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Securing the State and Liberty: Reflecting on 9/11

Joseph S. Nye, writing on the most recent asymmetric threat to the state, that of cyber war, has echoed what has become the pre-eminent challenge faced by a democratic state, how to remain free and secure. Threats from the cyber domain, typify the asymmetric threat to the nation-state, as did the hijackers who boarded civilian aircraft in 2001 and devastatingly attacked the United States on September 11.

Reflecting on the past decade since 9/11, a particularly nuanced impression emerges of how to secure the state and liberty. Failing to accept a degree of risk in a free society is the first lesson apparent in the War on Terror. 9/11 resulted in the trading of fundamental civil liberties and human rights in exchange for greater security. Extraterritorial rendition, torture, stop-and-search policies, racial profiling, pervasive surveillance and sweeping legal instruments became emblematic of misguided and reactionary government fear that threatened the civil society it aimed to protect.

Through the hyperbole following 9/11, the balance tipped too far in favour of securing the state. As Lord Hoffmann so eloquently dissented in the Belmarsh case in the UK, the “real threat to the life of the nation” was not terrorism but the corollary of an eroding rule of law that formed the foundation of the democratic state.

Ten years on from 9/11 a second lesson is evident, that terrorism, like cyber threats, environmental issues and the global ‘war on drugs’ are complex problems that are ill suited to a single solution. Belligerent state aggression, characteristic of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 to present, has at best, moderately reduced the terrorist threat and at worse exasperated it.

A whole ambit of factors now appear to be responsible for creating and reducing terrorist activity. Foreign policy has emerged as a particularly important factor in influencing the terrorist attacks of September 11. Had Western governments not courted radical Islam to the extent that they did, pre-9/11, the proliferation of radicalised Muslims would not have occured.

Religiously motivated terrorism as a whole, has become a particularly troubling and a difficult problem that has appeared in a wide array of guises that do not fit the established ‘War on Terror’ paradigm. This became uncomfortably evident with the attacks in Norway. Domestic efforts then, as well as international foreign policy changes are needed to combat terrorism. As with cyber security issues, terrorism is best approached, not unilaterally but by engaging all actors, state and non-state alike.

Moving forward, it has been through the tragic events of 9/11 that we have seen state security and freedoms significantly tested. Lessons from September 11 and the past decade, have borne invaluable lessons in balancing the social aims of security and human rights.

Trading civil liberties and human rights to the extent that happened after 9/11, in an effort to secure the state, proved to be greatly misguided. Moreover, the American led, but much emulated attempts at declaring a war on terrorism have, unsurprisingly, not delivered the desired results. The historical legacy of 9/11 then, a decade on, is surely one of reflection and measured response protecting the state and liberty.

About Adam Brown

Adam Brown
Adam Brown is editorial manager for the War on Terror blog series at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He holds a BA in International Relations and a MSc in Human Rights with a focus on cyber security and rights.

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