9/11: Eleven years on, is it time for our liberalism to be more, not less, muscular?

For my parents generation the epochal moment, the moment ‘that changed history’, was the assassination of Kennedy. And they can all tell you where they were when they heard the news.

For my generation, it is 9/11. The endless replaying of the aircraft tipping its wings as it flew its last fateful yards and the landmark towers collapsing cemented this as an atrocity that would endure in the mind. Many connected this event to Pearl Harbor, certainly in its character and intent. Pearl Harbor had little of the multi-media connectivity that 9/11 had (obviously) but the comparison is not as stupid as might be first thought: a rare attack on US soil, rather than US interests abroad; aggressive provocation by a group seeking a re-writing of the global order; bringing the US out to defend liberal values abroad. Historical comparisons like this are difficult because they always so closely nested to the context of the time they occurred in, but it works up to a point.

The intervening time has seen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and note the RUSI report yesterday, fronted on Radio4 by Professor Farrell of this parish, that said the Taliban now regretted allowing AQ to reside in Afghanistan, something which had been hinted at for a while now) and a step-change in border control surveillance and the connection between the ordinary citizen and various intelligence agencies.  As has been noted ad nauseam, some of these developments we’d probably rather we didn’t know about, or didn’t happen at all. Rendition and torture (regardless of the definitional niceties played out by all sides) have attracted opprobrium and more relevantly have helped to radicalise more folk.

But the point of this post is rather simple actually, and I think gets lost in all the noise surrounding radicalisation, counter-radicalisation etc etc..

That point is that the west has a set of defensible ideals that it should not be ashamed to uphold vigorously, as it did sixty-six years ago: freedom of speech (including within limits, tolerance of marginal views and ways of life), freedom of association, freedom from state interference, all being equal the access to prosperity, and the ability to change the government.

It would be right to point out that the west needs to do some of its own housekeeping to uphold these values internally (and it clearly does  – for a wonderfully written and caustic view of our current political elites see link) but we should not get lost in the relativist backwaters of everyone’s inequality is fair enough. The west has asserted values that have improved the life experience of individuals for at least the post-war period, and brought relative prosperity for the majority of people living through it. Now that this prosperity has atrophied, it is time to reassert the values and conditions that underpinned it, and not to get sucked into lowering our standards to those of emergent nations.  President Bush was ridiculed when he called for a democratic revolution in the Middle East, but he proved to be surprisingly prophetic, as the early inklings of a democratically based revolution have occurred in that region. It is now time for the values the underpin the progressive success of the west in the post-war period to be the lasting legacy, the phoenix from the 9/11 ashes. It is time for the our liberalism to be more, not less muscular.


12 thoughts on “9/11: Eleven years on, is it time for our liberalism to be more, not less, muscular?

  1. W4rlord says:


    to think that the Arab spring will bring more liberal democracy to the affected states, is wishful thinking. Currently ismlamists are on the lead everywhere from Algeria to Egypt. Yes they are more democratical than the previous dictatorships, but in the long run it will can be a prrhic victory.

    • Rob Dover says:

      I happen to agree with you. And it was perhaps not clear enough in my piece. There were some democratic elements to the Arab Spring (noting country specific differences), but these have to be captured and nurtured. You are correct in pointing out that these are on the point of being lost in several of the countries.

    • Rob Dover says:

      A panoply of options exist. We’re too poor to invade anyone at the moment or for the foreseeable future. I’d pay not a lot of good money to see someone giving a speech atop Ark Royal talking about our global reach as it’s towed off for scrap… (the shame of it…)

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      Ok, so we’re not talking about the use of force. Exactly what are you thinking of that’s not forceful, but still “muscular”?

    • SM says:

      I must say that I agree with Ed. Other than reforming ourselves, and being less deferential to tyrants, what should vigorously asserting liberal values involve? Even that second has difficulties, since just being unfriendly to autocrats can give them an excuse to isolate their subjects from the outside world or justify their regime as a bastion against the evil foreigners.

  2. Nick Ritchie says:

    But if ‘liberalism’ as an international practice of the West is implicated in the reproduction of gross inequalities on a global scale through the current structures of global governance, then a more ‘muscular’ (feminist deconstruction of the term awaits…) liberalism risks exacerbating those inequalities. Yes, we must cherish the hard fought values that have benefited most of those living under governing arrangements informed by them, but we must be wary of the hubristic exceptionalism of defending (or ‘vigorously upholding’) those values through violent pseudo-emancipation of others in the name of the liberal peace, a temptation ‘muscular liberalism’ seems unable to resist.

    • W4rlord says:


      Seeing the ever increasing speed with which middle class disappears in the First World, (USA, EU), what exactly are we trying to force upon the ‘natives’? Nothing but a hollow skeleton disguised as ‘progress’.

      If you want to know more about the new world forming in front of our very eyes look up Umberto Eco’s neomedievalism. Joke is that he has coined it in the seventies, when the current neoliberal, hypocrite, unregulated world was only emerging.

    • W4rlord says:

      With all due respect sir, being a native english speaker can be as big hinderance as it can be an advantage.

      The quoted essay was indeed first published in English in 1986. Yet the original (based on a stroy about a giant electrical shortfall in the US by Roberto Vacca) was published in Italian in a compliation in 1973, titled Il costume di casa (English translation: Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality, 1986).

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