9/11 and the lost decade of policy

For the past ten years, Western foreign policy has lived in the shadow of 9/11 — a decade where policy debates and discussions turned inward, creating black and white illusions of good versus evil, national versus international and domestic versus foreign.

The stark aftermath of such discussions is perhaps no more evident than in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent comments referencing the anniversary of 9/11.

When asked to speak to the most imminent or pending challenges to national security he emphatically stated, “If we’re talking about terrorism, the major threat is still Islamism.”

To decisively and broadly name Islamism as Canada’s most pressing national security concern is an indicator of the lasting impacts that 9/11 has had on our foreign policy. To name Islamism as the cause of 9/11 is to paint all people of the Muslim faith as terrorists. It is akin to blaming all Christians for homophobia or for violent acts committed in the name of God.

There are radical fundamentalists in each religion committed to irreligious acts; to place 9/11 on the shoulders on Islam is incorrect and irresponsible.

Yet, when we analyze the foreign policy decisions made in the months and years following the attacks, it should not be surprising that we are still talking about 9/11 in terms of one side versus another.

American — and to a lesser extent, Canadian — foreign policy became obsessed with the question of security, terrorized by the threat of another attack.

In a way, we reacted exactly in the way the 9/11 perpetrators expected us to — provoked to isolate ourselves, hunker down and decide how to best secure ourselves against the “bad” forces that existed outside of our borders.

Retaliation was priority number one — against an elusive and wide-ranging threat unassigned to any one country or region: terrorism.

An attack that had claimed 3,000 lives was matched with two conflicts amassing almost 5,000 casualties in Iraq and almost 3,000 casualties in Afghanistan, not to mention the 150,000 (conservatively estimated) civilian casualties of Iraqis and Afghanis who played not an iota of a role in the 9/11 attacks. Not to rehash the entire Iraq debate, but even as a pure matter of retaliation, where was the logic in invading a country that was 1,300 miles away from the origin of the 9/11 attacks?

Invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan stood in stark contrast to the “golden era of humanitarian intervention” that was the 1990s. Countries in need of humanitarian support after 9/11 — Darfur as a prime example — were neglected in the wave of American hubris determined to grind the Middle East to a pulp.

At the same time, our attempts to securitize countries perhaps resulted in greater physical security. What, though, did we lose in the process?
Civil liberties and basic human rights were swept up in the storm of national security policy.

The Patriot Act in the United States introduced wide-spread surveillance measures such as wiretapping and have continued into President Obama’s administration. Canada passed a similar act entitled the Anti-Terrorism Act, the main provisions of which expired in 2007. The prime minister has stated that he is looking to expand those measures again, specifically preventative arrest and investigative hearings.

The tortuous acts that occurred in Guantanamo in an attempt to glean intelligence were committed in direct violation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment that the international community agreed to in 1984. The clear refusal to comply with this norm in the aftermath in 9/11 speaks to the loss of compliance with important international standards that had been worked on in the years prior to the attacks.

In the years following 9/11 foreign policy lost focus, becoming too centered on short-term reactionary methods instead of long-term constructive measures.
Retaliation is understandable, a natural reaction to an unthinkable act of terror, just as securitization was a natural plan of action to calm fears and avoid panic.
International co-operation was not top of mind — debates as to whether it should have been are up for discussion.

Yet, the fact remains that we lost a decade to pursue potential constructive foreign policy: to reform the United Nations, to pursue global co-operation, to enhance integration of communities and the breakdown of borders, to defend those in situations of extreme poverty and violence, to pursue global and universal human rights, to look for international solutions to the economic and environmental threats that bind our collective futures and to find our shared global conscience.

We became lost in ourselves, paralyzed by the fear that 9/11 was only the beginning of a more violent world — a just and not completely irrational fear.
But, perhaps what we failed to fear was that our own governments would engage in behaviours unbecoming of global powers; that the governments expected to lead our world out of tragedy and to a safer moral high ground would seek to militarize and securitize our futures.

It has been ten years — ten years committed to passing policies and waging wars that we thought would help us forget about that tragic day.
After the range of tributes, commemorations, documentaries and endless media coverage of the anniversary, let us now at least dedicate some time to thinking about where we go from here; how we can rescue the next decade before it too becomes lost to policies of terror and division.