The war on terror 10 years on -

The war on terror 10 years on

Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells debate the successes and failures of the world’s response after 9/11 and how safe we are today

The war on terror 10 years on

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ANDREW COYNE: Perhaps the best way to think about the legacy of Sept. 11 is to think of all the things that haven’t happened. Most obviously, there has been no successful terrorist attack on American soil since then—nor any attempted attack originating from Canadian soil. Neither have there been any of the consequences that might well have followed from a second, possibly worse attack, or in some cases were predicted to follow from the first: no wholesale victimization of Muslims, no long, black night of repression of dissent, no cataclysmic clash of civilizations, and so on.

This is of more than theoretical interest. If, 10 years later, al-Qaeda seems a depleted force, there was no guarantee things would turn out that way, nor did it seem likely at the time. Reviewing television footage from the day, what is striking is the sense of be­wilderment in the voices of the normally phlegmatic anchormen, as the planes keep dropping out of the sky. Who could blame them? As of about noon that day, you could have told me California had fallen into the sea and I’d have believed you.

The audacity of attacking the world’s most powerful nation in such spectacular, head-on fashion still has the power to shock. More than anything else, Sept. 11 was a show of strength: look what we can do to you, it announced. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.

That is what made al-Qaeda so new, and terrifying. It was the unique intersection of three things: the willingness to murder on a grand scale, the technological capacity to bring it about, and a set of objectives so fantastic—the restoration of the Caliphate, the conversion of America to Islam—as to be unappeasable even in theory. Analogies were, and are, made to the Baader-Meinhof gang or the Red Brigade, but when the threat is not kidnappings and car bombs but biological weapons, “dirty bombs” and worse—when two men in a rowboat could take out New York City, and would if they could—such comparisons are fatuous. It was more as if we had entered, as one commentator said at the time, a Cuban missile crisis that goes on for the rest of our lives.

If al-Qaeda is no longer on the front pages of every newspaper, it has not been for lack of trying: ask the victims of the bombings on London transit, the Madrid railway, the Bali seaside resort, and countless smaller-scale attacks, successful or otherwise. If, moreover, we no longer see al-Qaeda as the kind of centralized, hierarchical terrorist clearing-house it appeared before, that has been supplanted in the fears of security experts by the still more perplexing threat of homegrown terrorism, in some cases from unexpected sources.

Nor has Canada been immune from any of this. The story of the Toronto 18, whose ambitions ranged from blowing up buildings in downtown Toronto (they had already purchased the ammonium nitrate) to, less plausibly, beheading the Prime Minister, is well known. But most Canadians are still unaware that, among the targets in that plot a few years back to blow up 10 airliners over major cities in a single day—using liquid explosives hidden in soft-drink containers (you remember: it’s why you can’t carry “liquids or gels” through security any more)—were Toronto and Montreal. The plot was foiled with hours to spare.

So, all things considered, things might have turned out a lot worse than they have. And, all things considered, I think that reflects well on the measures governments have taken in response. I don’t say for a moment that there was not some degree of overreaction, or that governments did not make errors, sometimes catastrophic ones. There have been abuses, some of them horrific, such as at Abu Ghraib, or the kidnapping and torture of Maher Arar. But in the broad strokes, I think they got it right. And where approaches proved misguided, governments have shown an ability to learn, and adapt their methods.

No, we no longer speak in terms of a War on Terror, as if Islamic terrorism were a single enemy with a single purpose, and many of the harsher methods adopted by the Bush administration, from profiling to “enhanced interrogation,” have been discarded and/or discredited. But others, from rendition to military tribunals to warrantless wiretaps, have been retained by the Obama administration. Still others, such as waterboarding, never were used in more than a handful of cases.

And if the military metaphor is no longer apt, neither is al-Qaeda’s present weakened state a matter of traditional law enforcement. Dozens of al-Qaeda operatives have been hunted down and killed, culminating in the recent dispatching of Osama bin Laden. Many more remain in captivity at Guantánamo Bay—another Bush legacy Obama has chosen not to walk away from.

The war in Afghanistan seems to me to have been unavoidable: there was simply no prospect of allowing al-Qaeda to use an entire country—at his height, bin Laden seems to have been a kind of finance minister to the Taliban—as its base of operations. That remains the case today, even if the more direct threat is to Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal. To the critics’ supposed stumper question—what does victory look like?—the answer remains the same: when the Afghan government can provide for its own security.

