The war on terror 10 years on

Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells debate the successes and failures of the world’s response after 9/11 and how safe we are today
AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 8: Undated file picture of Saudi dissident Ossama Bin Ladin in an undisclosed place inside Afghanistan. Ossama Bin Ladin (C) attends a meeting along with two other unidentified persons in Afghanistan. The billionaire Bin Ladin, member of a family of wealthy Saudi construction tycoon, is blamed for two bomb blasts in his home country in 1995-96 that killed 24 US servicemen. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
The war on terror 10 years on
AFP/Getty Images

ANDREW COYNE: Perhaps the best way to think about the legacy of Sept. 11 is to think of all the things that haven’t happened. Most obviously, there has been no successful terrorist attack on American soil since then—nor any attempted attack originating from Canadian soil. Neither have there been any of the consequences that might well have followed from a second, possibly worse attack, or in some cases were predicted to follow from the first: no wholesale victimization of Muslims, no long, black night of repression of dissent, no cataclysmic clash of civilizations, and so on.

This is of more than theoretical interest. If, 10 years later, al-Qaeda seems a depleted force, there was no guarantee things would turn out that way, nor did it seem likely at the time. Reviewing television footage from the day, what is striking is the sense of be­wilderment in the voices of the normally phlegmatic anchormen, as the planes keep dropping out of the sky. Who could blame them? As of about noon that day, you could have told me California had fallen into the sea and I’d have believed you.

The audacity of attacking the world’s most powerful nation in such spectacular, head-on fashion still has the power to shock. More than anything else, Sept. 11 was a show of strength: look what we can do to you, it announced. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.

That is what made al-Qaeda so new, and terrifying. It was the unique intersection of three things: the willingness to murder on a grand scale, the technological capacity to bring it about, and a set of objectives so fantastic—the restoration of the Caliphate, the conversion of America to Islam—as to be unappeasable even in theory. Analogies were, and are, made to the Baader-Meinhof gang or the Red Brigade, but when the threat is not kidnappings and car bombs but biological weapons, “dirty bombs” and worse—when two men in a rowboat could take out New York City, and would if they could—such comparisons are fatuous. It was more as if we had entered, as one commentator said at the time, a Cuban missile crisis that goes on for the rest of our lives.

If al-Qaeda is no longer on the front pages of every newspaper, it has not been for lack of trying: ask the victims of the bombings on London transit, the Madrid railway, the Bali seaside resort, and countless smaller-scale attacks, successful or otherwise. If, moreover, we no longer see al-Qaeda as the kind of centralized, hierarchical terrorist clearing-house it appeared before, that has been supplanted in the fears of security experts by the still more perplexing threat of homegrown terrorism, in some cases from unexpected sources.

Nor has Canada been immune from any of this. The story of the Toronto 18, whose ambitions ranged from blowing up buildings in downtown Toronto (they had already purchased the ammonium nitrate) to, less plausibly, beheading the Prime Minister, is well known. But most Canadians are still unaware that, among the targets in that plot a few years back to blow up 10 airliners over major cities in a single day—using liquid explosives hidden in soft-drink containers (you remember: it’s why you can’t carry “liquids or gels” through security any more)—were Toronto and Montreal. The plot was foiled with hours to spare.

So, all things considered, things might have turned out a lot worse than they have. And, all things considered, I think that reflects well on the measures governments have taken in response. I don’t say for a moment that there was not some degree of overreaction, or that governments did not make errors, sometimes catastrophic ones. There have been abuses, some of them horrific, such as at Abu Ghraib, or the kidnapping and torture of Maher Arar. But in the broad strokes, I think they got it right. And where approaches proved misguided, governments have shown an ability to learn, and adapt their methods.

No, we no longer speak in terms of a War on Terror, as if Islamic terrorism were a single enemy with a single purpose, and many of the harsher methods adopted by the Bush administration, from profiling to “enhanced interrogation,” have been discarded and/or discredited. But others, from rendition to military tribunals to warrantless wiretaps, have been retained by the Obama administration. Still others, such as waterboarding, never were used in more than a handful of cases.

And if the military metaphor is no longer apt, neither is al-Qaeda’s present weakened state a matter of traditional law enforcement. Dozens of al-Qaeda operatives have been hunted down and killed, culminating in the recent dispatching of Osama bin Laden. Many more remain in captivity at Guantánamo Bay—another Bush legacy Obama has chosen not to walk away from.

The war in Afghanistan seems to me to have been unavoidable: there was simply no prospect of allowing al-Qaeda to use an entire country—at his height, bin Laden seems to have been a kind of finance minister to the Taliban—as its base of operations. That remains the case today, even if the more direct threat is to Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal. To the critics’ supposed stumper question—what does victory look like?—the answer remains the same: when the Afghan government can provide for its own security.

Likewise, I remain an unrepentant supporter of the decision to invade Iraq: certainly in light of what every Western intelligence agency thought at the time about weapons of mass destruction, and on balance, in terms of what we know now. Again, we need to consider what the world would look like today had Saddam Hussein not been removed from power: had he successfully defied the UN’s repeated demands to comply with the 1991 ceasefire, had the sanctions continued to implode under the weight of Saddam’s bribery, had the arms inspectors never returned (remember it was only the presence of 150,000 U.S. troops on his doorstep that persuaded him to readmit them), and, most crucially, had he had $100-a-barrel oil with which to finance his ambitions—say, to purchase nukes from North Korea. The appalling mess that was made of the reconstruction should not blind us to the reality that Iraq was a nightmare the world was going to have to confront some day, no matter what.

