In his election campaign, President Barack Obama made several statements about terrorism. He dissociated himself from George W. Bush's "holistic approach" (whatever this meant) and the rhetoric about the "global war on terrorism". He promised a more substantial "security architecture". Head of this new architecture was the unfortunate Janet Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona, who went on record saying that the system had worked well after the barely failed attempt to bomb a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day.
Obama also promised to work closely with America's allies, to pay greater attention to civil rights and the constitution, to close Guantanamo and to deal with detainees attentive to due process. And he charged the Bush administration with failing adequately to confront nuclear terrorism.
Barack Obama: Believes the most serious threat facing the US today is nuclear terrorism (AFP/Getty Images)
Two days after his Inauguration, two presidential orders were signed, banning harsh interrogation and ordering Guantanamo Bay to be closed within a year. The official rhetoric during Obama's first year certainly changed: the inflammatory term "terrorism" was dropped and replaced by "man-caused disaster" (no credit was given to woman or child suicide bombers) and Islamism was no longer mentioned at all.
Looking back on Obama's first year and his handling of "man-caused disasters", I feel less surprised and shocked than some of those who have also followed these issues for a fairly long time. Obama's experience in Chicago had not been in this field, nor had I been greatly impressed by the handling of former presidents (and their advisers — always with some exceptions). Under Clinton and Bush, the main role in combating terrorism had been allocated to the military, but it was not really prepared for this task either by training or by the specific knowledge needed for this assignment. I had doubts about the continuation of the Afghan war after 2002, not because it was immoral or illegal but because victory in Afghanistan seemed out of reach. It involved an investment in manpower, other resources and political will that did not exist in the US and was almost wholly absent in Europe.
Public opinion in the US and also in Europe was largely oblivious of the dangers ahead. After all, there had been no terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 and relatively few smaller ones. The more successful counterterrorism was in preventing attacks, the greater the resistance against taking terrorism seriously — why devote enormous efforts to combating an enemy whose strength was probably greatly overestimated? The terrorist "danger" (it was argued) was overblown and overhyped. Why accept limitations on our civic liberties that in all probability were quite unnecessary? More and more such voices were heard-on university campuses from Ohio State to Aberystwyth (home of the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism), in the media and among those assuming that warnings issued by their governments were a priori suspect and wrong.
Good advice was offered in books and articles, often by officials who, when in office, had not been notably successful at catching Osama bin Laden or weakening al-Qaeda in other ways. A Chicago professor named Robert Pape put forward an influential new theory explaining contemporary terrorism on the basis of elaborate and detailed statistics: it had nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism but was the nationalist reaction to foreign invasion. This was accepted with enthusiasm not only by isolationists but also by some Washington policy-makers: leave the Middle East and there will be no terrorism. Sterling advice, but what had it to do with the real world? Of course, there has been nationalist terrorism in opposition to foreign invasion. But, at present, 95 per cent (or more) of suicide terrorism has nothing to do with foreign invasion. The victims were and are fellow Muslims, be it in Pakistan or the Philippines, in Somalia or Turkey, in Yemen or Iraq. Some went further and claimed that a solution to the terrorist problem was very easy indeed: impose a peace settlement on Israel and the Palestinians and the price of oil will dramatically fall, failed states will prosper, the popularity of America and the West in general will skyrocket, bin Laden will retire to his agricultural projects in the Sudan and terrorism will disappear from the face of the earth.
Judges in various Western countries regarded it as their main duty to limit the powers of the police and other agencies combating terrorism. Eagle-eyed lawyers were forever watching whether those trying to counteract terrorism were operating within the boundaries of international law and to take them to task if they did not. Not for them the philosophy underlying one of Karl Marx's favorite sayings: à corsaire, corsaire et demi.
In brief, the threat had been grossly inflated, there was no transcendental, existential challenge. There were a few terrorists but they would fade away out of boredom or because they would realise that they could not achieve much. The real danger was not terrorism but counterterrorism, the idea of a "wartime president" with almost unlimited, undemocratic powers and a state of siege.
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