The September 11, 2001 attack on America produced extraordinary human reaction as most events involving great violence and mass casualties do. Shock, anger, defiance and an instinct for retribution are the usual ingredients of that reaction, but societies that allow this mix to overcome themselves in the long run have to pay a price. To ensure that the price is not too high requires a sense of proportion, an agency to soothe, to reassure, to guide and to take corrective action. In the wake of September 11, that burden fell upon President George W. Bush. The leaders of the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain were minor players. The last decade has been one of poor judgment and high cost, human, economic, moral. Even the best estimates of the overall cost paid during the last decade tend to be meaningless, for the numbers are colossal and rising.
Coinciding with the anniversary of September 11, 2001, two recent developments remind us of the nature of the long litany of failures. The inquiry by Sir William Gage into the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers, particularly the death in custody of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, is devastating for the British army’s reputation. Sir William, a distinguished judge, described the British soldiers’ brutality as “systematic.” Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent, said it’s the lying about it that is so. First the Americans at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison; now the British in Basra. The trail of notoriety is long.
NATO this week also admitted “accidently” shooting to death a BBC journalist in Afghanistan last July. The journalist, Omaid Khpalwak, was shot eleven times by American soldiers, involved in a battle with “militants.” Khpalwak spoke good English and, as it turned out, raised his hand carrying his identity card to show that he was a journalist. Military officials, apologizing for the “mistake,” said the troops mistook him for a suicide bomber, and that they had “complied with the law of armed conflict and acted reasonably.”
Even this concession had to be pulled out of the military officials’ teeth. Their explanation immediately after the shooting was that he was killed by the “militants.” Khpalwak’s family and the BBC insisted on a proper inquiry and answers to get what we now have. His relatives say they are receiving “threats after speaking against the foreign military.”
The culture of impunity at the top has affected the thinking and behavior of people in ways not imagined a decade ago. Western leaders at the time had pledged “not to let the terrorists change our way of life,” but that is precisely what has happened. Fear and suspicion pervade societies. Citizens are asked to be distrustful of fellow citizens and monitor neighbors and strangers. The “national security” agenda has come to dominate societies while poverty, hunger, famine, disease and climate change have been pushed back.
The wars for which the Western powers bear a heavy responsibility have produced millions of refugees, but the law governing the rights of refugees struggles to maintain its legitimacy, as Western governments pass the buck on to whoever they can. Refugees have come to be seen as a threat to national security. Leaders have been overcome by Churchillian ambition and have acquired a habit of using the language of war. Their nationalist rhetoric often has a divisive effect instead of encouraging harmony between communities.
The “war on terror” transferred casualties abroad. In the decade since September 11, 2001, more than 7,000 foreign troops died in Iraq and Afghanistan, including more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers. The number of wounded returning home is undetermined, but far in excess of half a million in America alone as indicated by disability claims. For each foreign casualty, there are multiple local victims that few care to count.
The costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars this year are some 10 billion dollars every month and unlikely to be cut in the near future. The West has suffered a catastrophic economic collapse. Governments are cutting everything else, from jobs and services to social benefits, maintenance and development of the infrastructure and education. Elected leaders are resorting to repression to deal with the outbreaks of social tension and anti-terrorism laws are increasingly in use in the larger sphere of life. The price for the follies of the last decade will have to be borne by the future generations.