Few events have had the impact of the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11th 2001. At a stroke, the sense of American invulnerability that had been in place since the end of the Cold War was wiped away. Americans and the rest of the ‘Western’ world had to face up to the fact that their own methods of transport, the arteries connecting the globalised world, could be used against them. Ten years on from those attacks makes a convenient point to assess how the European powers and America have dealt with this threat.
An obvious but easily overlooked point is that the fallout from September 11th has spawned measures that have an impact on us all. Airport security was given a radical overhaul (necessary given the failures of September 11th). The previous emphasis on ease of transit was replaced with a desire to minimise risk, however time consuming. In the UK, public spaces have become more closely policed, while unattended bags, once assumed to be innocent things destined for the lost property depot, can bring places to a standstill. Given the number of thwarted terror attacks in Europe and America since 2001, it seems that these measures have had significant success in stopping additional terrorist attacks. At the same time however, Western cities have become more paranoid, increasingly closely policed places. Age old rights such as not being detained for longer than a set period without trial have also been sacrificed (notably in the case Guantanamo Bay). Combating terrorism within European and North American states has come at a price.
Domestic politics in the West has also been moulded considerably by the events of 9/11. In America, for centuries self-styled ‘land of free’, the PATRIOT Act was passed in October 2001, which gave the central government unprecedented power to intrude into individuals’ correspondence and records. Other governments have passed similar measures, infringing upon their citizens’ liberties in an effort to combat terrorism. An increase in Islamophobia, can also be in large part attributed to the attacks of September 11th 2001. Rhetoric aimed at inspiring support for ‘the war on terror’ was sadly in some cases conflated with hostility to Islam in general. Groups such as the English Defence League in the UK have been able to form and find support due to the negative connotations attached to Islam in the minds of some after 9/11. Likewise the Tea Party movement, rooted in Conservative Christian ideology and at times openly hostile to Islam, has become a significant political force in America. In some respects therefore the terrorists behind 9/11 have acheived one of their key aims; an end to tolerant multiculturalism and its replacement with polarised radicalism. European and American governments have been forced to compromise some of their citizens’ most fundamental rights, while multiculturalism has come under considerable strain in some areas. It is perhaps a measure of the West’s resilience that the urge to pass even more oppressive legislation has been resisted and that in many multicultural areas people have united together in the name of moderation.
The shift to an interventionist foreign policy by the NATO powers, recognising that unless they were proactive the threat from Al-Qaeda would only grow, was also heralded by the events of September 11th. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq arguably defined the decade after 9/11 and led to regimes hostile to the US and NATO being removed and the capacity of terrorist groups to operate being significantly reduced. This success has however been tempered by the propaganda boost given to Islamic militants who have been able to portray America in particular as a ‘crusader’ state and whip up resentment over civilian deaths at the hands of the occupying forces. Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Middle East and the seemingly successful intervention in support of the Libyan uprising may in time help to change the negative views of the West that the ‘wars on terror’ helped to create. The US and European powers may well have successfully mitigated the threat terror poses to them since 9/11 but at the cost of their diplomatic relations and standing in the Middle-East in particular.
Ten years on, the fallout from September 11th has produced no clear winners. Al-Qaeda has been harassed and severely damaged operationally; indeed fewer US citizens died from terror attacks in the decade after 9/11 than they did in the decade before. The death of Osama Bin Laden earlier this year, will have given many renewed hope that the threat of Islamic militants can be crushed once and for all. The still inconclusive situation in Afghanistan however shows the scale of the struggle that is still to come. It might be decades until the ‘war on terror’ is definitively won. The terror attacks of 9/11, abhorrent and devastating, were designed to instil the maximum level of fear in western populations. The security culture the attacks led to, measures such as the PATRIOT Act, which it has been argued infringed too greatly on citizens’ rights and liberties and the rise in Islamophobia can be seen as manifestations of that fear. The last ten years for the West have been a delicate battle between taking measures necessary to stop terrorism and not overreacting and inflaming opinion either internationally or at home. It remains to be seen if they have struck the right balance.