Likewise, I remain an unrepentant supporter of the decision to invade Iraq: certainly in light of what every Western intelligence agency thought at the time about weapons of mass destruction, and on balance, in terms of what we know now. Again, we need to consider what the world would look like today had Saddam Hussein not been removed from power: had he successfully defied the UN’s repeated demands to comply with the 1991 ceasefire, had the sanctions continued to implode under the weight of Saddam’s bribery, had the arms inspectors never returned (remember it was only the presence of 150,000 U.S. troops on his doorstep that persuaded him to readmit them), and, most crucially, had he had $100-a-barrel oil with which to finance his ambitions—say, to purchase nukes from North Korea. The appalling mess that was made of the reconstruction should not blind us to the reality that Iraq was a nightmare the world was going to have to confront some day, no matter what.

Perhaps the most difficult legacy of the last 10 years has been, in a sense, its success. We have been able to avoid a terrorist attack on our soil; as such, we have come to expect that to continue, and to demand to be protected from any risk of an attack. This is not possible, or not at an acceptable cost, especially if civil liberties are also to be preserved. Indeed, a recurring problem in recent years has been the “notional attack,” the mere advertisement of which has been sufficient to cause massive disruptions in trade and travel, not by al-Qaeda bombers, but at our own hands. Past a certain point, there are worse things than terrorism.


PAUL WELLS: We will all be reminded quite enough, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, of the hurtling jets, the fireballs, the devastation and the mourning. We do well to remember. But taking stock is a different matter, and to do that, it’s best to look at the entire decade that has elapsed, and to ask what kind of world we’re in now.

Because it’s really easy to get it wrong.

“The real defining moments for the country and for the world,” Stephen Harper told this magazine in June, “are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.”

The Prime Minister’s models here were “the two big threats of the 20th century”—fascism, against which Canada “played one of the largest roles in the world”; and “the long, sustained state of alert of the Cold War against Communism.”

Right. So is Canada in such a conflict now? “I think we always are,” the Prime Minister said. Okay then. Against whom?

Slowly the air went out of the Prime Minister’s geopolitical balloon. “Well, I think it’s more difficult to define now. We know there are challenges to us. The most obvious is terrorism, Islamic extremist terrorism. We know that’s a big one globally. We also know, though, the world is becoming more complex, and the ability of our most important allies, and most importantly the United States, to single-handedly shape outcomes and protect our interests, has been diminishing, and so I’m saying we have to be prepared to contribute more, and that is what this government’s been doing.”

The Prime Minister is a smart guy, and there’s a lot of sense in what he said, as long as you discard his entire analytical frame. When the two big threats of the 20th century were looming, it was easy to pick them out of a lineup. Hitler marched across most of Europe and slaughtered millions. Stalin slaughtered millions, then marched across most of Europe. Islamic extremist terrorism has caused tremendous pain and cost too many lives. But if this is one of “those big conflicts where everything’s at stake,” it’s hiding it well.

The 2010 report of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, released four months ago, asserts that 13,186 people died around the world in terrorist attacks last year. About 69 per cent, or 9,092 of those deaths, are attributable to Islamic extremist violence. Almost all of the killing took place in a small number of countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia. It is a terrible toll of blood. It also represents a small fraction of the monthly death toll in the gulag or in the bloodlands of Central Europe in the early 1940s. It also, by its geographic location, more closely resembles a regional series of civil wars in countries with large Muslim populations, in which Western armies and U.S. foreign policy play almost cameo roles, than it looks like any kind of 20th-century mass industrial clash of civilizations.

So one thing 9/11 did was knock perspectives out of whack, often durably. On that endless horrible morning, when a second hijacked jet hit a target next to the first, and a third hit the Pentagon and a fourth went down in a Pennsylvania field, it was reasonable to conclude that this was what the rest of our lives would look like.

Reasonable but wrong. There would certainly have been more waves of attacks if the U.S. and every other country hadn’t radically enhanced its security apparatus, sometimes to excess, often to tremendous effect. There have been attacks, memorably in Madrid and London, nearly daily in Baghdad and Kabul.

But the scale of it all is radically smaller than it looked like it would be on that awful September morning. Which means that all of the hopped-up dime-store Churchills who have spent a decade trying to explain to the rest of us what kind of historic conflict we are in have been getting it wildly wrong, and when those wannabe generals in a war we’re not in have found themselves in a position to command real generals, as Dick Cheney did for much of the past decade, big mistakes have been made. The Iraq war was attractive to the Little League Churchills because it looked more like the big industrial wars of the storybooks than Afghanistan did, and chasing that chimera turned Iraq into a sinkhole of materiel that robbed Afghanistan of the assets our commanders needed to win that conflict.

The temptation to view 9/11 as a battle in one of “those big conflicts where everything’s at stake” distorts decision-makers’ understanding of what’s actually at stake. The post-9/11 world is more like a multi-theatre version of what the retired British army general Rupert Smith calls “war amongst the people.”

“We fight in every living room in the world,” Smith wrote, “as well as on the streets and fields of a conflict zone.” The most important battlefield is the opinion of non-combatants. The goal is to ensure they don’t become combatants or sustain them. Lumping “Islam” and “the West” into opposing camps typecasts every Muslim as a combatant and loses the battle before it began. It tempts governments, including ours, to dismiss the tentative revolutions across the Middle East as failures or shams because of course those people can’t be democrats. It encourages misallocation of resources as we arm for conflicts we’ll never fight, leaving us poorly armed for the conflicts we do.

The challenge, a decade after Sept. 11, 2001, is to understand that we did not see the world more clearly on Sept. 12 than we had on Sept. 10. History doesn’t give us a Hitler every few years just because somebody’s itching to play Churchill. Every day brings a chance to reconsider the previous day’s lessons. That’s why every day brings hope.

On Sept. 8, Maclean’s will present a round table discussion on “How Has 9/11 Changed Our World?” at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld. The discussion will be broadcast live on CPAC, and feature the Hon. David Collenette, former minister of transport, Sukanya Pillay, Director, National Security Program, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Tarek Fatah, author, broadcaster and political activist. The event will be moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen, and include Maclean’s columnists Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne. For more information and complimentary tickets, visit


The war on terror 10 years on

  1. Mr Coyne, how do you fit the Fort Hood atrocity into your tidy dismissal of the thesis that there have been no further 9/11’s?  This is not a trick question.

    • 13 deaths compared to how many in 9/11?  The brats at Columbine almost managed that many.

      What was that Mr. Wells said about discarding the frame of reference?

    • Excellent article, Mr. Coyne.

  2. The real terrorists are on Wall Street.

  3. The whole situation has lost coherence. During the cold war, the ’emeny’ was clear and known. After Sept 11, 2001, there was another clear enemy. Not so now. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere, depending on who you ask. The people want safety and security, but are unwilling to contribute to it. This leads to a frightening lack of clarity as there is no clear information available as to who the “enemy” really is. Anymore. Sad. 

  4. I think things were a lot more opaque even during the Cold War. I’d like to bring up a few points. One is a warning against the temptations of the “what if” the world would look like with Saddam in place. Even discounting the debate over whether the Bush administration misled the public, manipulated media, and the unknown unknowns of their decision-making process in the run-up, to talk about Iraq as Saddam would have kept it had the US not invaded would entail many other facets. That would be a whole issue of Foreign Affairs in itself.

    Another way to “best think” of 9/11 is that the public should know that what is done in their name by their government has a percentage attached of coming back to them in adverse ways. Those that suffered in the Cold War under regimes tied to the Soviet Union or the US are more likely to blame either communism or capitalism for their suffering, despite any good argument against the veracity of capitalism or communism’s involvement. Similarly, the same happens in Pakistan when one finds their family murdered by a Predator drone attack. Consult David Kilcullen on what’s termed the “Accidental Guerrilla”.

    This leads into the consequences of 9/11. Again, discounting the “little” things in our lives that are now irreversible, like airport security, and the absolutely, mind-numbingly fundamental change to our concept of privacy, there are things in a wider, longer historical view. America can’t pay for itself, can’t make things for itself, and yet outspends all others in military. Sorry, no, not military, defence. An amoebic entity that has consumed surely more of the wealth than any deplorably liberal proposal by Obama.

    In the history of nations, long wars drain the lifeblood quickest. So what kind of war is being fought? Can it be won? Or, to be a bit leading, can you give up everything you value in the pursuit of a moving target? Terrorists are the moving target here, there is no singular definition that will carry from one peoples’ perception to another because all people’s have their own terrorists. And it changes, over time. It moves, like the conception of criminality. But do we torture criminals? Do we aid and abet those that torture, period? Are we going to go back and say “well, that’s wrong, so let’s stop”?

