In the universal realms of international law, all the associated political, social, legal, and religious actors would seek to strive to live in a world where there is justice, peace, tolerance, enhancement of human welfare, and friendly relations between states.1 Unfortunately, these universal ideals are far from being achieved or adhered to in our contemporary international society. The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which provided the catalyst for the global “war on terror” starting in Afghanistan, raises numerous questions in international law and the global political realm. In all of its forms, terrorism is a disease that breeds fear and leads to the devastation and destruction of human lives, societies, and nations. It is also a topic that many historians and legalists try to avoid, at times, due to its promiscuity and subversive nature.
In this short article, I argue that terrorism is not a new phenomenon as such, but that it has been part of international society throughout the ages. However, since 9/11, it has experienced a sporadic injection and revitalization that has raised it from a nationalistic, racial, religious, or ideological phenomenon to one that has appeared on the global agenda with a symbolic significance. I question the motifs of the “war on terror,” due to its relative unpredictability, on definitional grounds. Additionally, I challenge whether this is leading to an all-inclusive society based on uplifting human welfare, or whether it is creating a global discord of division, tension, antagonism, and resistance that may filter through the politics of the inter- and intrastate system and thus create tragedy, conflict, and destruction of global proportions.
The Historical Evolution of Terrorism in International Society
In light of the coalitions on the “war on terror” that have transpired since 9/11, the historical evolution of international society and world history shows that groups, nations, and states have been fighting terror for a long time but in a different context. We can say that its origin can be found in the French revolution of 1789 as propounded by Maximilien de Robespierre (d. 1794): the “système, régime de la terreur.”2 Many of these “wars” and coalitions have been fought on political, ideological, and religious grounds. Karl Marx (d. 1883) and Friedrich Engels (d. 1895), both of whom endorsed the viewpoint that violence was a means of social change, were predominantly against the social order of their times and advocated revolutionary rhetoric to transform societies.3
History shows that coalitions have fought many systematic orders, from fascism under Adolf Hitler (d. 1945) to communism under Josseph Stalin (d. 1953), and many would now state that we are seeing a disproportionate regime developing between the capitalistic states and the backlash from the developing countries. This apparent dichotomy in transnational border disputes questions the evolution of an inclusive international society when the social, economic, and political gaps between the developed and the developing states are so vast. In many respects, however, coalitions have become part of the international norm triggered by such seismic events such as the First World War, the Second World War; the 1980s-90s in the coalition against Iraq, Nicaragua, and Somalia; and now the “war on terror” with the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This shift from the national domestic realm to the global political realm raises many issues. But to undertake this shift of global significance, there has to be a unified objective or ideal uniting these states from the politics of the interstate system to the politics of the intrastate system in international law and society.
The “War on Terror” and International Issues of State Centrism
In terms of the coalition against terror, such academics as Adam Roberts argue that the laws of war and arms control should also apply to this antiterror war.4 Other academics, among them Phyllis Bennis, question whether the attack on Afghanistan is a war in the conventional form, as we know it.5 She states that the language of war used by American leaders, such as “you are with us or against us,” “a new kind of war,” or “we want him dead or alive,” encapsulates war-like rhetoric in the minds of the masses to create civil discord and tensions around the world.
In terms of international law, 9/11 and the American response pose numerous questions as to the validity and justification of American reprisals in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the world. Chapter 7 of the United Nation’s charter covers the “Use of Force.” The United States could have used Article 52 and had the Security Council authorize its attack on Afghanistan. Alternatively, the more viable option was for the United States, the “victim state,” to invoke the right to individual and collective self-defense under Article 51 (responding to an attack against a UN member state). Equally, the United States agreed that this incident was covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an “armed attack”6 against one or more of the allies in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”7 Thus, this justified the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) joining with the United States to assist the attacked state with its armed reprisal based on self-defense.
However, this should only apply if the attack comes from abroad, and the use of force has to be roughly proportionate to that of the attacked state. Many are still not convinced as to who is responsible for 9/11. We were led to believe that is was Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, and since he or his network were based in Afghanistan, this initially justified the coalition’s counter-terrorist response against Afghanistan.8 One has to question the scope of this self-defense mechanism, as many would argue that Article 51 is for emergency responses, while the coalition against Afghanistan took three weeks to assemble before attacking. In terms of proportionality, the initial target was Bin Laden and his network; however, thousands of innocent civilians have been the major victims of the American-led coalition attack against a nation that has no defense mechanism.9 In Kabul, “village women were tied up by the Americans and hair samples taken for DNA analysis to try to establish links with Osama bin Laden.”10
Thousands of innocent civilians have lost their lives since these armed reprisals. The CIA has been giving out as compensation $1,000 to bereaved relatives, which indicates that something has gone catastrophically wrong. This has been classified as collateral damage, the notion that Donald Rumsfeld stated when addressing the media at home: It is inevitable that “innocent lives will be lost.” Marc Herold estimates that 9/11 took 4,000 lives.11 In 2002, American bombs killed 1,300 civilians. At least 3,000 Afghans have died as a result of the American campaign, which was supposed to be diplomatic, humanitarian, and strategically targeted.
This brings one back to the issue of proportionality. One questions whether this coalition on the “war on terror,” the initial premise of which was based on “infinite justice” or now “enduring freedom,” is creating a society based on the universal protection and enhancement of human welfare, since many innocent lives of a greater magnitude than 9/11 have been lost. One asks if we are seeing the global coalition against terror, where states have set aside national sovereignty issues and cooperated with the United States in the “war on terror” not on the grounds of advancing human welfare, but due to their own vested economic, social, and political interests; where circumstances have dictated that they be “with the coalition” and “not against it,” because the repercussions of their decision on a national state-centric level are too great for them not to be a part of this international campaign conducted by a few major states.