Bin Laden won the war on terrorism

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Anti-Taliban fighters watch the US military bomb the Al Qaeda redoubt in the Tora Bora Mountains.
Photo: Erik de Castro

By orchestrating the attacks of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden wanted to end the world reign of the decadent West, deal a terrible blow to American democracy and drag all Muslims into the conflict. Bin Laden may be dead, but it’s hard not to conclude that he got what he wanted.

I grew up in the shadow of September 11, when I was 11 when the planes hit the Towers. The experience was visceral, overwhelming for the future – the loss of my innocence. I remember hearing about the attacks at school by a boy who used the word “terrorists”. When I got home, my parents looked grim, like they knew what the fires and rubble in New York and Washington was foretold. We sat in mute terror as hellish images flickered across the television screen.

Everything changed from that moment on. It was as if an entire world had come to an end that day, with hopes for a more peaceful, more humane, and more enlightened century. America, and soon the entire West, was at war. “We have almost all had the opportunity to ask ourselves” declared New York Times Editorial Board September 12, 2001, “How civilians who suddenly found their country at war and themselves under attack managed to piece together a memory of life as it once was.” Now we know.

When I returned to school, I couldn’t express my fears or express my questions. I learned it was better to keep quiet. After all, I was a Muslim, Bin Laden was a Muslim, and Bin Laden said he was waging jihad to kill the infidels and end the American Empire. The stomach-chilling message I saw in the eyes of those around me was Your people are responsible for this.

The terms of the debate were set by Islamist extremists on the one hand, and Western neoconservatives on the other. People like me got caught in the middle. Throughout my teenage years and young adulthood, I was forced to distinguish myself from the terrorists, to prove that I was one of the “good guys”. George W. Bush had called him “crusade” against an elusive foe who could be your neighbor. He noted whether you were either with us or with the terrorists, which implies that anyone who did not support the United States supported Al Qaeda. These were the parameters of the post-September 11 era.

Three wars were launched in the aftermath of September 11, two officially: the war in Afghanistan, in retaliation for the September 11 attacks, which later became a nation-building effort to replace the Taliban; the war in Iraq, based on the big lie that Saddam Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda, which also became a nation-building effort; and the informal and clandestine war of illegal surveillance, increased interrogation, indefinite detention, and extraordinary renditions – the war that would be waged by America against itself. A war against the very ideals Bin Laden promised to end.

The first victims of September 11 were the innocent people of New York and Washington and that isolated field of Pennsylvania. But violence turned into more violence, hatred turned into more hate, the force of the aircraft’s initial impact reverberating over the years. The West bombed Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan) and the terrorists responded. We have become accustomed to seemingly endless feedback loops of violence, no longer surprised when another suicide bomber has murdered dozens of innocent – and dark-haired people, we have to admit it, were the disproportionate victims of these attacks.

Those years after September 11, my teenage years, were a timeline of death and destruction, with the perpetrators still looking like me in one way or another. Suicide bombings in London. Explosion in a Madrid train. Suicide bombing in Baghdad, Amman, Barcelona. Massacres in Peshawar, Bombay, Paris. Whenever there was an explosion of violence in the news, my heart ached at the prospect that the abuser was yet another Muslim. Report another round of bombings, crackdowns and convictions in the press.

The war on terrorism has launched a thousand attempts to explain the Muslim spirit. Often the Taliban, Al Qaeda and later ISIS were seen to speak for “true Islam”. This was the assertion of the extremists themselves, amplified by the right-wing media in the West, which saw all Muslims as one step away from becoming suicide bombers. It has forced people like me into a bind. If you were brown and grew up after the 9/11 attacks, your very existence was based on a presumption of guilt. There was also the presumption of otherness, encoded in the language politicians used to justify violence: “we” were bombing them there so that “we” didn’t have to fight “them” here.

Western intellectuals who wrote book after book on the threat of Islam were working within a mature tradition. Ten years before September 11, Princeton historian Bernard Lewis coined an important phrase in Atlantic to describe the conflict to come. “This is nothing less than a clash of civilizations,” Lewis wrote, “the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of a former rival to our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and global expansion both”. By defining the battle in such grandiose terms, we accepted the same narrative that the jihadists – that it was a war against civilization, for the very soul of humanity. The war on terrorism, we were told, was not an anti-terrorist operation or a matter of law enforcement, but a battle of good versus evil.

Twenty years later, it is as if the evil has been won. Osama bin Laden had set a trap, even if it was not his initial intention. Only by dragging the West into endless wars abroad and plots against enemies at home could it bankrupt the American giant. In the decade since his death, the results have been evident: conflict and instability in the greater Middle East; more refugee flows to the West, combined with anti-immigrant violence in response; the rise in America of terrorist attacks perpetrated by white extremists, spurred on by an authoritarian leader who has made a name for himself by demonizing Muslims. Watch state now has extensive access to all facets of our life. Confidence in political institutions is deteriorating. Democracy itself is in peril.

In many ways, Donald Trump was the singular creature of Eternal Wars, raised to a national post in a country that was exhausted and angry with foreigners. All of Trump’s signature policies – from banning Muslims to building the wall – have found a receptive audience in an America that has seen its way of life threatened by foreign enemies. It was only a matter of time before the Other’s contempt turned inward.

This is where the great tragedy of the 9/11 era lies: something much worse than terror has hurt our society in the last two decades. An essential faith in the future was lost. This may be true for the end of all empires, and desperation always precedes downfall. But if the younger generations are to emerge from the darkness of the 9/11 era – and I naively hope they will – we must first recognize the damage we have done ourselves. It was the deepest cut of all.

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