The politics of fear, based on lies, is an effective means of manipulating any electorate. Perhaps it has never been applied so effectively as by consecutive American presidents in the aftermath of 9/11, when they took on al-Qaeda, with its slingshot, and portrayed the motley crew of Osama bin Laden as Goliath.
Later, when bin Laden was assassinated, the United States found an annotated list of al-Qaeda members from 2002. There were only 170 names. He had identified 20 who had died – only seven had achieved the bizarre goal of being “martyred” – 11 had been detained by the authorities, and 19 had simply left – some to join a more doctrinaire group, others to study, but most just go home.
Bin Laden had been working on his terrorist project for several years, and with the list of dedicated adherents numbering only 120, he chose to expand it with five of his sons. Al-Qaeda members therefore included Omar Bin Laden, who left the organization in 2000 and lived peacefully in Normandy for a long time, married to Jane Felix-Browne, a former parish councilor from Cheshire in the UK.
Whether or not this is the sum total of al-Qaeda, it was a paltry enemy facing the United States on September 10, 2001.
The next day, this group committed one of the greatest crimes in history.
The idea that killing 3,000 civilians was God’s will was insane by any measure.
However, the challenge we face on this anniversary is to understand how and why the West chose to promote al-Qaeda as a counterweight to the United States – a 21st century equivalent of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
First, we must ask ourselves: Was al-Qaeda really an existential threat to the world order on September 12, 2001? Obviously, that was not the case. They had murdered many people in spectacular, televised fashion – a terrible offence.
Yet, unfortunately, there are many very real threats to the human race.
For example, I grew up with the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust. In 1983, I was one of more than 100 million people who watched the original broadcast of The Day After, a film depicting the end of the world. Who has not trembled at the idea of the advent of the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD)? In the film’s final scene, one of the few people still alive desperately turned the dial of his shortwave radio in search of another survivor.
Today’s generation faces another Armageddon, as we destroy our own planet through greed and climate change. Every year we face other perils, from the six million people who have died of starvation so far in 2021, to an estimated 4.5 million people who have died in the current pandemic.
9/11 was hugely heightened both because it happened in the United States and because it was televised, and yet in terms of the chaos that we humans have intentionally wreaked on the each other, it was really little more than a jolt.
We Americans tend not to sympathize with the death of brown people, but last year alone there were 19,444 war deaths in Afghanistan and another 19,056 in Yemen.
9/11 wasn’t even unique when we assess how much harm a small group can do.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh acted almost alone when he planted his bomb in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring more than 680 others.
The ‘extremists’ aren’t just Muslim either: McVeigh was a member of the so-called ‘Patriotic Movement’, an association of more than a thousand violent right-wing conspiratorial groups that pose a genuine internal threat to the stability of the United States. United. helped give us Donald Trump and contributed to the recent attempt to overthrow the US government.
“An existential threat”
A 2017 report by the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund found that there were 201 terrorist incidents on US soil between 2008 and 2016. The majority of these, 115, were by far-right groups, including 33 killed, compared to 63 by “Islamic extremists”. ”, eight of which ended in deaths.
In the meantime, compare that to the fact that the United States reports about 20,000 homicides a year – or about 180,000 in the same 9 years.
So while the horrific nature of 9/11 must never be forgotten, it is sheer folly to conclude, as essentially all American politicians do, that “Islamic extremism” was, or even is, an existential threat. for our nation of 330 million people.
Guns can be a security threat to Americans, climate change certainly is, but only a tiny minority of Americans will ever encounter a “demented Muslim radical”.
Yet that only tells half the story. We also need to examine how and why “Islamic extremism” has continued to be at the center of American foreign policy, instead of being dragged through the criminal courts with Tim McVeigh.
It is certainly true, at least in my opinion, that Osama bin Laden’s violent aims were malicious – mass murder is not the way to create a utopian society.
At the same time, of course, we have to wonder if American generals are leading the way to a better world.