Perhaps the most difficult legacy of the last 10 years has been, in a sense, its success. We have been able to avoid a terrorist attack on our soil; as such, we have come to expect that to continue, and to demand to be protected from any risk of an attack. This is not possible, or not at an acceptable cost, especially if civil liberties are also to be preserved. Indeed, a recurring problem in recent years has been the “notional attack,” the mere advertisement of which has been sufficient to cause massive disruptions in trade and travel, not by al-Qaeda bombers, but at our own hands. Past a certain point, there are worse things than terrorism.


PAUL WELLS: We will all be reminded quite enough, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, of the hurtling jets, the fireballs, the devastation and the mourning. We do well to remember. But taking stock is a different matter, and to do that, it’s best to look at the entire decade that has elapsed, and to ask what kind of world we’re in now.

Because it’s really easy to get it wrong.

“The real defining moments for the country and for the world,” Stephen Harper told this magazine in June, “are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.”

The Prime Minister’s models here were “the two big threats of the 20th century”—fascism, against which Canada “played one of the largest roles in the world”; and “the long, sustained state of alert of the Cold War against Communism.”

Right. So is Canada in such a conflict now? “I think we always are,” the Prime Minister said. Okay then. Against whom?

Slowly the air went out of the Prime Minister’s geopolitical balloon. “Well, I think it’s more difficult to define now. We know there are challenges to us. The most obvious is terrorism, Islamic extremist terrorism. We know that’s a big one globally. We also know, though, the world is becoming more complex, and the ability of our most important allies, and most importantly the United States, to single-handedly shape outcomes and protect our interests, has been diminishing, and so I’m saying we have to be prepared to contribute more, and that is what this government’s been doing.”

The Prime Minister is a smart guy, and there’s a lot of sense in what he said, as long as you discard his entire analytical frame. When the two big threats of the 20th century were looming, it was easy to pick them out of a lineup. Hitler marched across most of Europe and slaughtered millions. Stalin slaughtered millions, then marched across most of Europe. Islamic extremist terrorism has caused tremendous pain and cost too many lives. But if this is one of “those big conflicts where everything’s at stake,” it’s hiding it well.

The 2010 report of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, released four months ago, asserts that 13,186 people died around the world in terrorist attacks last year. About 69 per cent, or 9,092 of those deaths, are attributable to Islamic extremist violence. Almost all of the killing took place in a small number of countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia. It is a terrible toll of blood. It also represents a small fraction of the monthly death toll in the gulag or in the bloodlands of Central Europe in the early 1940s. It also, by its geographic location, more closely resembles a regional series of civil wars in countries with large Muslim populations, in which Western armies and U.S. foreign policy play almost cameo roles, than it looks like any kind of 20th-century mass industrial clash of civilizations.

So one thing 9/11 did was knock perspectives out of whack, often durably. On that endless horrible morning, when a second hijacked jet hit a target next to the first, and a third hit the Pentagon and a fourth went down in a Pennsylvania field, it was reasonable to conclude that this was what the rest of our lives would look like.

Reasonable but wrong. There would certainly have been more waves of attacks if the U.S. and every other country hadn’t radically enhanced its security apparatus, sometimes to excess, often to tremendous effect. There have been attacks, memorably in Madrid and London, nearly daily in Baghdad and Kabul.

But the scale of it all is radically smaller than it looked like it would be on that awful September morning. Which means that all of the hopped-up dime-store Churchills who have spent a decade trying to explain to the rest of us what kind of historic conflict we are in have been getting it wildly wrong, and when those wannabe generals in a war we’re not in have found themselves in a position to command real generals, as Dick Cheney did for much of the past decade, big mistakes have been made. The Iraq war was attractive to the Little League Churchills because it looked more like the big industrial wars of the storybooks than Afghanistan did, and chasing that chimera turned Iraq into a sinkhole of materiel that robbed Afghanistan of the assets our commanders needed to win that conflict.

The temptation to view 9/11 as a battle in one of “those big conflicts where everything’s at stake” distorts decision-makers’ understanding of what’s actually at stake. The post-9/11 world is more like a multi-theatre version of what the retired British army general Rupert Smith calls “war amongst the people.”

“We fight in every living room in the world,” Smith wrote, “as well as on the streets and fields of a conflict zone.” The most important battlefield is the opinion of non-combatants. The goal is to ensure they don’t become combatants or sustain them. Lumping “Islam” and “the West” into opposing camps typecasts every Muslim as a combatant and loses the battle before it began. It tempts governments, including ours, to dismiss the tentative revolutions across the Middle East as failures or shams because of course those people can’t be democrats. It encourages misallocation of resources as we arm for conflicts we’ll never fight, leaving us poorly armed for the conflicts we do.

The challenge, a decade after Sept. 11, 2001, is to understand that we did not see the world more clearly on Sept. 12 than we had on Sept. 10. History doesn’t give us a Hitler every few years just because somebody’s itching to play Churchill. Every day brings a chance to reconsider the previous day’s lessons. That’s why every day brings hope.

On Sept. 8, Maclean’s will present a round table discussion on “How Has 9/11 Changed Our World?” at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld. The discussion will be broadcast live on CPAC, and feature the Hon. David Collenette, former minister of transport, Sukanya Pillay, Director, National Security Program, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Tarek Fatah, author, broadcaster and political activist. The event will be moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen, and include Maclean’s columnists Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne. For more information and complimentary tickets, visit www.macleans.ca/inconversation.