So the 11th of September rolls around again, with its traumatic memories but also its opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons we’ve learned.

For the latter, its hard to go past Hugh White’s excellent piece in today’s Age.

His theme is the conviction of our government and its allies that terrorism is a threat to our whole way of life – an “existential threat”, comparable to that faced in World War II or the Cold War. White thinks that to “future historians this conviction, which is apparently self-evident to so many people today, will seem surprising, even bewildering.”

Terrorism is indeed dangerous, but it does not threaten to conquer or destroy our societies. Having made such overblown claims, however, governments are driven to equally overblown measures to be seen to be meeting the threat, and therefore get trapped in a “vicious cycle of misperception and counterproductive response”.

I think White is exactly right to pick this as a key factor in the invasion of Iraq. But it explains a lot of other things as well. For example:

  • the refusal of apparently intelligent people, even those who opposed the invasion, to countenance withdrawal from Iraq, as if there was somehow a powerful invading army (rather than a ragtag band of
    terrorists) waiting to take our place.
  • Guantanamo Bay, and the idea that terrorists can’t possibly be tried in the ordinary courts for the serious but nonetheless ordinary crimes of conspiracy and murder.
  • the tendency to link al-Qa’eda style terrorism with such movements as the anti-Israel Hamas and Hezbollah, the Iraqi resistance, and the Shi’ite government of Iran – which in fact are very different things, and at least in the last case mortal enemies of Bin Laden.

In each case, seeing terrorism as a police and intelligence problem rather than a global crisis would do a lot to dispel the illusion.

And lest you think that only the Fairfax papers would publish such defeatist, pro-appeasement thoughts, take a look at Andrew Sullivan in The Sunday Times, reprinted in today’s Australian, outlining the chilling reality of how the Bush administration plans to use its support for torture as an election weapon.

Maybe there really is an existential threat, but what threatens the fundamentals of western society is not terrorism, but our response to it.