Could Bush have prevented 11 September?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Was September 11 preventable? That is what Senator Hillary Clinton and others in America are now asking, amid revelations that President George W. Bush was warned shortly beforehand of possible al-Qaeda attacks.

The answer, of course, is yes. All the Bush Administration had to do to prevent those terrorist attacks was to close down the entire civil airline industry and evacuate all skyscrapers and government buildings (or, better still, empty the cities of New York and Washington). Then it could have rounded up and interned all Muslims and everybody of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ (including several million US citizens) and launched nuclear missile strikes against Afghanistan, Sudan and anywhere else that might be accused of harbouring Osama bin Laden and his agents. Job done.

Come to think of it, however, even that might not have stopped a small group of suicide bombers, armed with little more than zealotry and razor blades, from carrying out some similar atrocity in America.

There is simply no way that any government can guarantee to protect its citizens from such acts of terrorism, any more than it could abolish accidents in the air or on the railways. Yet, on both sides of the Atlantic, that is what many seem to expect of our bumbling politicians today, especially with the benefit of hindsight. (Anybody who imagines this is a particularly American disease would do well to look at the political post-mortem on the Potters Bar crash.) The present furore in America reveals little about what really happened before the attacks on New York and Washington, but a lot about how a culture of fear, caution and conspiracy-mongering has taken told of Western societies post-September 11.

It is particularly ironic that the Bush Administration should be accused of knowing too much about the terrorists’ plans before September 11. The truth is that even now, months after the terrible event, US intelligence agencies have discovered little about the specifics of that plot. The same failures of intelligence-gathering have been evident during the war in Afghanistan, where the US-led forces have now chalked up the remarkable achievement of knowing even less about bin Laden (which country he is in and whether he is alive) than when the conflict began.

President Bush has much to answer for. Rather than being criticised for its conduct of the real ‘war on terrorism’, however, the Administration now finds itself under fire for not doing something to exorcise the spectre of terror before September 11, on the basis of some vague-sounding warnings and out-of-date information. These criticisms reflect the extent to which emotionalism, suspicion and blame have come to dominate public discussion.

We seem to find it hard to handle uncertainty these days, so that the demand for safety has become overwhelming. This should have been evident long before September 11. But the response to those attacks has done much to intensify the culture of fear and loathing, and the consequent drive to turn precaution into the first principle of politics. As a result, Bush can now effectively be criticised for failing to freeze history on September 10 as a precautionary measure.

The Bush Administration has been hoist with its own petard. Since September 11 US authorities have done more than bin Laden to spread fear and panic, publicising every rumour of impending terrorist atrocities across America and the West. The Government has even asked Hollywood film-makers to help it to imagine potential scenarios for future attacks. Its defensive response to the latest who-knew what row was to announce that al-Qaeda is now planning an even bigger attack on America -’intelligence’ based on what the FBI admits is ‘chatter’ and ‘an abundance of caution’. The result of these precautionary politics is to make matters worse, creating an endless cycle of anxiety, accusations and unrealistic demands for reassurance.

Throughout history, humanity has had to learn to live with all manner of risks. Even after the seismic shock of September 11, it was remarkable how quickly people got on with their lives, almost in spite of themselves. Yet our politics and culture remain dominated by a maudlin obsession with where the next threat to our existence might be coming from.

Whether we like it or not, we will have to learn to manage the new risks without being panicked into reorganising our lives around them. That means having a debate based on the facts as we know them today, rather than on far-fetched speculation and fears for the future. It also means recognising that even the President of the global superpower cannot stop the world because some of us want to get off.

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Topics Politics


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