Leading article: It is time to weigh what we have lost in the past 10 years


A great city falls silent for a minute. A violinist performs in front of a gathering of people whose heads are bowed.

Presidents, past and present, search for the right note of solemnity in their addresses. At the newly opened Memorial Plaza the families of the dead file in, some running hands over the names of husbands, fathers, sisters; all those abruptly curtailed lives, now commemorated in dark bronze.

There was a sense of history being made, and at the same time being laid to rest, in New York yesterday – as if in paying tribute to the victims of 9/11 America was taking leave of an event so seismic that it has left an imprint on all our lives.

Inevitably, in the protracted build-up to the anniversary, we have heard agonised debates on whether we have learned the right lessons from this terrible, extraordinarily symbolic, attack. Only the passage of time can answer that definitively but it is probably safe to say not quite, or not always. It is good that our bland indifference to the Arab world, then safely ruled for the most part by compliant kings and dictators, has gone. Bad that it has given way to a neurotic obsession with the threat of Islamist terror, and to an almost casual enthusiasm for using force to change regimes deemed hostile to Western interests.

Before the planes hit the twin towers it would have seemed inconceivable that Western troops would be charging around Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of the open-ended "war on terror" to which George Bush and Tony Blair rushed to commit us in the aftermath of the atrocity. And without diminishing the horrible scale of the death toll in America, no retrospective of the subsequent decade should neglect to include the much greater death toll that has occurred as a direct result of those invasions. They include at least 100,000 dead in Iraq, according to most surveys. No memorial ceremonies for that almost innumerable list of casualties of Mr Bush's and Mr Blair's display of machismo in the Middle East.

Other casualties of the West's response to 9/11 are not measurable in terms of human dead. They start with alienation from America of popular opinion in the Muslim world, and Pakistan especially, where opposition to the endless-seeming military conflict on its borders in Afghanistan has turned a long-time US ally into a bastion of anti-American feeling. Then there are the casualties in our own country.

Apart from the deaths of servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan there have been less easily quantifiable losses: the erosion of civil liberties; the imposition of numerous, immiserating restrictions on travel; our acquiescence to what might be called a surveillance culture. Some describe all these losses as wholly justifiable casualties of an ongoing civilisational conflict between the West and radical Islam, each seen as a homogenised, irreconcilable force. It's us or them. That was the tenor of Mr Blair's remarks on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, when he defended his role in shaping the US-led military response to the attacks on New York and Washington. Many others feel that he and Mr Bush acted as recruiting sergeants for the same forces that they said their actions were intended to repress. Yesterday was not the day to air those disagreements. But it is a debate that will and should continue as we emerge from under the long shadow of that longest day.

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