Who Won the Decade? The Terrorists

Tellingly, this bleak decade began with the inauguration of George W. Bush as U.S. president. It saw three major terrorist attacks on four Western cities and the beginning of a war that promises no end.

Historians will remember the first decade of the 21st century as the time when torture became acceptable again in Western democracies and when - in these same countries - people who happened to be Muslim could be arrested and jailed on the flimsiest of excuses.

Future generations will look back on this period as a decade of shame, a time when civil rights painstakingly earned over centuries were summarily rolled back. Britain, with its ubiquitous closed-circuit television cameras, has become a surveillance state. America, whose constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties were once the envy of the world, has thrown them aside in the name of national security.

In Canada, the decade that began on Jan. 1, 2001 encompassed three federal governments. But it will be remembered as the Stephen Harper era, a mean-spirited time characterized by mandatory jail terms (even though crime rates are down) and Ottawa's grudging reluctance to stand up for Canadians in trouble abroad.

Canadians are a proud and patriotic people. But this decade will be seen as a time when government replaced patriotism with knee-jerk jingoism and, in matters such as the Afghan prisoner scandal, responded to criticism with cries of treason.

The first decade of the 21st century is not yet finished. As those familiar with arithmetic know, this dreadful 10-year period won't end until Dec. 31, 2010. But it's far enough along that its contours are already in place, its grooves worn.

On any scale, we have moved backward. In the '90s, it seemed - for a while at least - as if the world really were serious about tackling climate change. But by this decade, it became clear that the early promise of the 1997 Kyoto accord would come to nothing. The damp squib produced by last week's Copenhagen climate summit only served to underline that sad point.

In the '90s, a serious - if fractious and often ill-informed - debate had begun over the nature of international trade.

The anti-globalization protests that hit cities like Seattle and Calgary during those years weren't always clear-headed. But for a while it did seem that there might be a chance of ratcheting back some of the more harmful elements of trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Now, all of that has been suspended. The pro-forma protests still take place, but the movement itself has withered under the glare of the West's national security apparatus.

Ironically, in the wake of recession, the anti-globalization movement of the '90s is in danger of being replaced in countries like the U.S. by a more knee-jerk and ultimately more harmful form of xenophobic protectionism.

In the '90s, there was some hint that humans might be losing their habitual arrogance. Scientific research had shown that people were closer to other animals in brain power, emotion and speech capacity than anyone had previously imagined.

At the same time, there was a growing awareness, particularly among the young, that if humans had inalienable rights to life and liberty then so did other species.

But in this decade, that nascent animal rights movement has been virtually crushed. In Britain and the U.S., government used anti-terror laws. In Canada, even a mild attempt to beef up the country's antiquated animal cruelty statute was squashed by an unholy coalition of hunters, religious groups and abattoirs.

The '90s had its own share of war and atrocity - in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Middle East. Still, there was a sense of optimism that a new and lasting peace could be constructed in the wake of the Cold War. The attacks of 9/11 put an end to those hopes.

In real terms, the terror attacks on Washington and New York were pinpricks. So too the subsequent terror bombings in Madrid and London. Compared with the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, in which hundreds of thousands perished, the death toll of 9/11 was miniscule. Indeed, compared with the number of Americans killed each year by handguns, it was miniscule.

But 9/11 accomplished something far more powerful. By terrifying the citizens of the world's mightiest nation, it set in play forces that are still working themselves out.

In particular, it encouraged the U.S. and allies like Canada to embark on what has become the West's longest war in 200 years.

Well into its eighth year, the Afghan conflict has surpassed both world wars. Not since the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th century, have so many nations been engaged in such a lengthy struggle.

Like that earlier conflict, the war on terror (of which Afghanistan is just one front) has profoundly affected the nations waging it.

In Bury the Chains, his 2006 book on the struggle to end slavery, Adam Hochschild describes the period immediately following the French Revolution of 1789 as England's "bleak decade."

Like today, the brutality of that revolution and the so-called reign of terror that followed petrified the developed world's middle class.

As Osama bin Laden is to our time, so Napoleon was to theirs - the devil incarnate.

Like today, there was some justification for that fear. Napolean was bent on conquest. And the example of France's revolution did spark a bloody rebellion in what were then Britain's Irish territories.

But as Hochschild notes, the terror and paranoia of that bleak decade also set back all social movements in Britain. Acts of Parliament similar to today's anti-terror laws were used to derail anything the government didn't like.

Then as now, liberals were divided, with some opting to support the state security apparatus. In this decade, liberals like Michael Ignatieff and U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz came out in favour of harsh interrogation techniques, arguing that the times demanded it. In that earlier period, William Wilberforce, one of the anti-slavery movement's leading spokesmen, founded his own Society for Carrying into Effect his Majesty's Proclamation Against Vice and Immorality which, among other things, arranged for the arrest of a stationer selling books deemed subversive (Thomas Paine's democratic classic, The Age of Reason, was one.)

Then, as now, the climate of fear was heightened by economic hard times. Today, optimists are heartened by the fact that Barack Obama has replaced Bush as U.S. president. And it's true that Obama, as well as having started to extricate the U.S. from Iraq, has served notice that America will not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.

But once set in motion, events follow their own logic. Obama has banned torture. But he has not ended the practice of rendition, whereby the U.S. outsources prisoners to other countries to be tortured.

He is going ahead with plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. But his solution is to set up another Guantanamo in Illinois, where prisoners can still be held indefinitely without charge.

The Afghan war he wants to end has already spread across the border into nuclear-armed Pakistan.

More chillingly, it is not at all clear that Obama will be able to extricate his nation from this South Asian conflict as scheduled - or that loyal US ally Canada will keep to its 2011 deadline for withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan.

Depending on the definition used, the Napoleonic Wars lasted anywhere from 11 to 22 years. If the war on terror keeps to that schedule, we've still got a way to go.

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