9/11 and the New Authoritarianism

Five years after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, “9/11” is no longer a mere date. It has entered the history books as the beginning of something new, a new era perhaps, but in any case a time of change. The terrorist bombings in Madrid and London and elsewhere will also be remembered; but it is “9/11” that has become the catchphrase, almost like “August 1914.”

But was it really a war that started on September 11, 2001? Not all are happy about this American notion. During the heyday of Irish terrorism in the UK, successive British governments went out of their way not to concede to the IRA the notion that a war was being waged. “War” would have meant acceptance of the terrorists as legitimate enemies, in a sense as equals in a bloody contest for which there are accepted rules of engagement.

This is neither a correct description nor a useful terminology for terrorist acts, which are more correctly described as criminal. By calling them war – and naming an opponent, usually al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden – the United States government has justified domestic changes that, before the 9/11 attacks, would have been unacceptable in any free country.

Most of these changes were embodied in the so-called “USA Patriot Act.” Though some of the changes simply involved administrative regulations, the Patriot Act’s overall effect was to erode the great pillars of liberty, such as habeas corpus , the right to recourse to an independent court whenever the state deprives an individual of his freedom. From an early date, the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba became the symbol of something unheard of: the arrest without trial of “illegal combatants” who are deprived of all human rights.