Twelve Years After 9/11: What Have We Learned?

This week the Obama administration issued a travel warning to its citizens and shutdown several US embassies across Africa and the mid-East – in response to the threat of a terrorist attack. Amongst my papers, I found a clipping I had kept from November 27, 2008 describing coordinated attacks on the city of Mumbai. The newspaper headlines screamed, “Terror attacks put Mumbai under siege” and “India’s Defining Moment.”(1). Media pundits referred to “26/11” as India’s “9/11” and asserted it had permanently altered a dynamic city of 12 million. The first of the newspaper clippings carries a Reuters photograph showing a police officer guiding an elderly man through a devastated train station. It is a powerful and emotive image. Dropped baggage and belongings, bloodstains and fallen sandals are displayed throughout the wide expanse of the deserted train station. The elderly man wears a dhoti and sandals. He does not display the symbols of modernity. He is tiny, barely reaching in height the mid-chest of the police officer who is holding his hand and leading him gently across the station and carnage left behind in the wake of the bloody attacks. The elderly man is worn by time, graceful, humble and dignified. It’s as if he has seen it before. He is India.

It is an ancient civilization and the world’s largest democracy. The modern state of India was born at the stroke of midnight August 15, 1947, and immediately beset with extreme sectarian violence and partition into two states – Pakistan and India. Nearly one million persons were killed. My own history is shaped by the horrors of that time – my mother is the sole survivor of her family that succumbed to the slaughter. In the decades since independence, India has had spasms of extreme violence – 3000 Sikhs murdered by enraged mobs after the assassination of Prime-Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards, thousands of Muslims murdered by organized Hindu extremists in 1993 in Mumbai and Gujarat in 2001. She has experienced the deaths of tens of thousands in insurgency and violence involving separatist movements and terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir. Human rights have been violated by extremists and state security forces. Despite these violations and millions living in grinding poverty, over-population, corruption and complex challenges; India is a genuine democracy. She has well-organized elections, a free press, and an independent civil service, military and judiciary. Judges and lawyers of extraordinary quality are found in her courtrooms. The value of rule of law and right of fair trial is understood by Indians; better than most.

Outside the Indian subcontinent, perhaps no region outside of Iraq, has experienced so many dead from terrorism. Communalists tried to exploit the attacks in Mumbai and inflame passions and fear. And yet, India has not succumbed to authoritarian solutions. History suggests she will not – she is resilient and Indians steadfastly committed to democracy. India may, also, take another look at her anti-terrorism laws and measures. What will she learn from the experience of the western liberal democracies and what will they learn from her?

Terrorists care little for our liberties. Nor are our liberties and freedoms accidental accretions. They have survived the test of time and define who we are. We have our own painful history of lapsed rights and persecution of minorities. The wartime internment of the Japanese in North America and the failures of British justice in Northern Ireland are but a few vivid reminders of historical circumstances in which democracies have succumbed to emotion, fear and bigotry and committed human rights violations. Terrorism confronts us with the same conundrum.

The Obama Administration has disappointed human rights advocates. Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay in his first year. Almost all the Bush anti-terrorism measures from the Patriot Act, to increased surveillance and special military trials remain in place. A vast security apparatus and industry has proliferated. Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “extraordinary rendition” are but the most prominent examples of the “war on terror” bringing violence and bloodshed to millions.

In 2009, the UN Special Rapporteur reported the US system of extraordinary renditions and secret detention “violate the prohibition against torture and other forms of ill-treatment.” How is it that fundamental human rights were surrendered so easily, by a country with one of the world’s most robust legal systems? Americans do know how to effectively prosecute terrorists in their regular civilian courts; they have been quite good at it. So why abandon it? By circumventing fundamental precepts of human rights law, they handed their opponents a massive propaganda weapon and a new recruiting tool.

Muslims in particular are targeted. A person’s religion has become a basis of suspicion and surveillance. We pay a very high price for a society of fear. The dollar cost of the “war on terror” is mindboggling; four times the amount expended during WWII.
In Canada alone, an additional $92 billion has been spent on national security in the first ten years after 9/11 and our P.M. calls “Islamicism” the biggest security threat – ignoring climate change. The human and political costs are incalculable. Perhaps, terrorist acts have been prevented, but were the costs justifiable? Who profits? Are we safer? What have we learned?

Human rights are not a luxury created for easy times; they were created for harsh exigencies, borne out of the ashes and horrors of the Nazi atrocities. And yet, we have done much harm to them in the rush of the “war on terror.” We risk “taking the human out of human rights.” (2)

The attacks on Mumbai ought to remind us of the resiliency of the Indian state and its commitment to democracy. India has confronted Islamic militancy from Pakistan into Kashmir since the 1980’s. Months before 9/11, hijackers forced an Indian Airlines flight to Taliban-held Kandahar and negotiated the release of a convicted terrorist later implicated in the murder of Daniel Pearl. In an ominous foreshadowing of events to come, the Taliban bombed the ancient Buddha’s of Bamiyan. Tens of thousands died in terrorist acts directed against India, but the West remained indifferent.
Nearly three thousand persons died in the attacks of 9/11. The spilling of blood elsewhere – even, in the thousands – didn’t seem matter to North Americans as much as media fueled obsession with a missing beauty queen, or perhaps because the victims were a different colour – that is, not until 9/11. Perhaps, the world’s “greatest democracy” could learn something from the old and the ancient; about resilience, restraint and being true to democratic principles. It’s not to say that India hasn’t committed human rights abuses – it has, but in the face of massive problems including poverty, it didn’t overreact or overreach.

India is transforming into a global power. It has had a protracted struggle with the scourge of terrorism. The United States of America, the global superpower, when confronted with spilled blood on its own soil, abandoned a leadership position on human and civil rights at first real crisis and challenge. When the going got tough, the superpower dropped the torch and threw suspects into the darkness of secret prisons. It unleashed its fury at faraway places.  It was “Liberty’s lost decade – from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden” (3).

Who will emerge as a world leader on human rights, carry the torch and shine light into the dark corners, and lead the pathway forward? Few of us have all the answers, but if we do not ask the right questions – we will surely not find the answers we need. One wonders if an insular superpower, wounded and angry, might possibly learn something from an ancient and rising power. Or, will it be others – not the world’s two biggest democracies – that pick up the torch?


1  Globe & Mail, 26 & 27 November editions, 2008.

2 Conor Gearty, The Hamlyn Lectures, Can Human Rights Survive?, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 130,132.

3  The Economist, August 3-9, 2013.

About Bill Sundhu

Canadian lawyer, Former Judge, Member of Kellogg College of University of Oxford (Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law 2010).
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