post (September Eleven) on this blog used the story of Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, to argue that humiliation and injustice were powerful motivators for vengeance that can border on insanity. The post triggered an extended conversation that extracted the following central observation for further discussion:

It is not enough to give historical/sociological/political explanations for vengeful responses to acts of humiliation. These are important but one also has to ask simple questions like: If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? What leads B to make a choice? In other words, one has to be analytic and moral as well. (more…)

September Eleven

September 11, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

We have short memories.

Terror did not arrive in America in 2001 when Mohamed Atta flew a plane into the World Trade Center. It did not arrive even in 1993, when Ramzi Yousef planned to blow up that very same bastion of American power.

It arrived almost a hundred years ago when, after a spate of bombings in New York City, the abode of J.P. Morgan – then the symbol of American capitalism –  was wired up with explosives.

The protagonist was not a Muslim, but a black Christian man. It was neither his blackness nor his Christianity that made him do it – he could just as easily have been white, or any other color or religion. His principal munitions expert was as white as one could be.

And nor was he was poor. Indeed he was quite well off: in those days he was the proud owner of a Model T Ford; he spoke good English, and was courting the woman he looked forward to marrying.

So what happened? Why did Coalhouse Walker give up everything, declare himself President of the Provisional American Republic, and invite certain death by embarking on a suicide mission? Why did others join him in this act of rebellion? Why did Mother’s Younger Brother, a talented youth from an upper class white family, switch his allegiance to Coalhouse Walker? Did all these men, as normal as you or me, suddenly go insane from one day to the next?

You must have guessed by now. It is a fictional account, one of the stories from Ragtime, a novel published by E. L. Doctorow long ago in 1975. But fiction is often more compelling than fact. It is not for a description of events that one reads fiction; it is for the insights into what lies underneath and behind those events.

The insight could not be any clearer. Humiliation: the Negro’s Model T Ford trashed by the arrogance of power, with no amount of pleas, interventions, or recourse to the law able to get it restored; the man himself denied a place in society, denied the dignity due a human being, humiliated again and again with impunity.

This is how Doctorow describes Coalhouse Walker’s reaction:

Even to someone who had followed the case from its beginnings, Coalhouse’s strategy of vengeance must have seemed the final proof of his insanity… Or is injustice, once suffered, a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s? 

Ponder this. Coalhouse Walker did something so seemingly insane because he was pushed to the point where the laws of logic and the principles of reason no longer made sense. Note how fiction foreshadows fact:

All of this happened over a period of two to three weeks. Later, when the name Coalhouse Walker came to symbolize murder and arson, these earlier attempts to find redress no longer mattered. Even at this date we can’t condone the mayhem done in his cause but it is important to know the truth insofar as that is possible.

I first read Ragtime a long time back, and in 2001 all the talk about poverty being the root cause of terrorism brought it back to my mind. Poverty has always been with us; terrorism occurs in long-separated spikes. The association of poverty with terrorism is very weak; that of humiliation is quite strong.

I had thought of this off and on, written around it, but never explicitly in the context of September 11. As compelling as the story of Coalhouse Walker was, it was fiction. I was seeking a confirmation from real life that was unambiguous, not inferred – one in which the correspondence of humiliation to defiance was beyond doubt. 

Then I found it, in an odd place, and, by itself, an incident in a minor key. Here is Yehudi Menuhin, describing in his autobiography how his parents, newly arrived in New York City from Palestine, searched for an apartment in the Bronx in anticipation of his birth:

Obliged to find an apartment of their own, they searched the neighborhood and after several disappointments chose one within walking distance of the park. Showing them out after they had viewed it, the landlady observed, with every intention of pleasing her new tenants and clinching the bargain, ‘And you’ll be glad to know I don’t take Jews.’ History, in New York at any rate, has muffled that voice, but how bitterly in my parents’ ears must have sounded the hostility which, having propelled them to the shores of the New World, had followed them there! Her mistake made clear to her, the anti-Semitic landlady was renounced and another apartment found where in due course they gathered friends about them, fellow students and other young people as poor and light-hearted as themselves, who created a cheerful haven against prejudice. But the landlady’s blunder left its mark. Back on the street my mother took a vow: her unborn child would wear a label proclaiming his race to the world. He would be called ‘the Jew’.

Yehudi Menuhin describes his mother’s reaction: “that an insult to her race should prompt the proud assertion of it [was] a reflex absolutely to be expected.”

Humiliation is a powerful motivator eliciting reactions that can vary from the personal defiance of Yehudi Menuhin’s mother to the destructive vengeance of a Coalhouse Walker. It is a provocation that upends the laws of logic and the principles of reason. And when the humiliation is visited on entire nations the reactions can be even more unpredictable defying the expectations of conventional rationality. They can lead directly to the violence of anger or be tapped into a battle for the restoration of dignity. It matters little whether the battle is real or contrived, whether the end is victory or defeat. The laws of logic cease to hold.

There were times when power could strike in the far corners of the world and the response could not but be localized. But this is the age of globalization – as capital is global, so is vengeance. The arrogance of power could do well to glimpse itself in a mirror, even if it be the mirror of fiction.

This article has the following sequel: 9/11: The Burden of the Past and the Promise of the Future

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