Errors in the “War on Terror” must not cloud the enduring legacy of 9/11

9/11 has been the most important event to shape foreign policy this century since the Second World War. It was unforeseen in a post-Charter world that the United States would face an attack of this nature. The attack on Pearl Harbour had been in Hawaii, against a naval base and in the context of a world war. The Oklahoma City bombing was indeed a terrorist act but committed by domestic maniacs and on a significantly smaller scale. The means, extent and effect were all unprecedented. The attacks on the 11th of September 2001 took the form of a series of coordinated suicide bombings against targets in New York City and the Washington DC area. On the fateful morning, 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger jets. They intentionally crashed two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City. Both towers collapsed within two hours. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia. A fourth plane was part-salvaged by passengers and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, preventing it from reaching its intended target in Washington DC. Nearly 3000 people died. The last time this many deaths had occurred in an attack on a single day was during the American Civil War which ended in 1865.

Ten years, two wars, billions of dollars and thousands of dead soldiers later, many criticise the American response to the 9/11 attack, coined the ‘War on Terror’ by George Bush. Under international law, ‘war’ is a term of art and its use by the Bush Administration is perhaps misleading as it suggests that the law of armed conflict engages in various territories across the world where  the US perceives a mere threat to its security. The flawed nature of such an approach is immediately self-evident, not least in respect of determining who is a legitimate military target. More accurately, the US-led response may be described as denoting a global military, political, legal and ideological struggle against organizations designated as terrorist and regimes that were accused of having a connection to them or providing them with support or were perceived, or presented as posing a threat to the US and its allies in general. Some argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a ‘huge overreaction.’ Yet others contend that the US approach serves to reinforce US hegemony. Constant breaches of the law on the use of force and of international humanitarian law have created an uneasy perception that the US believes it is not bound by the rule of law in international relations. Others believe that counter-terrorism is a matter for domestic law enforcement and no new international law principles on terrorism are required for this purpose. Whatever view one takes on any of these issues, the terrorist threat is a real one, as became clear exactly ten years ago.

Like George Bush or hate him; but how does one respond to events so tragic and inhuman, perpetrated against innocent civilians? President Obama has dropped the nomenclature of a ‘war on terror’ and referred instead in his National Security Strategy to a ‘Network of Hatred and Evil.’ One can scarcely deny that Obama’s approach is largely the same as that of Bush as is amply demonstrated by the treatment of detainees of Guantanamo Bay, the perpetuation of the war in Afghanistan and the targeted killing of Osama Bin Laden. Yes, these policies can and perhaps ought to be criticised for the breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law associated with them. However, all too often, we forget the children who lost their fathers, the mothers who lost their children, companies that crumbled and livelihoods that were in an instant destroyed. We also forget that this unfortunate calamity ought not be repeated. Without advocating revenge, it must be conceded that preventing another 9/11 shall not be an easy task.

In the midst of flawed wars, condoned torture and the clash of civilisations, the enduring legacy of 9/11 must not be forgotten. Overpowering hope and not sadness must suffuse the accounts of that day as we struggle to make the world a safer place while maintaining the bond of humanity that transcends religious, cultural and ideological divides.


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