By Chris Miller
Disasters represent opportunities for governments. The way in which they react can reinforce their appeal with the electorate or alienate voters forever because deep emotions are stirred. A major terrorist outrage such as 9/11 constituted precisely such an opportunity and my immediate sense in its aftermath was that the feelings of outrage it inspired were liable to be exploited. This premonition was more than borne out, as we know. Those in the US administration who were already pressing for an assault on Saddam Hussein took their opportunity immediately. The need to close Afghanistan to terrorist training camps presented a more difficult challenge, which has not been solved. Under the pressure of public feeling measures were taken in the name of security that appealed to the general tendency of governments to enhance their own powers. Undoing the powers that Western and other governments then bestowed on themselves will be a long and patient task for human-rights campaigners—undertaken for the most part without the same sense of public urgency. The danger constituted by terrorism is, nevertheless, one of the least significant faced by the citizen of a Western democracy. In terms of reducing mortality, greater enforcement of speed-limits would probably have been more effective than the `War on Terror’. It is argued, of course, that we cannot know this; that attempted outrages were prevented of which we know nothing. But the effects of the ‘War on Terror’ can surely be described as a disaster in themselves. When the US criticizes human rights abuses in other countries, it is now seen to be entirely hypocritical, since the content of its own past critiques was used to establish the preferred destinations of those illegally rendered to torture during the Bush years (with the alleged complicity of other Western nations). Though the US in South and Central America and the UK in its colonial wars and in Ireland had clearly been active or instrumental in torture before then, it seemed that torture was at least off the official menu before 9/11. No longer. Powers that were awarded to the police in the UK in order to deal with terrorist groups are now used against non-violent protesters. The view already preached by Osama Bin Laden that the US and UK and other Western countries intended an assault on Islam has been reinforced and with it the view that violence is a legitimate recourse for Muslims opposed to the killing of fellow-Muslims in the ‘War on Terror’.
The considerations that motivate the declaration of such a ‘war’ are of course multifarious. And in the West there is a genuine perplexity concerning Islamist violence. I sense that the great public-relations victory scored by Israel over its Arab neighbours is coming to an end in Europe but how many, even now, are familiar with the history of Israel’s accumulation of territory? In America, Israel retains its dominance of public opinion on the Middle East.
For me, the organisation of a lecture series on the ‘War on Terror’ and the editing and writing involved in turning those lectures into a book constituted a quest for clarification of many of these issues economic, legal, historical, and ethical. We put our questions to specialists and received a wide variety of opinions, with some of which I was in fundamental disagreement. (Needless to say these pieces appear in full and they undoubtedly represent important strands of opinion.) By the end of that process, I was beginning to feel moderately well informed. The judgements made above are those at which I have arrived. If I say that many of my suspicions were confirmed in the course of the process, I am no doubt open to the accusation of having sought the evidence required to confirm my prejudices. I have little to say about this other than to suggest reading the Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2006: “War on Terror”. Every bit of it seems to me as pertinent as at the time of writing.
Find out more about the newly published War on Terror, editied by Chris Miller