The politics of fear, with its foundation in lies, is an effective way to manipulate any voters. Perhaps it has never been applied as effectively as by successive US presidents in the aftermath of 9/11, when they took al-Qaeda with its pendulum and portrayed Osama bin Laden’s furry crew as Goliath.
Later, when bin Laden was assassinated, the US found an annotated list of al-Qaeda members from 2002. There were only 170 names. He identified 20 dead – only seven achieved the bizarre goal of being “tortured” – 11 were detained by the authorities and 19 simply left – some to join a more doctrinal group, some to study , but most just to go home.
Bin Laden worked on his terror project for several years, and with the list of dedicated fans that was only 120, he decided to solve it with five of his sons. Al-Qaeda members therefore included Omar bin Laden, who left the organization in 2000 and has been living peacefully in Normandy for a long time, married to Jane Felix-Browne, a former Cheshire councilor in the United Kingdom.
Whether it was Al Qaeda’s total or not, it was representative of a minor enemy that the US faced on September 10, 2001.
The next day, this group eliminated one of the greatest crimes in history.
The idea that the death of 3,000 civilians was God’s will was insane by any standards.
The challenge we face on this anniversary, however, is to understand how and why the West chose to promote al-Qaeda as the counterweight to the US – an equivalent of the 21st century of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
First, we must ask: Was al-Qaeda really an existential threat to the world order on September 12, 2001? This was clearly not the case. They killed many people in a spectacular way on television – a terrible crime.
Yet, unfortunately, there are many real threats to humanity.
For example, I grew up with the looming threat of a nuclear war. In 1983, I was one of more than 100 million people watching the original broadcast of The Day After, a film depicting the end of the world. Who did not tremble at the idea that the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) would come true? In the closing scene of the film, one of the few people still alive hopelessly turned the knob of his shortwave radio in search of another survivor.
Today’s generation faces another Armageddon as we destroy our own planet through greed and climate change. Every year, we face other dangers, from the six million who went hungry in 2021 to the estimated 4.5 million who died in the current pandemic.
9/11 was very much emphasized, both because it took place in the USA and because it was broadcast on television, and yet, when it comes to the chaos that our people are deliberately inflicting on each other, it was actually nothing more than lightning not.
Our Americans tend not to empathize with the deaths of colored people, but last year alone there were 19,444 deaths in the Afghan war and another 19,056 in Yemen.
9/11 was not even unique when we determined how a small group can do great damage.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh acted almost alone when he set up his bomb in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children and injuring more than 680 others.
‘Extremists’ are also not uniquely Muslim: McVeigh was a member of the so-called ‘patriot movement’, an association of more than a thousand violent right-wing conspiracy groups that are truly an internal threat to US stability – they helped to give us Donald Trump, and contributed to the recent attempt to overthrow the US government.
‘An Existential Threat’
A 2017 report by the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund shows that there were 201 terrorist incidents on U.S. soil between 2008 and 2016. The majority of these, 115, were by right-wing groups, including 33 deaths, compared to 63 by ” Islamic extremists “”, of which eight resulted in deaths.
Meanwhile, compare that to the fact that the US reports about 20,000 murders a year – or about 180,000 over the same 9 years.
While the formidable nature of 9/11 should never be forgotten, it is sheer folly to decide, like all American politicians, that “Islamic extremism” was, or even is, an existential threat to our country of 330 million.
Guns can be a threat to the safety of Americans, but climate change is certain, but only a minute of Americans will ever encounter a “demented Muslim radical.”
Yet it tells only half of the story. We should also consider how and why “Islamic extremism” remained the central focus of U.S. foreign policy, rather than shuffling along with Tim McVeigh in the criminal court.
It is certainly true, at least in my opinion, that the violent goals of Osama bin Laden were malicious – mass murder is not the way to bring about a Utopian society.
At the same time, of course, we must ask whether American generals are paving the way for a better world.
The reaction to 9/11
I talked to the principal of my son’s elementary school after 9/11. He served two decades with the British Navy, and I was curious to know what he thought of the ‘military solution’ offered to many of the world’s problems. He said World War II was the only conflict he considered worthy of British intervention over the past 100 years. While we must support those who challenge tyranny, that does not mean we have to send our own sons and daughters to invade their lands.
The record of the past two decades would apparently clear him away.
The recent war in Afghanistan was an example of uselessness – since April 2021, about 241,000 people have been killed, but we end up exactly where we started, with the Taliban in power. The chaos in the Middle East, from Iraq to Libya, is equally strong.
So, where is the thriving freedom that the US has promised?
It was not just the fact of our various invasions that caused hatred throughout the Muslim world. After all, our aggression is commonplace.
Since 1776, the US has had less than 20 clean years when the country was not involved in any war. Here a large part of the answer can be found in the terrible policy we have adopted. Every time the US takes up arms, we advertise our goal as the promotion of democracy. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, the first victim was the rule of law.
We hastened a war in Afghanistan. The reaction to 9/11 should have been a criminal investigation, not a war. Surely the US could have benefited from the incomparable sympathy around the world to assemble bin Laden and Al-Qaeda without pretending that the world is near apocalypse? Why should we try to torture a group of radicals for whom martyrdom was the highest honor?
Then we rejoiced when we established Guantanamo Bay on January 11, 2002 – as if our indefinite detention without trial in a legal black hole was the way to make America safe. We have not stopped to consider whether it is prudent to throw away the legal principles that returned to the Magna Carta in 1215. We have said that the Muslims we have gathered do not deserve the protection of the Geneva Conventions because they do not “respect our rules of war.” – as if bin Laden’s crimes were somehow exponentially worse than those of Adolf Hitler, who exterminated several millions in his death camps.
Meanwhile, the world has been gradually moving towards the elimination of torture for several hundred years. This culminated in the 1985 Convention against Torture.
After 9/11, we threw it away overnight, with Donald Rumsfeld announcing that waterboarding was nothing more than an ‘improved interrogation technique’.
It was amazing that he borrowed this term from the Gestapo, who called waterboarding verschärfte vernehmung (enhanced interrogation), rather than from the medieval inquisition which describes it as tortura del agua (water torture). We sent the general who oversaw the abuse of Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib to bring the benefits of freedom there as well.
Indeed, by then we had already invaded Iraq, and when we had the chance to support new democracies in the Arab Spring, we either backed them up at a critical moment, as when our air support from the Kurds in the northeast withdrew from Syria and essentially invited Turkish President Erdogan to attack them, or we worked actively for a military coup, as in Egypt.
From waterboard to drones
When professor of constitutional law when President Obama turned back from torture, he replaced the execution without trial – as if it had been turned into a ‘bug split’ by a Predator drone, that it was somehow a step towards in Guantanamo.
Ultimately, hypocrisy is the yeast that causes hatred to ferment, and there can be no hypocrisy that is more public than advertising a project to promote freedom while torturing people to accept it. All of these policies, and more, have alienated those we should visit – including Muslims around the world.
But in the end, we failed in our greatest duty: it is to inspire people to dream of a better life.
President Joe Biden recently said that the US spent $ 2 billion in Afghanistan alone or more than $ 50,000 per Afghan citizen. The World Bank estimates the average annual income in this poor country at $ 500, so my US tax money represents 100 years of wealth for every Afghan man, woman and child.
What did we do with our money?
We sent most of it to arms manufacturers and members of the regime we set up in Kabul. What have we given the Afghan people for such a large sum?
It is said that the only lesson we learn from history is that we never learn from history. Let’s hope we look back over the past two decades and learn something useful for once.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of Al Jazeera.