A decade of wrong decisions and damaging policies

September 8, 2011

Watch the event here.

By Sara Elizabeth Williams

The West’s reaction to 9/11 was excessive and misguided, wrongly influenced by hubris, hysteria and ignorance. Ten years on, we are still mired in a mess largely of our own making.

Last night’s First Wednesday Special: Changing world – conflict, culture and terrorism in the 21st century, which was in association with BBC Arabic, looked at how the decade post-9/11 has reshaped our world. Chaired by presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the discussion at the Royal Institution of Great Britain turned to the question of what we learned – and how could we have done things differently?

For all their differences of opinion, the five members of the panel – journalists Mehdi Hasan, Isabel Hilton and Michael Goldfarb, ex British diplomat and founder of Independent Diplomat Carne Ross, and co-Founder and executive director of Quilliam and Founder of Khudi, Maajid Nawaz were in agreement on the most critical point: the reaction to 9/11 was a wrong one.

The response to non-state terrorist action should no be a declaration of war against individual states, but action against the non-state organisations.

The state-directed violence employed has destabilised entire populations and brought about some of the very things it sought to eradicate. Homegrown radicalisation comes at a devastating cost, and it is one we are becoming all too familiar with in the Islamic world and in the US and Europe.

Nawaz, who was formerly on the UK national leadership for the global Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, reminded the audience that the process of radicalisation is the result of a political awakening, not a religious experience. For this reason, the right reaction would have been to support democratisation. But this wasn’t on the policy agenda:

“For decades we have been following a policy of sponsoring dictatorships and human rights abusers, and we ended up with a choice: support dictators or terrorists. But there was a third way: we could have supported civil society.”

While terrorism undermines the rule of law, Ross and Hasan pointed out that the West’s reaction did the same: we failed ourselves and the communities we sought to reach. The price of this mistake, according to Hilton, who is editor of chinadialogue.net.

“Now we have no moral standing to talk about human rights. In the course of the war on terror, we threw away everything that was worth defending. The damage we did to ourselves was greater than that which was done to us.”

Hilton also brought up the language of fear and safety – the American rhetoric over the last ten years. This, again, was the wrong invocation: ten years on, Americans still don’t feel safe. But is the mistake reversible? Hasan, who is senior political editor at the New Statesman, described a “fear industry grown our of control”.

Another cost is financial. Being at war has become normal for Americans. This affects policy: few politicians are willing to question Homeland Security spending. But for how long? Goldfarb, who is an author, journalist, broadcaster and GlobalPost’s London correspondent, answered:

“‘The war on terror’ is the worst phrase ever concocted. It’s a forever concept that can never end.”

The panel also looked at how the West’s misreaction to 9/11 may have paved the way for China’s global advance. Hilton, an expert on the subject, pointed out that China is seeking economic power by securing food, resources and access to water while letting other states get on with the international security agenda. In another ten years, we may consider this anniversary the beginning of a second turning point in the geopolitical landscape.  One of the evening’s most-tweeted comments was made by Hilton, who noted:

“Wars have very, very long tails… they don’t end when the whistle blows.”

For those at tonight’s event, it would seem that the end of these wars will be a long time coming, indeed.

The hashtag for this event was #fcbbca