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Ten years that shook the world

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5 September 2011 14:55

Tim Dunne is Professor of International Relations in the School of Political and International Studies, University of Queensland. This blog draws from his new book, with Ken Booth, Terror in our Time.

'A decade without a name' is how the public intellectual Timothy Garton Ash described the period after the fall of the Twin Towers. In our new book, Terror in our Time, Ken Booth and I argue that terror and counter-terror has significantly shaped the contours of world order. It has not been a nameless decade. This was 9/11 - 10.

This was the age of al Qaeda and a time of terror for the tens of thousands of victims of its violence, the hundreds of thousands more who were killed by counter-terrorism, and the countless millions across the world caught up in one way or another by the changes resulting from terror in our time. Warfare on a massive scale was conducted. Governments fell; political and military reputations were shredded.

9/11 has had consequences that have radiated far beyond the target of the original attack. International alliances have been re-fashioned, with new strategic allies coming together in South Asia and the Arab Middle East. Counter-terrorism policies in scores of countries — notably Russia, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia — were used to re-balance political power in favour of state authorities and away from individual citizens and their activities in civil society.

Israeli authorities saw the political opportunity to use the label 'terrorists' more effectively against Palestinian groups it opposed. Although the term war on terror is always identified with the US President, George W Bush, it was the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, who is credited with the first use of the phrase. In a televised speech on 11 September, he talked about the coming conflict as 'an international war waged by a coalition of the free world against the forces of terror and all those who think they can threaten freedom'.

Similarly, the phrase 'global war on terror' did not emerge from the White House, but was first used by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on 17 September 2001, in an attempt to build an anti-terror coalition and cement the special relationship with Washington. Tying British foreign policy so closely to a sequence of reckless strategies on the part of the US was to be Blair's downfall.

In more profound ways than such impacts on individual state policies, these ten years shook world order. Ideas about war were altered, untested strategies of counter-terrorism were implemented and legal questions about how to deal with countries that have radical jihadist extremists on their soil remain unanswered.

Sovereign states generally saw a hardening of their boundaries — through tighter border controls — rather than the loosening that advocates of globalisation anticipated. Executive authority was invoked by prime ministers and presidents in the name of securing the state. The most egregious example of this was the challenge mounted by the United States to the International Convention against Torture.

The decade saw the further articulation of the neoconservative vision of America's destiny to lead the world through the active and forceful promotion of democracy. At the same time, there was a weakening of American hegemony as the war on terror generated enemies abroad, sceptics at home, and growing doubters among traditional allies. After spending something like three trillion dollars, and failing to win the peace following two wars, the United States looks a diminished world power as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is upon us.

There have been several surprises, too, regarding the fortunes of al Qaeda since 9/11. They failed to carry out another spectacular attack, one exceeding 9/11 in lethality — something many expected and feared as images of the Twin Towers buckling and collapsing were replayed time and again in the days and weeks following the attack.

Al Qaeda also failed to enhance its legitimacy in the Muslim world, and indeed it went into marked decline in the second half of the decade, paralleling the decline in US hegemonial authority, but more so. This was manifest in its increasing dependence on local micro-terrorist activity, where it is hoped that small amounts of resource (in money and lives) will bring high returns in terror.

In the ten years of almost constant fighting and continuous terror since 2001, the imagery of the bolt from the blue that September morning remains as powerful as ever. It is kept alive by current news stories, by personal hurt, by the media, by politicians, and by religion. When the reckoning is done, it is our view that, in the democratic world, these will be seen as ten largely wasted years.

The audit of the decade, presented in Terror in our Time, reveals a sense of disappointment and frustration with respect to what world leaders and individual societies have made of the years since 9/11. Alternative responses were available. Terrible mistakes could have been avoided. We could have done so much better. We might next time if we reflect wisely on 9/11 - 10.

Photo, by Flickr user fekaylius.

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