In the last few years, I have written a great deal about 9/11 and the war on terror, including my recent co-authored book which tries to put the events into some kind of context and critically evaluates the far-reaching consequences of the US-led response to the attacks. At the risk of repeating things which have already been said far more eloquently in the veritable tidal wave of memorializing editorials, articles, books, documentaries and television shows, and fully aware that some hold ‘9/11’ to be off-limits to critical debate, I nonetheless want to express my hopes for this important time of reflection around the world.
I really hope that in commemorating the events of ten years ago, we will for once recall our shared humanity and properly acknowledge all of the victims caught up in the maelstrom of violence and counter-violence of the past decade. The uncounted innocent individuals and families who perished in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hands of Coalition forces, and the thousands of young soldiers sent there to kill and die, are as much the victims of 9/11 as the 3,000 murdered on that fateful day. They deserve to have their names recorded and remembered too. We must not perpetuate the hatred of violent ideologues by adopting their diabolical division of the world into worthy and unworthy victims – those to be properly mourned and those to be callously dismissed as merely a means to some political goal. Such thinking only entrenches the violent imagination which led to the attacks in the first place. Sometimes it haunts me that the hundreds of thousands of people lying in their graves in Iraq and Afghanistan might have been heroes of the Arab revolution today if we had not tried to liberate them with bombs after 9/11. I wish I had worked harder to try and stop those attacks.
I really hope that in remembering the attacks, we will also remember how unworthy of our values and convictions the response really was; how in our rage and desire for revenge, we lost our humanity and allowed hundreds of thousands of innocent people to be killed in our name, uncounted, unremembered and unacknowledged by our occupying military forces; how in our state of perpetual fear and insecurity, we allowed lawless practices of torture and prisoner abuse to become everyday occurrences which have ruined the lives of innumerable innocent people and cast suspicion on our military and security services, all the while building a security state which has been allowed to operate beyond accountability; how in our failed political imagination, we came to view whole communities as a threat and treated them with suspicion and hostility until they were left cowering and afraid to leave their homes; how in our false certainty about our just cause and purpose, we destroyed the homes and infrastructure of entire countries and brought violence, instability and unimaginable levels of suffering and insecurity to whole regions of the world.
I really hope that in reflecting on the events of September 11, 2001, we will make an honest account of the real costs of our reaction to the attacks, of our war against terrorism: the more than 10,000 Coalition soldiers and contractors, and 120,000 to one million killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; the many millions more ordinary people injured, maimed, traumatised, and displaced from their homes; the tens of thousands tortured, rendered, disappeared and detained without charge or trial; the $3-4 trillion spent on military operations still ongoing, and the opportunity costs this represents; the erosion of human rights and civil liberties, the poisoning of community relations, the rise in levels of distrust in the authorities, and the erosion of legitimacy for our national and international institutions; the physically and morally maimed veterans appearing as homeless on our streets and committing suicide at rates far above the norm.
I really hope that in reflecting on how many lives have been lost and the colossal resources wasted that we will have the courage to acknowledge the futility of responding to violence with even greater violence, as if such savagery could ever really make us feel safe, secure and proud of ourselves. The fact is that despite the horror of the past ten years of war on terror, most people feel no safer today than they did on September 10, 2001; actually, most people fear further terrorist attacks in the coming year. The fact is that despite all efforts, terrorism and political violence continues largely unabated: on 9/11, there was one single al-Qaeda with a few hundred members in Afghanistan, but now al-Qaeda has emerged in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the Maghreb, and elsewhere. The war on terror has failed utterly; all of this blood and treasure has been for nothing. More than this, it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy, as every new violent intervention provokes more organized violent resistance requiring new counter-terrorism operations. I hope that facing up to these sobering facts will make our leaders consider all the evidence which shows that terrorism cannot be prevented or resolved through violence, as the Israeli experience has so clearly demonstrated for more than fifty years; that violence is counterproductive and ineffective in convincing people to adopt peaceful means of pursuing their grievances; and that there are alternative and more effective ways of addressing the roots of conflict that do not require thousands of civilian deaths or the sacrifice of our values and beliefs.
I really hope that in remembering 9/11 we will acknowledge that things could have turned out completely differently if only our leaders had had the necessary courage and vision; that despite claims to the contrary, it was not inevitable that we should respond with such rage, violence, indifference, lack of forethought, hubris; that we missed a genuine opportunity to reform and reorder the world for the better; that we were not forced to act as we did, but that we always had a set of choices. It is one of my deepest sorrows that the unprecedented opportunity presented by the crisis of 9/11 was not taken to remake and reorder the international system into one of real cooperation and effectiveness in tackling some of the key challenges facing us. I firmly believe that, given the level of shock and sympathy at the attacks, the whole world would have followed America in any efforts to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict, move towards democracy and human rights in authoritarian regimes, reform international institutions, strengthen international criminal law to deal with terrorists and war criminals anywhere in the world, restrict and control weapons proliferation, reform the world’s economic system, and cooperate on climate change – among others. Instead, the moment was completely squandered, sympathy was transformed into hatred and disdain by the brutal overreaction, and every one of these problems was effectively put aside to fight an irrational war against an abstract noun.
Most of all, I hope that this year, as we each take a moment to remember the horror of that day and the decade of violence that followed, we will, as citizens and human beings, make a sincere pledge to try and be better than we have shown ourselves to be in the last few years; that we will make a real effort to find alternative ways of dealing with violent conflict other than by ever greater counter-violence; that we will try and restore the relationships broken and the damage done by our violent folly, both at home and abroad; that we will stand up for universal human rights, the rule of law, democratic participation, restorative justice, solidarity with the stateless and displaced, and the shared humanity of all; and that we will finally admit that war and violence has not worked and give peace and non-violence serious and proper consideration, if for no other reason than to ensure that the named and unnamed dead did not die in some pointless and perpetual cycle of violence. It is my hope that on this important anniversary, and following the courageous example of our brothers and sisters all over the Arab world, we too will take the opportunity to try and change the course of the last ten years. The choice is ours to make; there’s no better time to make it.