September 11th has changed the world. The memory of the horror of the attacks in the very heart of the US is branded on humanity’s minds. Most of us will never forget what we witnessed (and television made us all into witnesses), where we were, what we did when it happened. If we take a moment we may feel that even now, almost twelve years later, our thoughts, our hearts, and if we be religious, our prayers go out to those lost, and those bereaved.
But, sadly, to take that moment is becoming increasingly more difficult these days.
It is more difficult because we, as citizens of the ‚western world‘, have reacted badly to the terrible tragedy that befell us on that day in September 2001. In our pain and our anger we allowed our world to be changed by our very pain and anger – and our fear. Contrary to what the former President George W. Bush told us in an Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People on 20th September 2001 the reaction of governments throughout the western world were, and to this day are, more on the side of fear than of freedom, more on the side of cruelty than of justice. Our world has changed. But many of these changes were our own doing.
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby becomes a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
(F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146)
Fighting ‚monsters‘, governments throughout the western world are in the most immediate danger of turning into monsters themselves: In the name of freedom they cut away on our civil rights; in the name of safety they cripple our freedom; in the name of justice they wage wars and kill off ‚potential threats‘. Maybe they are acting like overly-protective parents, maybe in the struggle they have lost their bearings, maybe Nietzsche’s warning applies – but make no mistake: this is a well-meaning reading of the text. Take away but an ounce of benevolence and the outlook is much grimmer.
The western world is locked in a war that has been called a “task that does not end”. A war against terror, they call it – Is it just me or does that sound a bit paradoxical?
Is it locked in this war, because some simple minds that happened to be in power that fateful day in September honestly believed that terror could be countered with violence? Is it locked in this war, because human justice is only ever about revenge? Because an eye for an eye is the only way we understand justice?
Can we really be so blind as to not see that war is itself just that: terror?
Ask the mothers and fathers who lost their sons and daughters in the terror of 9/11,
ask the brothers and sisters of those who perished,
ask husbands and wives bereaved,
ask sons and daughters orphaned
if the blood that was shed in their name helped dry a single tear.
Revenge cannot compensate loss. As Emily Dickinson so rightly wrote:
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it –
Block it up
With Other – and ‚twill yawn the more –
You cannot solder an Abyss
Here we are then: The great theme here should be that of loss, loss and how we handle it. Loss, by it’s very nature, means we cannot ‚insert the thing that caused‘ the gap. That thing is gone, lost to us for ever. And the gap, the abyss it leaves yawns. We will have to learn to (re)build our lives around it. It is a painful task. We handled it badly. We lashed out.
What I find, well, disturbing is the number of people who openly or silently condone the chosen direction. Of course, opposition to the American stance on terrorism was construed as anti-Americanism from the very beginning. Maybe President Bush saw to that, when he declared that you could either be with America or with the terrorists. But what is that supposed to mean: ‚anti-Americanism‘. Disagreeing with the chosen course of any given government, does not make me anti-American (or anti-British, or anti-What-ever-land for that matter). I can admire the undoubtedly great achievements, both cultural and political, of that great nation and still disagree with a government decision, can’t I. But the label is meant to imply that I can’t: The label anti-American is the deliberate and somewhat crafty conflation of very different things: carrying dissenting political views on the one hand and hatred of America and Americans as such on the other. Implying a hatred of everything American, of the Americans themselves, the label anti-American is shaped into a weapon to discredit anyone and everyone that dare criticise the chosen course: Either you are with us, and with us all the way, or you are against us. Either you agree or you are supporting terrorism. Either you are good, or you are evil. If you are labelled anti-American, you are not worth listening to, all your arguments are automatically discarded.
I take umbrage at such treatment. And still that does not make me anti-American.
Well, then. If you would humour me a little longer…
When we see them call back the dogs now, we must not think it is to end this ‚endless task‘. But their barking has disturbed many and the pack grew weary – so now they’ll hunt with hawks instead. Those birds are called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as “drones”. The new master falconer, President Barak Obama – the very man that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, savour the irony – makes extensive use of them. According to statements from Sen. Lindsey Graham and others in February 2013 at least 4700 were killed by US UAVS – and the context of his remarks suggests that this might only count CIA -led attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – regions, I might add, outside the declared combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
These ’nonbattlefield targeted killings‘ are frequently carried out as pre-emptive strikes – people are killed before the crime they are believed to have planned is committed. Pre-emptive justice. Swift justice. No charge, no trial, just the sentence. To me and many others this is a strange kind of justice, one we want no part in. This reeks of cruelty, not justice.
