The grave uniqueness of 9/11

October 19, 2008 at 6:15 pm | Posted in International, Terrorism | Leave a comment

There’s a great deal to admire about Stella Rimington; not only did she give the best years of her life to keep the country safe, but her practically-minded critique of the government’s approach to anti-terrorism legislation fatally injured the notion that to oppose 42 days detention was to be ‘soft’ on protecting the public. Still, you can’t be right all the time, and about halfway through this interview she makes a statement which seems as incorrect as it is inartful:

The response to 9/11 was “a huge overreaction”, she says. “You know, it was another terrorist incident. It was huge, and horrible, and seemed worse because we all watched it unfold on television. So yes, 9/11 was bigger, but not … not …” Not qualitatively different? “No. That’s not how it struck me. I suppose I’d lived with terrorist events for a good part of my working life, and this was, as far as I was concerned, another one.”

Hmmm. I suspect this kind of dispassionate detachment is more of a virtue when you’re working for the security services than it is when you’re a member of the House of Lords. Now, arguing that 9/11 provoked a ‘huge overreaction’ isn’t particularly controversial – that argument, or some variant of it, has been deployed in the context of the Iraq war and against the panicked, draconian anti-terror measures seen both here and in the United States. No, the problematic part of this interview is her assessment that 9/11 wasn’t qualitatively different from other, non-televised terror attacks.

To know whether this is actually true, I think it helps to ask the following questions: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, did MI5 undergo any kind of internal reassessment of its threats, targets and modes of operating, and did this lead to any operational changes? It’s a question Dame Rimington could answer better than anyone, and if her answer is, as I suspect, affirmative, then surely that would reflect the enormity of what happened on that September morning.

Beyond that, I think it’s misguided to assume that events can be separated from their consequences, particularly when some of those consequences were inevitable. Leaving aside the unanswerable question of whether a more competent administration could’ve stopped the attacks from happening, it’s safe to assume that a President Gore would’ve responded by invading Afghanistan and authorising a vast expansion of anti-terror legislation. We can also be fairly confident that a Prime Minister Hague or Kennedy would’ve participated in said war and introduced their own anti-terror measures. It wasn’t the fact that we could see the carnage unfolding on TV that gave 9/11 its grave uniqueness; it was the terror of learning what these fanatics were capable of and the deep sense of foreboding that even more carnage would follow.

Update: Norman Geras has some related thoughts here.

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