It seems remarkable that we have reached the 10th anniversary of the fateful attacks on that clear, sunny September morning. Numb as we become to suffering through endless re-runs of scenes of mass violence, the images of 9/11 still seem to have the same surreal yet unnerving effect. Looking back, not only can we reflect on the significance of the violence. Meaningful political and philosophical judgments can be made about the opportunities lost. While the attacks themselves were certainly abhorrent and criminal, our response over the past decade represents nothing short of a profound failure of the political imagination.
From the initial suicidal attacks to the subsequent despair faced by those who decided to take their own lives, we too experienced the precariousness of globalisation through the raw reality of catastrophe. It quickly became common sense to assert in the immediacy of this post-9/11 moment that our “world changed forever”. Truly, if that was the case, then shouldn’t we have spent more time considering the stakes of the event?
Whilst the many human faces to the tragedy provided a passing glimpse into a genuine ethical responsiveness mobilized by grief, all too quickly the time of mourning was declared to be at an end as matters turned to the usual militarism. From the invasion of Afghanistan, the illegal bombardment of Iraq, onto the establishment of torture camps from Camp Delta to Abu Ghraib, the rule of force disguised as law reigned supreme. Perhaps none of this really surprised us. Despite our continued lip-service to global security, peace, and justice, the history of the West continues to be marked by violence against those who refuse to capitulate to it.
Giorgio Agamben wrote in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that security was fast becoming the main criterion of political legitimacy. Elections would be won and lost on claims to better secure domestic populations from all rogue elements. More than simply defending the borders, security invariably meant taking the fight to those enemies who apparently hated our existence. Of course, when the state over-securitizes in this way, it too is capable of becoming a terrorist entity. While many mobilised against the subsequent flagrant abuses of political power after 9/11, still the dramatic securitisation of life goes unabated. Tony Blair’s reasoning is central here: “no liberty without security”. Security allows us to live freely. Let’s try however to explain to the innocent victims of torture that their suffering makes for a more liberated world.
Another failure of the political imagination has been the revival of fascistic discourses. Adrift from its historical moorings, the left has accused the right of suffocating politics by taking political advantage of so-called exceptional conditions; while the right has accused the left of being blind to the ideological dangers of Islamo-fascism. Neither of these has been particularly helpful. The left happily condemns the unmediated abuse of power, while it openly supports or remains largely silent to NATO led violence. All the while the right has sought to draw connections between Islam and one of the most shameful episodes in modern history to justify its own recourse to violence. Without any attempt to understand more critically why people happily support the wilful oppression and slaughter of “Others” – especially within the shallow and deceitful remit of international “norms” – our continued justification to control through violence is never brought into critical question.
George Orwell wrote in 1984 that “War is Peace”. Leaders of contemporary liberal societies seem to have taken this fateful paradox to heart with oxymoronic novelties like “Humanitarian war”. Beginning with the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, war has been increasingly tied to the ideological formation of a global political community. Humanity as a whole is said to be a hollow aspiration without the will to fight. As the Leslie Nielson character from Police Squad would say, ‘I’m interested in justice, and that means bullets’. Whilst George Bush happily followed this Clinton-Blairite humanitarian mantra to support his own violent expeditions, it continues to resonate in the policies of the only wartime president to win a Nobel Peace prize – Barack Obama. Obama’s foreign policy has consistently shown that war-like strategies are overwhelmingly favoured when confronted with problems that expose the universal frailties of the liberal political imagination. The execution of Osama Bin Laden without any recourse whatsoever even to established practices of legality and sovereignty is just one case in point.
Osama’s death removed the need for some uncomfortable political decisions. No longer do we have to decide whether to try him in a military or criminal court; whether to put him on trial for crimes against humanity in The Hague or for crimes against citizens of the United States; whether the content of the trial itself would be open to public broadcast; whether we would allow him to use it as a forum to discuss our once sympathetic past; whether the event would simply be a formal procession in order to condemn a man already deemed to be guilty as charged; whether it would descend into a media circus as the crime of the century went digital; whether this would lead to greater cultural polarisation and vilification of Islamic culture; whether this would lead to further radicalisation, especially if a publicly sanctioned execution took place seemingly with our approval; or whether in the process of eventually putting him to death we would have been endangered further.
Neither do we have to come to terms with the prospect of another Nuremburg in which the horrifying likes of Hermann Goering proved to be far too intellectually sophisticated for the legal process.
Osama’s death was no doubt timely. Not for the evident improvement in Obama’s domestic popularity, which is important as the USA braces itself for yet another seemingly endless and increasingly pointless round of Presidential campaigning. Rather, it marked a brutal interjection into the remarkable non-violence of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Once again, we learn that one of the West’s most enduring exports is violence. The bombing of Libya is a mere extension of this. While the global south continue to show us that left to their own devices they will resist that which they find intolerable, our response is to remind the globally impoverished that they cannot be allowed to be left to their own devices whatever the cost. Our way of life depends upon it.
Modern politics continues to be infected by a utilitarian mindset which bets the future against the present: “Our present actions are justified because they will make the world a better place”. Such decisions always favour existing power since their hypothesis can never be disproved. The implications however become far more pernicious when lives are on the line. Not only have these reasoned deliberations underwritten the collateral slaughter of millions. The calculus provides us with no answer to the question: when is too much killing enough? How many littered corpses does it take before a well intentioned action loses all moral credibility? There is of course no answer to be given. Any form of power which believes unreservedly in the righteousness of its mission recognises no specific approximation.
Now more than ever, we require new ethical ways of thinking about living together in a radically inter-connected world. Faced with this challenge, we invited contributions from some of the world’s foremost thinkers to reflect critically on “Ten Years of Terror”. Our aim with this symposium is not to establish the “definitive truth” about the initial or subsequent events. Neither have we been content to accept the conventional narratives which tend to receive widespread media attention. Our focus instead has been to re-open the field of discussion so that we may evaluate the impact 9/11 has had on all aspects of life, while in the process offer new critical thinking on a problem that still continues to plague and suffocate the political landscape of the 21st Century.
Brad Evans & Simon Critchley