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September 11: The grave costs of fear

Published in Ahram Online on September 14, 2013

Following the 9/11 events, a discourse of fear proliferated in America, shutting down rational thought. Wars abroad and attacks on rights at home followed, with dear ethical and legal consequences.

The sound of the two explosions rocked the entire city. The smell of smoke wafted all the way north to Houston St, while the sound of the sirens of ambulances, fire trucks and police cars was deafening. People’s gazes were unfocused and confused, unable to grasp the tragic events their city was witnessing. Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the street and flung open their doors so that passersby could listen to news on the radio.

The next day, I ventured out to inspect the streets of my neighbourhood, the East Village in Lower Manhattan.  The trains had stopped working and there was no traffic. Sixth Avenue had no busses, cabs or cars; only bicycles and roller skates.

Then I saw the graffiti on the walls. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th street I read: “F*** Palestinians,” but the word “Palestinians” had been scribbled out, replaced with the word “Arabs” only to be replaced again with “Muslims.”

In the following weeks and months, my colleagues and I at the Department of Middle East Studies at New York University, where I worked back then, tried to organise seminars and lectures to explain the historical and political background of these terrorist attacks. Yet the context and atmosphere of the “war on terror” declared by President George W Bush did not leave room for a rational dialogue. Any discussion about “reasons” or “background” of these attacks was immediately conceived as a justification and an endorsement of “terrorism.” (Unlike present-day Egypt, the term “fifth column” was not widely used then.)

And even the few of us who succeeded to appear on TV to present a somewhat nuanced view of the events were soon replaced with “strategic experts” specialising in “Islamic terrorism” who proceeded to support their feeble arguments with quotations from a book that swiftly occupied a prominent spot on the bestseller list in the United States: the Quran.

But the most persistent memory I have of these dark days were those TV scenes of congressional debates discussing the PATRIOT Act. In these sessions I saw what I would have never expected to see: Democratic Senators known for their fierce opposition to President Bush and his Republican policies handing in one concession after another and giving up on what the US civil liberties movement had struggled for decades to achieve. The CIA did not request these concessions, nor did any other security agency; they were rather presented voluntarily by Congress to the security agencies on a silver platter.

Constitutional principles were violated, and legal rights were suspended, and a new discourse reigned supreme. This new discourse was not one of security, or strength, or triumph. This was a discourse of fear. Fear of “Al-Qaeda,” fear of “Terrorism,” fear of “Islam.”

And when fear predominates, reason and the ability to think critically disappears.

The result of this discourse of fear was two long and expensive wars in two distant countries that were completely destroyed, in addition to a global “war on terror” that is still being waged with no clear purpose or specific destination. The United States claims that it came out from these wars victorious; democracy came to Iraq, and stability to Afghanistan, whereas Al-Qaeda has been decimated — its funding sources have been dried up, its training camps destroyed, its members are being held at Guantanamo, and its leader was killed, his body thrown into the sea.

But what has this “victory” cost? By “cost” I do not mean the lives of Iraqis, Afghanis or “terrorists,” for those have no value in the eyes of the victor, and I do not mean the trillions of dollars spent on these endless wars. I am referring, rather, to the ethical and legal cost incurred by American society. Everyday, Americans wake up to discover the high price they had to pay to “eliminate terrorism.” The US Constitution, of which Americans are rightly proud, has been set aside under the pretext of the exceptionality of the moment, and the US courts, of which Americans are also proud, have effectively been admitted to be incapable of dealing with “terrorism,” and so special tribunals had to be established to try “terrorists.”

Under Bush, torture was no longer restricted to Third World countries, but was performed systematically with the knowledge, nay, blessings of the head of the state himself, and Guantanamo, with all its violations, has seriously tarnished the entire American legal system. In the meantime, Americans are no longer sure that their emails and phone conversations or even the books they check out from libraries are immune from government supervision.

What really saddens when I remember those dark days, of which the twelfth anniversary is upon us, and from which we seem to be drawing inspiration in Egypt, is my failed attempt at the time, together with colleagues specialising in the history of our region, to use Egypt’s example of dealing with “terrorism” in the 1990s as illustrating a path not to follow. In many lectures and seminars, my colleagues and I cited Egypt’s flawed confrontation with Islamist “terrorists,” and tried to show, not very successfully, that the problem with security solutions, in Egypt as well as in the United States, is not whether or not they are viable, but rather that their ethical and legal costs are high. We also wondered whether a state of emergency or a PATRIOT Act was necessary to enable us to confront this danger, or whether the constitution and existing laws were sufficient to protect us?

If the discourse of law and rights had triumphed over the discourse of fear, not only in our country, but in the world at large, I wonder, would we have been able to achieve security and counter the threat of terrorism and, at the same time, hold on to our humanity?

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