The War on Terror Has Been about Scaring People, Not Protecting Them
So there was no ticking time bomb. No urgent need ever arose to torture anybody who was withholding crucial details, so that civilisation as we know it could be saved in the nick of time. No wires had to be tapped, special prisons erected or international accords violated. No innocent people had to be grabbed off the street in their home country, transported across the globe and waterboarded. Drones, daisy-cutters, invasions, occupations were, it has transpired, not necessary.
Indeed, when it actually came down to it, to forestall a near-calamitous terrorist atrocity in the US the authorities didn't even have to go in search of information or informants. The alleged terrorist's father came to the US embassy in Nigeria of his own free will and warned them that his son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had disappeared and could be in the company of Yemeni terrorists.
Meanwhile the National Security Agency had heard that al-Qaida in Yemen was planning to use an unnamed Nigerian in an attack on the US. If that were not enough, then came Abdulmutallab himself, a 23-year-old Nigerian bound for Detroit who bought his ticket in cash, checked in no bags and left no contact information. For seven years the American state manipulated the public with its multicoloured terror alerts. But when all the warning lights were flashing red, it did nothing.
To brand this near miss a "systemic failure", as Barack Obama has done, is both true and inadequate. It reduces the moral vacuity, political malevolence and enduring strategic recklessness that has been the enduring response to the 9/11 attacks to a question of managerial competence.
"Terror is first of all the terror of the next attack," explains Arjun Appadurai in Fear of Small Numbers. During the Bush years that terror was routinely leveraged for the purposes of social control, military mobilisation and electoral advantage. Meanwhile, the administrative processes that might prevent the next attack were tragically lacking. In short, Bush's anti-terror strategy was not about protecting people but about scaring them.
To galvanise the nation for war abroad and sedate it for repression at home, the previous administration constructed a terror threat that was ubiquitous in character, apocalyptic in scale and imminent in nature. Only then could they counterpose human rights against security as though they were not only contradictory but mutually exclusive.
Al-Qaida was only too happy to oblige. In such a state of perpetual crisis both terrorists and reactionaries thrive. Terrorists successfully create a climate of fear; governments successfully exploit that fear to extend their own powers.
"I'm absolutely convinced that the threat we face now, the idea of a terrorist in the middle of one of our cities with a nuclear weapon, is very real and that we have to use extraordinary measures to deal with it," said former vice-president Dick Cheney.
The trouble is that even by their own shabby standards, none of these "extraordinary measures" have ever worked. No new laws were necessary to stop 9/11. If the immigration services, the FBI and the CIA had been doing their jobs properly, the attacks could have been prevented.
Nonetheless, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the US government undertook the "preventative detention" of about 5,000 men on the basis of their birthplace and later sought a further 19,000 "voluntary interviews". Over the next year, more than 170,000 men from 24 predominantly Muslim countries and North Korea were fingerprinted and interviewed in a programme of "special registration". None of these produced a single terrorism conviction.
This set the pattern for the years to come: wiretapping, rendition, torture, secrecy. Those who otherwise rail against the inefficiency of government argued for more extensive, intrusive state power even as it produced little in the way of results. When confronted with this lamentable record, their only defence was the threat of the next attack. "The next time, the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud" said Condoleezza Rice, adding. "They only have to be right once. We have to be right every time." Over the last week even once in a while would have looked good.
There are precious few partisan points to be made here. Responsibility for Abdulmutallab lies with Obama. He has been in power longer than Bush was when he received the FBI memo entitled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the US". The Bush administration may have been more alarmist and belligerent, but, despite his more emollient tone, Obama has kept most of the repressive apparatus that Bush constructed intact. Obama has expressed his support for trying Guantánamo prisoners under military commissions, while his CIA chief has expressed his desire to keep extraordinary rendition. Meanwhile, photographs of torture and documents describing videos of these "enhanced interrogations" remain under lock and key.
"Leon Panetta has been captured by the people who were the ideological drivers for the interrogation program in the first place," a former CIA officer told the Washington Post. Casting the escalation of the Afghanistan war as a central front in the war on terror is a potent illustration of how this delusion has continued. Al-Qaida is now more likely to be found in Pakistan, an American ally, than in Afghanistan and the latest threat came via Yemen. Terrorism is a strategy, not a place - attempts to carpet-bomb it or occupy it or conquer it will inevitably fail.
Given the nature of terrorism another attack can be predicted with grim certainty. Before 9/11 there was Oklahoma City and before that there was the World Trade Centre. In a nation where the shooting of innocents in schools, colleges, churches and coffee shops is relatively commonplace, it goes without saying that one disturbed individual, with a lethal weapon and with or without an agenda, can inflict a substantial amount of human carnage. If they are working in a team and well resourced, the damage could be huge. All the state can reasonably expect to do is limit the odds.
The US has actually done the opposite. Thanks to war and torture it has swelled the number of people who might want to do it harm. Much has been made of Abdulmutallab's radicalisation in London. But there had to be something to radicalise him with. In Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Fallujah and elsewhere, the US has provided plenty of material.
Meanwhile the institutional stasis within the agencies that are supposed to combat terrorism means that when a potential terrorist actually does rear their head they appear on every radar and yet somehow, all too often, go undetected.
So instead of reducing the odds politicians instead invoke them. "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaida build or develop a nuclear weapon," Cheney once said, "we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response". But it's precisely because their analysis has been so deeply flawed that their response has been so faulty. Until things improve there is a much higher chance that America's anti-terror efforts will repeat themselves: first as farce and then as human tragedy.
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited