After the fall: Looking back on 9/11

By Neale McDevitt

Throughout history, generations have been marked by seminal moments whose impact changes the course of the world. Pearl Harbour, the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, the fall of the Berlin Wall – these singular events are forever ingrained in the respective consciousness of the people who were alive when they occurred – where were you when JFK was shot?

Everyone knows exactly where they were on September 11, 2001 when Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon respectively. The fourth plane, having been redirected to Washington, D.C., crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers tried to take control of the plane. No one will forget the horror and disbelief they felt when both Towers finally collapsed. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks.

Too close for comfort

Few people had as chilling a vantage point to watch the events in Manhattan unfold as Stephen Saideman. “I had just started a fellowship on the Bosnia desk on the U.S. Joint Staff,” said the Canada Research Chair in International Security and Ethnic Conflict. “I watched the second plane hit on a TV in the Pentagon.” Unbeknownst to Saideman, hijackers had taken control of American Airlines Flight 77 and were heading for the Pentagon at that exact moment.

Fortunately, a meeting across the river in Washington called Saideman away. He was in transit on a shuttle bus when the third plane slammed into the massive military headquarters killing 189. Making it back to the Pentagon, Saideman remembers being “sort of outside myself watching it happen.” It was only later at home, in front of his television that Saideman began feeling “anger and frustration like everybody else.”

The attack immediately set in motion wholesale changes to United States and NATO policy. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the world focus had been riveted on the conflict in the Balkans. “But that very quickly moved off the front pages and out of the mindset of the folks at the top levels of decision making,” said Saideman. “There was a major sea change in where the U.S. was focusing. Almost immediately, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq were the be-all and end-all of U.S. foreign policy.”

Saideman says that while U.S. and NATO policy in Bosnia and Kosovo were shaped very much by the desire to avoid casualties because there wasn’t enough public support to endure an engagement that would be costly in terms of human lives, the visceral reaction of the public following 9/11 made it clear that the public would be tolerant of casualties in the Bush Administration’s newly launched War on Terror. “This was an attack on U.S. soil, with almost the exact same number of deaths as with Pearl Harbor – an event that got the U.S. into World War II,” said Saideman. “Suddenly the public was willing to accept the risks and sacrifices that they weren’t willing to accept before.”

Although Saideman says 9/11 is “fading into the background,” ten years after the fact, he believes its repercussions will be felt for generations.

“The biggest frustration for me that comes out of 9/11 is that it empowered an administration made up of the worst possible people to be in that position,” said Saideman. “I was more angry at how the Bush administration wasted whatever the United States had gained that day through the sacrifices of its people through bad policy implemented poorly. The hole we’re in now is largely a product of the bad decisions of the first few years of this decade. It proved to be extraordinarily bad timing because you had people like [Condoleezza] Rice, [Dick] Chaney and [Donald] Rumsfeld at the controls when they were suddenly given a lot of power. And we’ll be paying the price for the next 50-70 years.”

Rehabilitating religion

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Arvind Sharma was in the lounge of the Presbyterian College on University Street thinking about getting something to eat. Noticing people huddled around a TV set, the Birks professor of comparative religion asked what was happening. When given the news of the attacks, Sharma remembers whispering; “So, Gandhi was right after all.”

“The modern world is so intermeshed that a violent expression of one’s grievance was bound to have, to a degree, an out-of-world proportion to the original offense,” explained Sharma. “So, [as Gandhi maintained], no matter how deeply one felt oneself to be a victim of injustice, non-violent activism as the only viable option to [express] it.”

For Sharma, the cataclysmic events of 9/11 shook the foundations of all world religions, not just Islam. “Quite suddenly religion became almost a byword for evil,” he said. “But to conflate or identify religion with evil is to be shortsighted and to ignore its potential for good. Fire can burn our house down but it also can cook our meal.”

Sharma’s response was to get people talking. In 2006, he organized the Global Congress on World’s Religions After September 11, an ecumenical conference that gathered leaders from the world’s major and minor religions to address many of the issues facing the planet following the terrorist attacks. The second such Congress will take place beginning on Sept. 7, at the Palais des congrès de Montréal with the Dalai Lama serving as the keynote speaker.

“Nothing contributes more to dissolving suspicions and doubts about other religions than actually meeting people from different religions,” said Sharma. “When you deal with religion in the abstract, you can fantasize, catastrophize and demonize. But when you see someone who welcomes you, talks like you, looks like you – maybe he has a different metaphysical position but in many ways he’s like you – then you have to recalibrate.”

A delicate balance

Frédéric Mégret, has been feeling the reverberations of 9/11 throughout his career. “I was in Florence, just starting to do research in international law and human rights,” said the Canada Research Chair in the Law of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. “In my case, this really proved to be almost career defining because I went on to publish one of my first peer-reviewed articles on exactly that issue – specifically the semantics of war and the Bush Administration’s use of the term. Ever since, a significant proportion of my writing has tried to tease out the implications of 9/11.”

According to Mégret, those implications have been both profound and ominous. Following the attacks, Western governments implemented a new, more rigorous security apparatus that curtailed some basic civil liberties in the name of the war against terror.

“It is almost as if [9/11] triggered governments to do something that many are quite naturally prone to do, namely, increase the powers of the State, increase surveillance, increase tracking of marginal or delinquent individuals,” he said.

Mégret maintains that on the domestic front, these changes have given authorities increased powers of arrest and detention, as well as making it more difficult for certain charities or organizations to register or to obtain financing.

Internationally, the threat of terrorism has also changed the ways in which wars are waged. Since terrorists don’t strongly dissociate themselves from surrounding populations, traditional troops are faced with a myriad of logistical obstacles and threats. “Terrorists can’t be fought classically because, of course, they refuse military engagement,” said Mégret. “That has precipitated huge developments in the laws of war and the creation of all sorts of grey areas.

For example, there is the idea that terrorists, as non-combatants, are not entitled to certain basic humanitarian protection such as prisoner of war status, but nonetheless, can be tried by a military commission,” continued Mégret. These are the sorts of language games that States play rather ruthlessly.”

Even though he is ever-vigilant of human rights abuses, Mégret also understands the absolute necessity for public safety. “At the end of the day, security is indispensable to individuals, thriving institutions and the democratic life,” he said. “If we don’t have security then we don’t even have the possibility of having all of these liberties.

“It would be too easy for human rights lawyers to lay blame on organizations like CSIS,” said Mégret. “When fighting against a threat like Al-Qaeda, you, from a security point of view, must take some sort of preventative action and I understand that some hard decisions must be made. It is a very fine balance to strike.”