But all this is relatively far away from our homes and thus it is easily painted over with talk of the ‚just cause‘. Well, let us take it somewhere a lot closer to home – into our very homes, in fact:
Let’s start simple: Compare travelling abroad at the turn of the millennium with what it is now. A flight from the US to anywhere in Europe, say. If it were only the much more rigid security checks you are submitted to, you might shrug it off. Aye, let them search for guns or explosives, we all want to come down to earth in one piece. But it is not just that, of course. Every detail of your flight is recorded. How you booked, how you paid, where you sit, what meal you choose (do try the bacon: avoiding pork might get you flagged as a potential threat – not kidding here). Asthmatics had better be sure to manage an eight-hour flight (plus several hours in security) without their meds, because they will not be allowed to carry them… Is this on the side of freedom? Well, I smell fear. Can you smell it yet? Then let me take you into your home:
Under ‚anti-terrorist legislation‘ security and law-enforcement agencies throughout the western world have been granted the freedom (and an exceptional range of tools) to invade your privacy. They probably know you are reading this text. Maybe, if my ravings here have been flagged already (and I certainly would not put it beyond them), they are working on a dossier on you this very moment. They know who you called on the phone and who called you (and when, and for how long). They can and may read all your email. And let’s be honest: It did not take an Edward Snowden to tell us. It was obvious from the start. Give them the instruments for total surveillance and they will use them. If surveillance is your job, that is what you do. The only thing mildly surprising might be the scale of it.
Of course, you may tell me that you do not have anything to hide. Well, do you seal your letters? Do you close the bathroom door when you go to take a leak? Like you, I have nothing illegal to hide. It does not follow, however, that I want to share my entire life with everyone, or feel comfortable knowing some government agent could be snooping around in my private life right now. Now do you smell the fear? Well, it certainly does not smell of freedom.
Now follow me out into the streets.
Under the diverse (counter-)terrorism acts in the UK and elsewhere your rights to free speech and freedom of information have been severely hurt. Go to any demo with a camera. If things get rough between protesters and police try to capture it on film. Chances are, you’ll get banged up for obstruction. Or, if you’re really unlucky, someone throws something like section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000 (Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 sect 76) at you:
elicit[ing] information about an individual who is or has been—
(i)a member of Her Majesty’s forces,
(ii)a member of any of the intelligence services, or
which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.
Now you’re in trouble, because that could mean up to ten years inside.
Absurd and unlikely? Not entirely. While it is (as yet) unlikely you would actually be tried under any such law, you may be held and searched and thus effectively be kept from exercising your right to peaceful protest. And these things have happened. Even to British MPs .
What is in jeopardy here and everywhere in the world is nothing less than the universality of human rights. Among the human rights in danger are the articles 9, 10, 11, 12, 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if you are a citizen of the so-called liberal west; if you are unlucky enough to be a citizen of one of the combat zones, declared or undeclared, of this ‚war on terror‘ add articles 3 and 5 to the list.
The underlying rationale seems to be something along the lines of: ‚Mark someone a terrorist and human rights do not apply‘. And that is exactly where we go astray. Human rights hold for everyone: even the cruellest of killers, even the worst terrorists. They might not abide by them, but we have to. If we were to claim any kind of moral high ground, we have to. And if we sacrifice our notion of freedom and of justice in this struggle, we lose all we are trying (if inadequately) to defend.
We have to learn to go about this differently. We have to understand that we cannot defend our values by sacrificing them one for the other. And we have to consider the possibility that it is our actions more than our values that earn us the hatred of others. Suicide bombing is an act of desperate outrage. It is the weapon of a cornered opponent. Our best ‚weapon‘ in any struggle against terrorism would then be to alleviate the suffering of people, especially in the Middle East. A truth that Israel’s government should learn to accept as well (and again, this is criticising a policy, not anti-Semitism). Desperate people will always be more susceptible to the sermons of the preachers of desperate means.
If anything, recent conflicts should have taught us a lesson in humility. We cannot bomb problems away. We cannot dictate a peoples course to happiness and prosperity. We will have to accept, that their idea of a good society might differ from ours. In time, they may learn to like some of our ways. In time we might learn to understand theirs. It may be good to remember that it took a generation at least until democratic principles had taken root in post-war Germany. As hard as it seems, we will have to have patience as well.
September 11th has changed the world. In many ways it has been September ever since. It is time we buried our dead – and moved on.