COVID-19 and terrorism

9/11, coronavirus – epochal events that force a re-think

This 11 September marked the nineteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The wide-ranging repercussions of those attacks in the years since 2001 are only just emerging. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, political patterns born of the era of terrorism continue to prevail. An essay by Stefan Weidner

When the coronavirus crisis hit this spring, many people, especially in the USA, felt reminded of the time after 9/11. But beyond the shock-like caesura of the years 2001 and 2020, are there perhaps some similarities and connections that run even deeper? There is much evidence to suggest this: the interruption in air travel, the authoritarian response by governments everywhere, the closing of borders – and the resurgence of intolerance and conspiracy theories.

The restrictions that are currently being imposed raise the controversial question of which aspects of our present way of life are really indispensable and "systemically relevant" in the long term. Or, to put it another way: how much of a state of emergency are we prepared to accept, and for how long?

The new normal

For years after the revolution in Egypt there were no football matches, because those in power were wary of highly politicised fans who did not shy away from violent clashes. In Afghanistan, public cultural life has long since come to a halt due to the danger of attacks. And here in Germany, cultural life has migrated to the virtual space because of the coronavirus. Compared with the COVID pandemic, the era of terrorism seems almost like a prelude, according to the principle: things can always get worse.

That only makes it all the more regrettable that many Western politicians have reacted to the virus with the same rhetoric they used for the terrorist attacks: speaking the language of war and confrontation. Interestingly, Germany is an exception here, just as it was when war was proclaimed on Iraq in 2003. It is presumably because of the country's past that its politicians are abstaining from any war rhetoric. And rightly so. Because a logic of confrontation is even less effective in dealing with a virus than it is in combatting terrorism.

Viruses and terrorists have something else in common: invisibility. Just as every Muslim was once considered a potential terrorist, today every citizen is considered a potential virus carrier. A culture of suspicion is gradually escalating. After 9/11, only Muslims were the targets. Today, anyone can infect anyone without even realising it.

Latin America in lockdown: measuring temperatures on the border between Paraguay and Argentina (photo: AFP/D. Duarte)
Culture of suspicion: just as every Muslim was once considered a potential terrorist, today every citizen is considered a potential virus carrier. After 9/11, only Muslims were affected. Today, anyone can infect anyone without realising it

This policy by which everyone comes under suspicion indiscriminately is provoking resistance, fuelling the many protests against measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID. This is also a consequence of the fact that the scapegoat mechanism no longer works under the current circumstances. But instead of giving it up, people are busy hatching conspiracy theories, just to be able to blame someone, anyone, again.  

Distrust everywhere

The rampant culture of general suspicion and mood of insecurity represent a psychological burden that is often underestimated – Muslims could certainly tell us a thing or two about what that feels like. Policymakers are trying to respond with measures that suggest they are in control. But nobody knows at present which of these measures are in fact sensible and appropriate.

The right-wing populism that arose – in connection with the Islam and immigration question – after 9/11 is jeopardising through its general distrust of the state any effective containment of the virus. This has led to a protest movement that in many respects recalls the right-wing populist, Islamophobic PEGIDA movement.

In principle, it is not a bad thing to call into question the measures being taken against the coronavirus. But the arguments put forth should at least be based on facts and come from a value-oriented, ethical attitude rather than being driven by resentment, anger, frustration or hatred.

If we look at what is happening right now from the broader perspective of world history, it is striking how the virus and terrorism are both undesirable side-effects of globalisation. After 9/11, the response was a defiant "Now more than ever!" This led to a further acceleration of growth and globalisation and the unleashing of a neoliberal economic ideology.

Right-wing PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi)
The ugly face of the far-right: with its distrust of the state, the right-wing populism that arose – in connection with the Islam and immigration question – after 9/11 is jeopardising through its general distrust of the state any effective containment of the virus. This has led to a protest movement that in many respects recalls the right-wing populist, Islamophobic PEGIDA movement

"Only one thing had changed for the free-market ideologues and the companies whose interests they served: It had now become much easier for them to realise their ambitious goals," writes Naomi Klein in her book "The Shock Doctrine".

Globalisation and colonialism

The virus suddenly put the brakes on the neoliberal globalisation that had intensified after 9/11. This time around, we should seize the opportunity to change our thinking if we want to avoid similar crises in the future. But to do so we first need a precise analysis of what went wrong with globalisation: certainly not everything, but certainly far too much.

Colonialism, as a precursor to globalisation, also plays a key role in this analysis. Terrorism is a derailed descendant of the former anti-colonial liberation movements, that is, the attempts made by the global South to emancipate itself from the influence of the global West.

