Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ten Years On

Alongside marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a relative, 9-11 probably ranks as one of our lives’ starkest, clearest reminiscences. Emotions always help jog the memory; and no emotion does that better than raw terror, the one raw sentiment that these attacks were designed to instil with such chilling effectiveness. For some, that terror consisted of witnessing a world-changing atrocity live, on television; for others – with relatives in the towers, the Pentagon, the planes – that terror mixed with the much closer grief of personal loss.

Ten years on, the mastermind of these attacks is dead. By all accounts, Al Qaeda is a mere ghost of its former self, its most important operatives neutralised, many of its networks dismantled. But will, as Fukuyama asserted in this week’s Observer, the West’s challenge by extreme and violent Islamism be a mere blip on the radar compared to the importance of the rise of China, especially when viewed fifty years hence?

Yes, 9-11 was about the violent, extreme ideology of Jihadist Islamism. And, as Fukuyama contends, it is quite probable that particular mode of thought will fall by the wayside. That is, if our leaders have the foresight not to saw the seeds of terror in an ever-growing number of Islamic states. It was particularly chilling, in that context, to hear Tony Blair engage in an exercise of spectacular intellectual dishonesty by claiming the Iraq invasion made the world a safer place. The cherry on top was his advocating military action against Iran.

If hijacked 767s act as our terror, the driver of our fears and wars, don’t F22s, drones and hellfire missiles have the same effect on those expendable as ‘collateral damage’? This is not about good, old-fashioned Western self-flagellation, not about blaming ourselves for outrages like 9-11 and 7/7. Indeed, the vicious ideology behind these atrocities has a comprehensive totalitarian and obscurantist world-view, and the core carriers of that ideology would probably not stop before these goals are realised, no matter what. But ideologies only die once their core constituencies are isolated, once they are unable to create and maintain the decentralised networks of operatives and supporters that radiate outwards from them. Creating the conditions under which their ideological claims are validated by levelling one Islamic country after another can, to put it mildly, not be helpful, for the West at least. The terrorists, on the other hand, will be much obliged.

But 9-11 was not only about the emergence of global violent Islamism, in the narrow ideological sense. Fukuyama, it seems, is repeating the mistake he made in ‘The End of History’, by confounding the concrete manifestations of grand historical patterns with the patterns themselves. Terrorism – as has been so often pointed out – is a tactic, a specific method within a broader, ideologically driven strategy. And it is the change in tactics towards mega-terrorism that is far more important than the ideology driving that change. Various waves of terrorism have been informed by diverse ideologies – anarchism, nationalism, Islamism. But there is one thread running through all of them: their increasing violence, their wider geographic reach, and the resulting escalating body counts. It is in the nature of humans to produce extreme ideas. Al Qaeda showed a willingness and ability to kill thousands for these ideas; the extremists of the future – whatever their ideological substance - will have at their disposal means of destruction unimaginable to their predecessors as technology continues proliferating. Divorced from its substantive ideological aspect, abstracted into human history, 9-11 becomes a much scarier, much more defining event. If Al Qaeda is defeated, it will morph and reincarnate under a different banner, whose colours are entirely unknown today. You can count on it.