As is the case for many others, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has made me reflect on their impact over the past decade. To this end, Michelle Shephard‘s Decade of Fear has been indispensable. A very personal account of her journalistic efforts to chronicle the war on terrorism over the past decade, Michelle weaves the weft of her narrative over the warp of New York just after 9/11; Somalia after the rise of the Islamic Courts Union and, later, the emergence of al-Shabab; Pakistan after the rebound of the Taliban and al-Qaeda; and Yemen at the formation of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the retreat of President Saleh.
Michelle’s account puts a human face on the knotty legal, ethical, and political problems the United States and its allies have grappled with as they tried to stop al-Qaeda and its supporters: torture for information, overthrowing stable governments who might align with terrorist groups, rendition, entrapment, collateral damage, and indefinite detention. There are also the less “kinetic” but no-less-knotty problems like countering radicalization online in multi-cultural societies that value free speech.
What struck me most about Michelle’s account was her juxtaposition of violence and inanity. Hassan Aweys, the head of a group allied with al-Shabab in Somalia, covets Michelle’s boots. Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI and sponsor of some of the United States’ worst enemies in the region, does not know who Tony Soprano is but, upon being told, empathizes with his bifurcated psyche. The white-polo-and-khaki-wearing Abu Jandal, UBL’s chief bodygaurd, is gracious to Western journalists while explaining that Bin Laden didn’t target the civilians in September. “He simply hit targets, and civilians happened to be around.” Kitch and karaoke permeate Guantanamo, along with euphemisms to describe poor detainee treatment.
Wisely, Michelle does not try to resolve the contradictions or unravel the knots. But she is hopeful that the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden will take the wind out of the sails of the global jihadi movement and help the United States and its allies put the threat in perspective so they can abandon some of their worst counterterrorism tools. Me too.