Colonialism, on the other hand, is the precursor of today's racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and the rotten ideology of "white supremacy". We must learn to conceive of globalisation in a spirit of equality and fairness. The unloading of our waste on other countries should be a no-go, as should the import of highly skilled workers, an issue that has never been properly addressed and which has led to a brain drain of the global South.

Let us not forget that real, biological virulence was both the motor and the obstacle of colonial conquests. On the one hand, Native Americans fell victim to infectious diseases introduced by Europeans, on a scale that can only be described as genocidal; on the other hand, Europeans in the newly conquered global South often died of tropical diseases. The surprising punchline: these dangers did not deter the colonisers because they were willing to hazard such personal risks.

But this is exactly where the difference lies from the situation today, because the risks of globalisation in the form of environmental disasters and the pandemic affect us all. Everyone is held liable for risks taken by the few, who are usually rich enough to be able to cushion any resulting blows.

The balance between political distance and isolation

Viruses and terrorism have another, eerie similarity. Lack of participation and democracy have fostered terrorism in the Islamic world. Bin Laden came from the milieu of the Saudi Sahwa ("awakening") reform movement. He only became a terrorist after the Saudis deprived him of his citizenship.

China's President XI Jinping visits corona hotspot Wuhan, where the virus first broke out (photo: picture-alliance/Xinhua)
Between authoritarianism and appalling obfuscation: China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak – first censorship and denial, then harsh countermeasures – is likewise the result of a system that lacks full legitimacy and hence fears for its acceptance. State fear and censorship led to the virus outbreak being denied for far too long, enabling its global spread

China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak – first censorship and denial, then harsh countermeasures – is likewise the result of a system that lacks full legitimacy and hence fears for its acceptance. State fear and censorship led to the virus outbreak being denied for far too long, enabling its global spread.

This has led to a crisis of legitimacy, even in democratic societies, due to the harsh measures now being taken all over the world. Democratic governments are now suddenly compelled to react in just as drastic and authoritarian a manner as China: with lockdowns, penalties for "virus sinners", border closures, travel warnings and bans.

In order to prevent this "contagion" by misguided policies in the future, a kind of interstate social distancing is recommended when dealing with poorly legitimised political systems. Just as in physical interpersonal social distancing, this does not mean cutting off all relations with such regimes, but we must at the same time guard against relying on them.

Collective brainstorming

We must be careful and avoid economic interdependencies that could become a trap. In concrete terms, we may be permitted to buy Arab oil, Russian gas and Chinese technology – but only within narrow limits, i.e. always in such a way that these imports do not become systemically relevant.

Finally, it must be noted that nationalism, whose resurgence began with 9/11 and the Islamophobic populism it fuelled, is becoming the guiding principle of state action in the COVID crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic all borders were closed. And at present, Germany is declaring many countries, even European neighbours, to be high-risk areas.

Fire in Moria refugee camp on Lesbos (photo: picture-alliance/AP/P. Balaskas)
Too little international solidarity and agreement: the refugee crisis is no longer attracting attention. Or only when the refugees burn down the camps they have been consigned to – but can we blame them for this cry for help? Managing the pandemic is still understood to be a national task. The coronavirus threatens to give birth to an even worse virus: the virus of isolationism

There is still far too little international solidarity and agreement. The refugee crisis is no longer attracting attention. Or only when the refugees burn down the camps they have been consigned to – but can we blame them for this cry for help? Managing the pandemic is still understood to be a national task. The coronavirus threatens to give birth to an even worse virus: the virus of isolationism.

Viruses and terrorism function like a prism. They dissect our societies into their spectral colours and show us who we are. What elements we are made up of. How the hardware behind our beautiful but deceptive user interfaces really works. What priorities we set when the time of rhetoric and wishful thinking is over.

It is a little too easy and too cheap to blame governments for being caught off guard and overwhelmed by the pandemic. More than half a year after the onset of the pandemic, what we urgently need is a collective brainstorming. Not demonstrations by people who are offended because they have to wear masks, but instead conversations, debates, thorough analyses.

Only in this way, with the help of intensive communication, can we really grasp the complexity and challenges of our time, communicate them and help people to understand what is happening. And only when we understand what led to this crisis, and when we question our previous worldviews, will we be ready to engage with what is to come. It won't be easy.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Stefan Weidner is an author and Islamic scholar. His book "Ground Zero. 9/11 und die Geburt der Gegenwart" will be published in German by Hanser in January 2021.

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