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(New York) – A decade’s perspective highlights the enormous damage that the attacks of September 11, 2001 did to the human rights cause. There was, first of all, the irreparable damage of lives lost that day – some 3,000 people from many nations. Terrorism – the deliberate targeting of civilians for political ends – is an affront to the human rights movement. The values of human rights place respect for the individual at their core. Terrorism treats individuals as pawns, to be disposed of for political ends.

Suicide attacks have long been a tool for terrorists, but the magnitude of the September 11 assault spawned replication. Most people were repulsed by this killing, but enough were inspired that it contributed to an epidemic of suicide attacks on civilians in the ensuing decade.  Victims multiplied in many countries. The growing willingness of some to sacrifice themselves for a cause has further complicated the defense against terrorism. And the realization that there are no limits to what terrorists might attempt made the quest to stop them all the more urgent.

Yet the damaging legacy of September 11 can also be found in the reaction. Some recognized that the best antidote to terrorism was to reaffirm the values of humanity it flouted – that the most effective way to counter the appeal of mass murder was to scrupulously respect human rights and the rule of law. Yet all too often, those leading the counterterrorism charge adopted the ends-justify-the-means logic of the terrorists. The result was a litany of practices whose names are now synonymous with blatant disregard for human rights: Guantanamo, military commissions, CIA “black sites,” water-boarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” extraordinary rendition to torture covered up by meaningless “diplomatic assurances,” among others.

Undertaken in the name of expediency, these abuses may have spurred more terrorist attacks.  Those who deployed them lost the moral high ground, undermined trust in law-enforcement officials, and discarded lawful techniques for piercing secretive criminal enterprises that had long proved effective. 

They also bred copycat responses by governments whose interest was less stopping terrorism than using the latest rhetoric of convenience to silence political opposition. Overbroad and vague anti-terrorism laws proliferated. Peaceful dissidents were labeled terrorists and detained without trial. Torture and arbitrary detention became harder to combat because “that’s what Bush did.”  Many governments best placed to reverse these damaging trends were silenced by their own complicity in them – and by their tendency to welcome virtually anything said to be done in the name of fighting terrorism.

Today, there has been global progress in curtailing counterterrorism abuses, but little willingness to hold abusive officials to account.  For example, saying that he would “look forward and not backwards,” President Barack Obama has decreed an end to torture by US agents but refused to prosecute those who ordered it.  Nor have most governments investigated, let alone prosecuted, their own abusive officials. This failure to uphold the rule of law risks transforming torture and other serious human rights violations from blatant criminal offenses to permissible policy options.

The tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks is thus an occasion to remember its victims and to reaffirm the importance of human rights, to oppose the terrorist who kills civilians in the name of a cause and the official who “disappears” or tortures suspects in the name of fighting terrorism. 

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