US President George W. Bush speaks to soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in 2002. The division was the main fighting force on the ground in Afghanistan in search of Taliban forces after the September 11 attacks. Picture: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis

Twenty years pass so quickly, and so slowly. Memories of that Tuesday in September are very much alive because the shock remains so fresh, just as the shock of the fall of Kabul is so immediate. Of course, 9/11 and the catastrophe that has become Afghanistan are deeply connected – historically, psychologically and strategically.

The collapse of the twin towers is often compared with the bombing of Pearl Harbour, 60 years earlier. Both events revealed serious intelligence failures, with almost 2500 US service personnel killed at Pearl Harbour and almost 3000 US citizens and foreign nationals killed at the World Trade Centre. But the similarities begin and end there. The attack on Pearl Harbour was an act of war. The attack on the World Trade Centre was an act of terrorism. The US and its allies responded to an act of war by waging war, and won. The US and its allies responded to an act of terrorism by waging war, and lost.

It is understandable that many in the Bush administration, including the President, mirrored US community sentiment urging retribution and revenge. What is not understandable is that retribution and revenge became the key motivations for using military power to address what is essentially criminal rather than military, political rather than strategic. To think that armed force and the invasion of two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, offered the preferred remedy for terrorism was to misunderstand the nature of terrorism completely. At the heart of the failure in Afghanistan was the tendency to prefer war over law.

Osama bin Laden’s justification for the attacks on symbols of US power in New York and Washington was little more than a grab-bag of grievances focused on indignities and suffering experienced by Muslims in Chechnya, Kashmir, Somalia and Palestine, together with Western support for sanctions against Iraq and US support for Israel and Saudi Arabia. The attacks were powerful politically, but they lacked a coherent or compelling narrative to substantiate any rationale as an act of war – the attempt to subdue the US and to curtail the freedoms of the citizens of the US. And as the 9/11 Commission Report found, the attacks were as much a catastrophic failure of imagination as they were a failure of intelligence. The same can be said of Afghanistan.

Yet President Bush, in his speech to a joint session of the US Congress on September 20, 2001, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in attendance, represented 9/11 as attacks on freedom – “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other”. In this, Bush won the immediate support of allied leaders across the globe, together with the more cynical support of autocrats who saw the opportunities that “the war on terror” afforded them in suppressing dissenters within their own borders.

Sadly, to the extent that freedoms were curtailed or constrained, that only happened as the Western democracies responded by passing anti-terrorism legislation limiting the freedoms and rights of their own citizens, while supporting the military suppression of terrorist cells across the Middle East and Afghanistan.

We try to expunge the images of people falling to their deaths from the twin towers and continue to extol the bravery of the emergency workers. At the same time, we should bring to front of mind how important it is to use the tools of law, diplomacy, development assistance, support for agencies like the ICRC and the UNHCR, NGOs and civil society organisations to address the causes of terrorism – inequality, oppression, perverted ideologies and, far too often, the societal consequences of colonialism.

The freedoms that were lost on 9/11 – and that remain in peril – are not the high-sounding freedoms written into the US constitution, and implied in the Australian constitution, crucial though they are. Rather, the basic human freedoms that support the happiness and wellbeing of each citizen are what terrorism seeks to exploit: the freedom to go to work in the morning and return home in the evening; the freedom to enjoy the company of family and friends; the freedom to live a purposeful life; and the freedom to enjoy a dignified old age.

The Vienna-based American writer Marco Etheridge captured this truth in a recent edition of Levitate. “Human beings, linked by a common cause, can become a powerful force for change. And what could be … simpler, more of a common cause, than the desire to have our loved ones come home to us at the end of the day?”

As we contemplate 9/11 and its denouément in Kabul, we would do well to remember that those who might want to threaten these human freedoms are more likely to be persuaded by careful advocacy backed by the rule of law than by the threat of annihilation.

Originally published by The Canberra Times on September 10, 2021

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