    How do you end the war on terror? Who are these Libyan rebels? Can they form a government? Or will they fall back into the pattern of violence that held up the last regime while generations grew up, knowing nothing but the terror?

    What will happen, when generations grow into maturity and God forbid, think torture and domestic spying, and handing over citizens to a justice-less bureaucracy south of our border is just “politics as usual”?

    God forbid.

  5. Wow! I shouldn’t really be surprised by PWs’ take on the war on terror really, nonetheless it strikes me that his piece could very well have been authored by someone like Gwynne Dyer. Have to say i’m in full agreement with him, even the US military derisively referred to the upper cadre of neo-cons[ the star chamber of five] as “chicken hawks.” Never again should the might of the leader of the free world [ and still the sole superpower] be in the unaccountable hands of such clowns and criminal dogmatic idealists, be they on the right or the left.
    As for AC’s analysis…while typically sensible, overall…meh!. It could be pretty well summed up as: it could’ve all been so much worse – all things considered it wasn’t so bad. But at what cost Andrew? At what cost to innocent lives and at what cost to the prestige of the US? The whole world has been a witness to an unsavoury, largely unaccountable and ludicrously exaggerated reaction to terror: torture, renditions to known torturers, brutal and unconstitutional internment camps, gross violations of civil liberties, and assumed guilt by the mearest association ; not to mention the entrenchment of the concept of the security services not being held to the highest standards of evidence and proof in our courts. Yes Andrew i see your point entirely, it could have all ended so much more messily; trouble is what real moral authority does it leave intact for the US once all the mess is cleared up? and what has been [irretreviably possibly] lost to our own freedoms? All i see in this, apart from the neccesity to defend ourselves, is a further diminishment of the rule of law and a continuing entrenchment of unaccountable state power. In some ways Bin laden has succeeded in diminshing us, if not thankfully destroying our way of life.

  6. I was on a plane on the morning of 9/11.  We hadn’t taken off yet, and wouldn’t for a week, so my young son and I had to spend an extra week with my mother in Vermont.  No great hardship, normally, but when all we wanted in the world was to get out of the US of A?  It was a terrifying experience.  

    That whole first day after the initial shock and horror (if Mom & I hadn’t been locked in an embrace when we saw the towers come down for the first time we’d have fallen with them), after frantic phone calls to find loved ones in New York, after retreating to her tiny hamlet in the mountains we gathered with friends to listen to Bush’s reaction. And we wondered where the next attack would come, and what it might be.  Would there be bombs planted at nuclear power plants?  Car or truck bombs in other big cities?  Missiles raining down on our heads?  Would some opportunistic third party take the situation and run with it, creating an Hydra-like multi-front conflict?

    Canada, our good, calm, welcoming, tolerant and every-so-slightly dull home seemed the safest of all havens.  When we finally were able to return home to our tiny valley north of Squamish, BC we stayed close for months.  

    Two summers later while walking in downtown Vancouver on an August afternoon, a clear, cloudless blue sky overhead, I was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of terror and shock, and I burst into tears.  The Snow Birds had overflown the city in a large loop, practicing for an air show the next day.  The sound of the jets took me back to that terrible day in Vermont, sitting by Lake Champlain and wondering if it was the end of everything, the only sound that of the jets that overflew the area every 5 or 10 minutes.

    The reaction I had, that unconscious return to the day it all changed, mirrors the way the American people reacted for the next several years, if not right to this day.  They tried to get on with their lives, acting as though nothing had changed because if it changed then “the terrorists would have won.”  But every once in a while something would remind them, and they trembled inside, shocked that anyone would have done this to them.

    What might have been used as a learning experience, as a time of introspection and self-awareness was turned, instead, into a time when the United States became even more American.  They spent more wildly, invaded with more strength, crowed louder than ever before.  Moderation, never a large part of that culture, seemed to go out the window entirely.

    And so they find themselves today on the verge of insolvency, genuinely puzzled as to how they got into this mess, and seemingly unable to work across party lines to get themselves out of it.  The end of their world certainly hasn’t come at the point of a gun, but it may just be about to come at the hands of bankers, the stock market, and the teetering world monetary system.  

    What must the terrorists be thinking now?

  7. “war amongst the people” is what the Americans described in Vietnam as “the battle for hearts and minds”. The single most important feature of that battle is that you cannot win people’s hearts and minds by killing their friends and relatives.