Has the world really learnt the lessons of 9/11?

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  • Sunday, September 11, 2011
  • Terrorists kill because they think that terrorism is effective, and that it advances their objective of sowing fear in the targeted populations, and inducing the affected societies and governments to change a policy or reverse a course of action.

    Sashi Tharoor

    It is hard to believe that 10 years have passed since the terrible events of September 11, 2001 events which forced every one of us to explore how to move forward in an increasingly uncertain world, and to reflect on how to cope with terrorism at home and around the world. Wednesday's bomb blasts outside the Delhi High Court are another stark reminder that no one is immune to the threat.

    But the horrifying events of that day 10 years back are emblematic of our times in another crucial way. The planes, the cellphone, the computer, are the tools of our time. These very forces, which in a more benign moment might have been seen as helping drive the world towards progress and prosperity, were used by the 9/11 terrorists.

    September 11, 2001 proved the direst predictions of the terrorism experts correct: with modern technology, terrorist groups can plan, finance and carry out much larger assaults than in the past, and inflict massive loss of life and significant property damage while using the very tools of globalisation. Terrorist groups are now our near neighbours, wherever we live or go to work, as those at Gate 5 of the Delhi High Court know all too well.

    9/11 marked the realisation that terrorism does not originate in one country, its practitioners are not based in one country, its victims are not found in one country - and the response to it must also involve all countries. International terrorism is a method, rather than a political ideology. It has, at various times in the past 100 years, been used by the right and the left, by subnational groups and internationalists, by secessionists and nation-builders, both successfully and unsuccessfully. But if we are to succeed in combating terrorism, we must not mistake the method for the cause, or we run the risk of merely adding to the cadre of would-be martyrs.

    For all but a few fanatics, terrorism is a method born of weakness. Those with the capacity to achieve their political ambitions by more conventional means seldom feel the need to resort to terror. It's a technique of asymmetrical warfare: when you can't hit the enemy where he is strong, hit him where he is vulnerable.

    Terrorism is unpredictable in its outcomes. Yes, it has sometimes furthered at least the short-term aims of its perpetrators. But it is a blunt and horrible weapon, and the more universally it is condemned, the more likely its use will promote powerful antagonisms towards the very aims it serves, the less useful it will be as a method, and the less we need fear it.

    Justice Through Dialogue

    Terrorist groups require a steady flow of new member-martyrs, and they need the support of non-terrorists, to survive. Support in terms of money or sanctuary from those sympathetic with their avowed political ambitions. Support from those who feel alienated from non-violent means of political change. And support from those who live in fear of its perpetrators but are unable to successfully face them down.

    Terrorism seldom thrives where alternative methods of redressing real or perceived ills exist, just as it seldom thrives where people feel comfortable about their prospects, or hopeful about their futures.

    Whatever the motives of the leaders of terrorist organisations, alone they pose little threat. Rather, they take advantage of desperate people. We need to ask what leads surprisingly large numbers of young men, and sometimes young women, to follow the desperate course set for them by fanatics and ideologues. We have to confront the sources of despair and alienation. No one should be forced to choose between violence and continued suffering.

    Another way to eliminate frustration and anger and the violence that may follow is through supporting the growth of democracy and the rule of law. In democratic societies there are roadmaps for non-violent dissent. Power relations between ethnic and religious groups and the state are mediated. Whilst democracies are rarely perfect, there are mechanisms to obtain justice. And the system offers hope for change and the means to change without the need for violence. In all this, it is vital to respect human rights. As Kofi Annan often used to say, those who would sacrifice their liberty to gain security usually end up losing both security and liberty.

    Price of Failure

    Twelve anti-terrorist treaties had been negotiated and become part of the international legal regime prior to 9/11. At the start of the new millennium, India began pushing the UN to adopt a comprehensive convention against terrorism; ten years later, we still haven't got one. Terrorists aren't respecters of international law, but such a convention would help deny terrorists the means to carry out their attacks; deter states from supporting terrorists; and help develop state capacity to prevent terrorism. The most fundamental challenge remains how to dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goals.

    Of course all this is much easier said than done. Terrorists kill because they think that terrorism is effective, and that it advances their objective of sowing fear in the targeted populations, and inducing the affected societies and governments to change a policy or reverse a course of action. The world has to prove to them that they are wrong: but until the terrorists are convinced that terrorism is futile, it will continue.

    Perhaps all I am calling for is more of the same more of the very principles and commitments on which our world order was supposed to have been built. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, though, we are likely to see those graphic images, again and again, of the World Trade Towers collapsing. Now the world knows what only some countries like India have known. Now the world knows the price of failure.

    (Sashi Tharoor is Congress, MP)

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