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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 60, September 2001


To Defeat Terrorism

The souls left there seemed strangers to this place:
they roamed about, while looking all around,
endeavouring to understand new things.
Dante, Purgatory

Those repeated, terrifying images of passenger planes used as weapons of mass murder on September 11 will be forever seared on our consciousness. When the Twin Towers crumbled, most of the world was united with horror. The tragedy prompted immediate and genuine support and sympathy for the people of New York and Washington and, by extension, America. It did not confer a blank political cheque.

A month later, Afghanistan is being bombed, with pitiful scenes of starving refugees and grieving families. America again has to cope with new vulnerabilities; this time from anthrax spores sent to media and political centres - the insidious bioweapons threat arms controllers have long been talking about, come home. In the most technologically advanced nation in the world, aeroplanes and the US Mail were turned into delivery systems for terror and death.

In shock and grief, Americans asked why? And who? At first, those whose answers included causes and contexts were not welcomed, and they were accused of being heartless, treacherous apologists for the terrorist atrocities. Even now, such discussions require a careful preamble that makes it clear that no cause or context can ever be a justification for murdering and terrorising people in their homes and workplaces. But if we want to avoid repeating such tragedies in the future, then we must ask the awkward questions and look at uncomfortable truths.

In the aftermath, politicians and pundits declared that the world had changed forever. Yes. And no. The lives of friends and families of those killed and injured have changed forever. When I walked in downtown Manhattan in late September, New York smelled terribly changed, and I wept for those faces on the 'Missing' posters in that intoxicating, vibrant, wounded city that I too have loved, since I leant against the wind at the top of the Empire State Building, aged six.

September 11 and the spate of anthrax attacks undoubtedly constitute a defining shock for the United States, suddenly having to come to terms with a vulnerability other nations have known for generations. But whether the world changes for good or ill will depend on what lessons are being learned, and by whom. What new understandings do we need to find the right responses to defeat terrorism, and its breeding grounds in ethnic and religious hatred, division and intolerance?

When the expected bombing raids did not scream over Afghanistan or Iraq in the first days after the September attacks, it appeared that there were some in power who were thinking these questions through. But once the missiles started on October 7, the chance to undermine and defeat terrorism began to bleed away. With a failure of imagination that will prove ever more tragic with time, the military planners are again fighting their past wars, hoping this time to exorcise the ghosts of fiascos in Vietnam and the Gulf. This is not going to work. In asymmetric warfare, as in aikido, a clever fighter can turn the greater weight of opponents into a potent weapon against them. Today's terrorists are the product of the failed military policies of yesterday. Their arms are mostly those that the US-Soviet rivals designed and provided. From the fall of the Wall to the fall of the Towers, we have squandered the opportunities to build a fairer, safer world out of the Cold War's rubble.

It is right and necessary that leaders have emphasised that if the September attacks were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists, that does not mean Muslims are the enemy. Nevertheless, however uncomfortable, it is vital that we address the fundamentalist part of the terrorist identity. With the belief that they are uniquely right according to their religious beliefs, and that everyone else must be wrong or evil, fundamentalism too easily slides into extremism. Deep down, there is little distinction between Christian extremists that kill doctors who offer women choices in birth control, Jewish extremists who continue to build settlements on Palestinian land, Muslim extremists that throw acid in the faces of young women going to school, and Hindu extremists desperate to show off the nuclear bomb.

The real distinction is between the warped certainties of ideological fanatics and the civil and personal freedoms in mixed, tolerant societies that may be secular or spiritual, but which require that people who hold beliefs also recognise that others have the right to live differently. Rooting out terrorism, therefore, requires the international community - that elusive but necessary expression of collective political will - to uphold the values of difference and dissent.

Another uncomfortable truth that no-one wants to examine is that almost all terrorists are men who subscribe to a particular view of masculinity. Fundamentalism tends to go together with the idealisation of military prowess and the oppression of women and denial of women's rights. The 'war against terrorism' is doomed unless we address the deep problems of fundamentalism and masculo-militarism - on all sides.

The very language of a 'war on terrorism' lends itself to emergency powers, such as restricting civil liberties, democratic institutions, and the media. It is no accident that the first anthrax attacks were also aimed against these targets. Threatening our own, hard won civil freedoms and choices would allow terrorism to win the first round. Disturbingly, debates on important questions of defence and security are already being sidelined for the sake of 'unity'. Disarmament and arms control are being portrayed as irrelevant. Months before America became gripped with anxiety over anthrax, the Bush Administration had inflicted fatal damage on international efforts to strengthen the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Why? In large part because the US pharmaceutical and biotech industries lobbied against the constraints and inspections that verifying the BWC would entail.

September 11 seems to have served to reinforce arguments on both sides of the missile defence debate. While one side chose to temporarily gag itself, the Administration, instead of investing in cooperative ways and mechanisms to reduce the dangers from possible nuclear, chemical and biological attacks, seems still bent on sinking billions of dollars in the dubious notion of a high tech missile shield - not merely diverting attention from more important means of defence, but, more dangerously, failing to ensure that its plans do not destabilise the existing arms control regimes and provoke a further arms race.

While few disagree on the need to defeat terrorism, there are real choices in how this can best be achieved. Choking off the sources of money and arms would be of more practical use than financing and arming an equally obnoxious masculo-militarist adversary. Bush and Blair are right that we have to be committed for the long haul, but wrong to think their military dominance will win the day. Combating terrorism will require a radical restructuring of our international relations, with a concerted international effort to eradicate global poverty, injustice and the subjugation of women.


© 2001 The Acronym Institute.