Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dominic Streatfeild's "A History of the World Since 9/11"

This is an excellent history of our times. I expected a typical history of events, leaders, and themes. But instead this author presents 8 chapters which introduce a policy stance then burrows down to look at a small handful of "ordinary" people affected by the policy. The author's intent is to lay bare just how badly wrong the "war on terror" has gone. Here is a nice summary of the author's view from the Epilogue:
Outspoken liberals like to display their hatred of the lead players behind the War on Terror. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair: the villains of the piece. The truth is that, with a few notable exceptions, nobody covered themselves with glory. Opposition political parties failed to intervene; the military failed to stand behind its beliefs that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan required better resourcing, manpower and planning; the intelligence community failed to insist that caveats in the products were there for a reason. The media failed to inform the public there were serious problems. Perhaps the blame should be shared? There's enough to go round.

Doubtless there is a case to be made that the world changed as a result of 9/11. But how it changed was not up to Bin Laden, al-Qaeda or the Taliban. It was up to us. We could have reacted differently. We didn't.

As a result, the situation in which we currently find ourselves is not one that has been thrust upon us. It's one that we have chosen. Al-Qaeda doesn't threaten our existence. It never did. Our reaction to it just might.
The book has some wonderfuly graphic stories of individuals and the very real effects of 9/11 on them:
  • Chapter 1 looks at Bush's dictum that "the rules have changed" and that "we must take the war to them" and that pre-emptive war was necessary. It ties this with a crazy criminal character in Texas who goes unhinged after seeing the towers fall on 9/11 and decides to go after "the enemy". For him this is anybody ethnically Middle Easternish and he ends up killing an innocent immigrant from India, a Hindu. Streatfeild lays out these characters in great detail. The hard struggle by the Hindu to build a life in America and provide a business built on serving his customers. A very nice guy who worked hard but ended up killed by a madman lashing out at "enemies" to pre-empt their attack on his beloved America. A madman with a criminal past and a mind twisted by drug abuse and violence. Tragic.

  • Chapter 2 looks at the "gloves are off" and "the rules have changed. It focuses on a family fleeing Iraq prior to 9/11 but who get caught at sea in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and harshly interned by Australia. The Australians tried to turn away the boat but the desperate immigrants tried everything to prevent being turned away. The brutal treatment left many deeply injured, some insane, from the years spent in limbo under vicious treatment by an anti-refugee policy by Australia. Tragic.

  • Chapter 3 looks at the idea that the "war on terror" had to be fought viciously and that all deaths were the fault of al Qaeda and not of those in the West responding to having been attacked. This chapter looks at the excited and joyous planning of a wedding in Afghanistan. Unfortunately this was in the home province of Mullah Omar and the Americans with their "too little boots on the ground" incompetent intelligence decide that Mullah Omar will show up at the wedding. So they unleash the hell fire of US weapons on innocent people 48 were killed and 117 wounded. This disturbing story is only one of many, many in Afghanistan over a decade of "mistakes" by Americans in their war against a nearly invisible enemy.

  • Chapter 8 looks at the "unintended consequences" of a war. In this case, it focuses on the world-wide program to eradicate polio. This program was within a year or two or three of success when 9/11 happened. Sadly, it now appears the world has utterly failed to eradicate polio and since there is now billions with no experience with the disease and many hundreds of millions of children with no immunity, the disease is poised to strike back worse than it was during the height of the great polio epidemics of the mid-20th century. This chapter focuses on the tale of a very dedicated, wonderful doctor who struggles to complete the fight against polio in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Sadly, the Muslims come to believe that the vaccine is a Western plot to sterilize them and that the drugs given to them are adulterated with female hormones and pig fat, they refuse the vaccine. Worse, they blow up the car in which the vaccine team is traveling and kill several including this doctor. Another tragic "consequence" of the war.
The other chapters focus on big policy themes and make them real by looking at the level of individual lives. It is all very tragic. But it makes this book especially powerful and poignant. Wars have consequences. How you fight them is very important. Sadly, the Bush administration was cavalier (cowboyish?) in its conduct of a war that has now killed hundreds and soon thousands more than were ever killed on 9/11.

One final quote from the book to hammer home the obscenities that have come out of "the war on terrorism":
Meanwhile, most of these nations seized on the exceptional nature of the post-9/11 threat, then used it as a justification for enacting domestic legislation that aped US policy regarding human rights: restrictions of rights for foreigners and asylum seekers; indefinite incarceration of suspects without trial; withdrawal of the right to an attorney; suspension of habeas corpus; enhanced surveillance techniques. The list went on and on.

'I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups to kill and destroy,' conceded Lord Hoffmann in a famous judgement on the incarceration of terror suspects without trial in the United Kingdom in December 2004. 'But they do not threaten the life of the nation.' The real threat to the United Kingdom, he warned, 'comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.'

Five years later, the Human Rights Council's Eminent Panel of Jurists on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights agreed. After an exhaustive three-year study of the effects of the War on Terror on human rights globally, the Panel concluded that human rights protections, assembled over the last sixty years, had been corroded to the point where the international legal order was in jeopardy. Especially worrying was that the nations that had previously argued for the primacy of human rights were the very same nations now busily opting out of them. The result was 'perhaps one of the most serious challenges ever posed to the integrity of a system carefully constructed after the Second World War.'
Everybody should read this book. It will make them sit up and pay attention to the "war" that has been conducted "on their behalf". It will change their way of viewing the world.

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