On this day ten years ago, 11 September 2001, we were not to know that the perpetrators of the attacks on New York and Washington had played their best card right at the start of their game. Nothing illustrates the weakness of terrorism more clearly than do the hijackings of that day: spectacular, attention-grabbing, grandly cruel – but from any kind of strategic point of view, useless. No troops followed up the attacks. No guerrilla activity was launched anywhere to drive home their advantage. Not even a single decently destructive sleeper group was mobilised to cause further anxious mayhem on America’s home front. Instead a pleased and smug Osama Bin Laden sat back and waited for America to run scared. Like many privileged people before and after him, he mistook wealth for intelligence: the Americas had been cowards before (in Beirut in 1983; in Somali under Clinton) so he knew they would be again. No one seems to have told him that history did not start only when he became an adult. New York and Washington were closer to Pearl Harbour in 1941 than anything in the Middle-East and the Horn of Africa.
Bin Laden had to acknowledge responsibility or the point of his attacks would have been lost: they were communicative not military acts and communication eventually requires talk. But in doing so he was also signing his organisation’s suicide note: once the US stood round to fight he was bound to fail. And when the counter-attack began no action on his part could ever repeat the glory of 11 September. A terrorist campaign is not like a military one, victories being ground out slowly but surely in unglamorous campaigns of fighting. After 11 September, Bin Laden had nothing left to say of sufficient significance to help realise his own self-declared goals. Sure there was an embassy bomb here, a terrible Bali attack there, the London and Madrid attacks, and much else that was awful. But they had no military purpose while also failing to ratchet up the violence in any kind of strategically coherent way. Al Qaida became the bully in the playground pushing the other kids around but not doing much of any real significance or importance to change the way the teachers behaved, an irritant (a made-made Tsunami; a human-induced earthquake) but not a history-changer.
Without the Iraqi invasion and occupation, Al Qaida would have faded sooner from our consciousness. Not even injustice in Palestine (upon which Bin Laden with increasing desperation relied) would have been enough in itself. But Bush’s ‘crusade’ to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the lifeline that kept Bin Laden centre-stage far longer than his capacities or strategic intelligence warranted.
Not for the first time an act of terrorism is more important for what it provoked than for what it was: for a little while it really did seem that the US was going to be able to turn the events on 11 September into a world-changing moment in favour of the Bush-Cheney vision of what America should be – an exceptional nation, dominant abroad and with a supra-constitutional executive branch at home, a country in which human rights, the rule of law and democratic accountability played permanent second fiddle to an endless and endlessly useful ‘war on terror.’ This Orwellian dystopia was not far away. But then came Iraq, the open pleasure taken in torture, the unembarrassed reliance on Guantanamo Bay.
Maybe we should be grateful for Bush’s strategic stupidity: a rich kid like Osama he too thought he could get what he wanted quickly and without opposition. But his actions were so extreme they alienated even his own Republican Supreme Court justices and informed American opinion as well (not to mention the rest of the world).
Liberal values have been recovering from the excesses of the Bush decade but the authoritarian roots put down in that time have been hard to eradicate completely. It is too early to tell but it may be that Bin Laden’s lasting legacy will have been to make democratic authoritarianism seem somehow normal, the burden of proof being placed on those who desire freedom rather than those who care more about what they get away with calling security.
Meanwhile if you want to reflect on somebody who really knew where violence fitted, skip all this weekend’s reflections on Osama Bin Laden and read instead about General Giap, the celebrated Vietnamese fighter, and victor over the French and Americans – still going strong at 100. Now there is the kind of guy whom you would not want to take on. I wonder what he made of Osama and George Junior?