In this week’s national trajectory from panic over “homegrown terror” to relief and even amusement about the gang that couldn’t bomb straight, there is another opportunity missed. The first opportunity missed was 9/11. It was a chance for Americans, and those like us who identify with them, to extend their empathy to parts of the world that experience terror far more than we do.

Instead, U.S. society treated 9/11 as a unique moment in which “everything changed” so that “nothing would ever be the same.” It was a misconception that led to overreactions that created new states of terror where none had existed, particularly in Iraq. To be sure, Iraq had been a repressive police state, with sporadic, controlled bursts of terror; it is now the site of near constant terror.

About 1,000 people die each month in Baghdad from violence. U.S. forces have become, people say, just one among many militias. Nouri al-Maliki, the new prime minister, a U.S. ally, says U.S. violence toward civilians is “almost habitual.” Yet Americans are largely unaware of this outcome.

The first U.S. officer to refuse to serve in Iraq says that returning soldiers feel “many people don’t know a war is going on; they say even friends and family seem more involved in popular culture and American Idol. People are not interested in the hundreds of Iraqis and the dozens of Americans dying each week.”

As for our own terror episode this week, it wasn’t our 9/11, Bali, London or Madrid. It didn’t even happen, and we won’t know till the trials if anything was actually planned. It was low-rent terror, and not just in the sense that many of the accused live in basement apartments and pray in mosques that are storefronts in strip malls. The only weapon police showed was a Lugar (usually a Second World War memento); the fertilizer the suspects apparently tried to buy doesn’t count as a high-tech WMD. Yet the anxiety provoked could help us empathize with people living under real, ongoing terror, especially where we have some influence, like Afghanistan.

We are ostensibly in Afghanistan to provide order after the reign of the Taliban.

But the Taliban themselves arose to end the chaos created by mujahedeen and warlords. They largely did so, though they were also highly repressive. Now warlordism and corruption are back, with apparent backing by the new Karzai government. The Taliban are resurgent. The opium economy has returned. A new European report says the South is far more volatile than a Canadian commander recently claimed. Even Kabul, supposedly stable, saw anti-U.S. riots last week. Does that mean Canada should abandon Afghanistan?

Not necessarily. But it may be more useful to go the painstaking routes of aid and diplomacy, while letting local forces sort themselves out, rather than trying to militarily impose a plan. It also may mean cutting loose from the U.S. agenda, which has its own aims. The United States invaded because it wanted to attack someone after 9/11, and in pursuit of geopolitical goals that do not coincide with ours.

As a result, Osama bin Laden is still operating and there is more terror in the world than there was before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We learned this week that the U.S. has followed similar priorities in Somalia, backing warlords against Islamists, thus bolstering the latter. If it continues to threaten Iran, the result will likely be the same.

A sense of proportion counts in these matters because it affects the response that, in turn, determines whether things get better or grow even worse: You wind up losing Osama and being embroiled in Afghanistan, which was secondary to 9/11, and in Iraq, which was unconnected to it. 9/11 was not the Holocaust or the Second World War. The war on terror, whatever it may be, is not the Cold War. Al-Qaeda is not the Soviet Union.

And the 17 guys in Toronto, whatever they did or didn’t do, aren’t al-Qaeda. Perhaps the problems Americans are having over their 9/11 memorial reflect a rethinking of that event. They started it too quickly and now some perspective may be setting in. The point isn’t to minimize frightening events; it’s to contextualize them. Or perhaps the word is globalize.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.