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A century born in terror

On the afternoon of September 10, 2001, former US president Bill Clinton was speaking at a private luncheon in Melbourne. Clinton was expansive as he discussed the global environment. Inevitably, discussion turned to the threat of terrorism and the dangers posed by al-Qa'ida.

Clinton acknowledged that Osama bin Laden was a serious adversary for the US and its allies, including Australia. "He has a genius for evil," he said. No one at that lunch could have imagined the prescience of those remarks. A day later, of course, bin Laden's genius for evil exploded in the terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington.

Paul Keating said the 20th century had begun in Sarajevo (with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) and was ending in the same city (with the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia). There is no question the 21st century began in New York with the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. In A History of the World Since 9/11, Britain-based author and filmmaker Dominic Streatfeild attempts to chart the global effect of the attacks in the almost 10 years since. It's an ambitious title but its aspirations are largely unmet: this book is more a series of sketches of incidents across the globe that occurred as a consequence of September 11.

These sketches range from mindless racist violence in Texas to the US's "rendition" policy, under which suspected terrorists were kidnapped by American intelligence and placed in the (usually) brutal hands of non-American interrogators, well beyond the benefit of due process.

This is a highly readable book, penetrating in its insights and clear in its arguments. But a better book might have emerged had Streatfeild asked the seminal question best posed by American historian Barbara Tuchman in The March of Folly (1984): were there alternatives to the strategy that was adopted? After September 11, in the Bush White House, "groupthink" was ascendant and drove policy in one direction only.

Streatfeild's sketches illustrate how al-Qa'ida's atrocities did change Western perceptions of national security. Indeed, the changes in perspective in many countries, including Australia, sometimes resulted in distortions. Australia is mentioned twice in this book: in the account of Saddam Hussein's suspected program to develop weapons of mass destruction, Australian intelligence has an honourable and an accurate role in confirming for the US the export of aluminium tubes from China through an Australian company to a destination in the Middle East (which clearly turns out to be Iraq). The other mention is far less honourable and is perhaps the most compelling account written of the so-called children overboard affair of October 2001.

Streatfeild underlines the contradictions of the war on terror by juxtaposing statements of high moral purpose with the reality of human-rights abuses in some parts of the world. A good example is in his chapter on Uzbekistan, thoughtfully titled Friends in Low Places. George W. Bush's January 2005 declaration -- "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you" -- is followed by a discussion of the human rights breaches of the US's allies in Islam Karimov's regime: "Arbitrary detention, beating, rape, electric shock, fingernail extraction, suffocation".

Streatfeild has earned a reputation for bringing an original perspective to exotic subject matter, such as in Brainwash: A Secret History of Mind Control (2006) and Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography (2001). His skills as an analyst of global politics have not deserted him in this new book. In essence, the war on terror ultimately comes down to the price that the West, particularly the US, is prepared to pay to safeguard cities and citizens from terrorist outrages.

The price is calculated not only on the battlefield but in erosion of human rights protections.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a chapter titled The Egyptian, in which rendition is distilled to its essence. A German citizen suspected of terrorist links is arrested in Macedonia, handed over to the CIA and transported by private jet to the Salt Pit, north of Kabul.

Prison conditions there are deplorable; interrogations are gruelling; a hunger strike results in forced feeding. But the CIA has the wrong man, who must be released in as much secrecy as he was detained.

Bush's vice-president Dick Cheney declared that the world had changed because of September 11. In respect of Western national security perspectives, it did. But a history of our planet since September 11 is yet to be written authoritatively and will be achieved only after considerably more time has passed.

A History of the World Since 9/11
By Dominic Streatfeild
Atlantic Books, 408pp, $32.99

Stephen Loosley is chairman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra and a former ALP federal president.


Originally published by: The Australian on 30 Apr 2011