The response to 9/11
I was talking to the principal of my son’s elementary school after 9/11. He had served two decades in the British Navy, and I was curious to know what he thought of the “military solution” offered to many global problems. He said World War II was the only conflict he deemed worthy of British intervention in the last 100 years. Certainly, we must support those who challenge tyranny, but that does not mean that we must send our own sons and daughters to invade their country.
The results of the last two decades seem to confirm this.
The last war in Afghanistan was a model of futility – by April 2021, some 241,000 people had died, but we ended up back where we started, with the Taliban returning to power. The chaos sown in the Middle East, from Iraq to Libya, is equally striking.
So where is the flourishing freedom promised by the United States?
It is not the mere fact of our various invasions that has caused hatred in the Muslim world. After all, our aggression is commonplace.
Since 1776, the United States has had less than 20 years without failure during which the country has not involved itself in one war or another. Here, much of the answer can be found in the appalling policies we have adopted. Every time the United States takes up arms, we announce that our goal is the promotion of democracy. In the wake of 9/11, however, the first casualty has been the rule of law.
We rushed into a war in Afghanistan. The response to 9/11 should have been a criminal investigation, not a war. Surely the United States could have capitalized on the unparalleled sympathy expressed around the world to stop bin Laden and al-Qaeda without pretending that the world was near the apocalypse? Why would we try to “martyrify” a group of radicals for whom martyrdom was the ultimate honor?
Then we gloated in establishing Guantanamo Bay on January 11, 2002 – claiming that indefinite detention without trial in a legal black hole was the way to make America safe. We didn’t stop to ask ourselves if it was wise to reject legal principles dating back to Magna Carta in 1215. We said that the Muslims we gathered did not deserve the protections of the Geneva Conventions because they did not respect our “rules of war”. – as if, somehow, bin Laden’s crimes were exponentially worse than those of Adolf Hitler, who exterminated several million people in his death camps.
In the meantime, for several hundred years, the world has gradually moved closer to eliminating torture. This led, in 1985, to the United Nations Convention against Torture.
Overnight after 9/11 we dismissed this, with Donald Rumsfeld announcing that waterboarding was nothing more than an “enhanced interrogation technique”.
It was telling that he borrowed this term from the Gestapo, who called waterboarding verschärfte vernehmung (enhanced interrogation), rather than from the medieval Inquisition who described it as tortura del agua (water torture). We sent the general who oversaw Guantanamo’s abuses to Abu Ghraib, to bring the blessings of freedom there as well.
Indeed, by then we had already invaded Iraq, and when we had the chance to support fledgling democracies during the Arab Spring, we either stabbed them in the back at a crucial moment, such as when we withdrew air support from the Kurds in northeast Syria and basically invited Turkish President Erdogan to attack them, or we actively worked for a military coup, like in Egypt.
From waterboarding to drones
Then, when the constitutional law professor turned President Obama into a recoil from torture, he substituted execution without trial — as if being turned into a ‘bug splat’ by a Predator drone was somehow a step up. about being left to rot in Guantanamo.
In the end, hypocrisy is the leaven that ferments hatred, and there can be no more blatant hypocrisy than advertising a project to promote freedom while torturing people into it. accept. All of these policies, and many more, have alienated those we should have courted, including Muslims around the world.
Yet, in the end, we failed in our greatest duty: to inspire people to dream of a better life.
President Joe Biden recently said that the United States has spent $2 trillion in Afghanistan alone, or more than $50,000 per Afghan citizen. The World Bank estimates the average annual income in this impoverished country at $500, so my American taxes represented 100 years of wealth for every Afghan man, woman and child.
What did we do with our money?
We funneled most of it to the arms manufacturers and venal members of the regime we installed in Kabul. What have we given the Afghan people for such a large sum?
They say the only lesson we learn from history is that we never learn from history. Hopefully, we can look back over the past two decades and learn something useful, for once.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Al Jazeera.