September 11 2001: 20th anniversary reflections on freedom, democracy and Australia’s place in the world

| September 11, 2021

Saturday marks the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The anniversary coincides with the fall of Kabul; raising both moral and security considerations for Australia.

In 2001, the Prime Minister John Howard, was in Washington when the attacks occurred. Immediately, he positioned Australia alongside the United States in a global ‘war on terror’. For Australia, there was an assault on democracy and freedom. Defending the Australian way of life became an immediate national imperative.

But nobody dwelt on the irony of September 11 2001 being the 28th anniversary of the Nixon administration supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile. Such are the complexities of modern foreign policy. Always evolving, morally inconsistent, and contested. The relationship between pragmatism and principle is an uneasy one.

The tension between pragmatism and principle explains Australia’s subsequent presence in Afghanistan. It also explains its only begrudging human sympathy for people seeking refuge from the new Taliban regime. People seeking the democracy and freedom that Australia cherishes for itself, but not consistently for anybody else.

Anniversaries are times of reflection. Times for remembering the dead. But also, for reflecting on what went wrong in the US-led response. Internationally, Islamic fundamentalism remains a security threat.

The ease with which the Taliban has assumed control in Afghanistan worries worries Australia. It also challenges Australia’s moral character; raising questions of human solidarity that Australia prefers not to think about too deeply.

The Taliban regime is best undermined by helping people to get out. The Taliban did its best to stop people leaving Kabul and to bring evacuation flights to an end as quickly as it could. Australia helped, but it did so begrudgingly.

In late August, as the Afghan government collapsed, international forces evacuated 122,000 people. 4,000 of these were evacuated by Australia, many of whom will be resettled in the country. Australia will resettle 3,000 Afghans each year under its humanitarian programme. There may be more, but no commitments have been made, and these 3,000 will be within the existing resettlement cap. They will come at the expense of people from elsewhere.

The 4,500 Afghans already in Australia under Temporary Protection Visas are not being given special consideration. The Prime Minister says that they didn’t come the ‘right way’. They came by boat and the Prime Minister doesn’t want to give people smugglers a product to sell.

In itself, a reasonable concern, but safe alternatives have been well considered. Expanding on the ‘right ways’ to seek freedom and democracy is consistent with the values that took Australia into Afghanistan. It’s also consistent with the values that justified post-World War II and post-Vietnam War resettlements.

In a broadcast to mark the beginning of the United Nations’ World Refugee Year in 1959, the Prime Minister Robert Menzies, noted that over time Australia had resettled more than 200,000 refugees.

“It is a good thing that Australia should have earned a reputation for a sensitive understanding of the problems of people in other lands; that we should not come to be regarded as people who are detached from the miseries of the world. I know that we will not come to be so regarded.”

Similar values informed Australia’s response to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Over 90,000 Vietnamese refugees came to Australia during the 1970s and 1980s as Australian brought human solidarity, regional stability and an international understanding of freedom and democracy into coherent public policy.

In 2021, revulsion for the ideas behind the September 11 attacks, only selectively inspire Australia’s response to the fall Kabul as the event’s latest consequence. Australia’s belief in freedom and democracy extends only so far.

The Taliban assures the international community that this time around it will do a better job of respecting women’s rights and aspirations. Women will apparently have access to schools and universities. They will be able to go to work. But the evidence so far is not convincing.

For the moment, women and girls must stay at home while the Taliban says it works out how to deal with them. This is a regime that people want to escape. Freedom and democracy make escape a reasonable aspiration.

Afghanistan is scheduled to play its first men’s cricket test in Australia in November. Australia’s sports minister says the team is ‘unwelcome’ under the Taliban’s flag. And unwelcome if the Taliban persists with its ban on women’s sport.

But it is more than just the freedom to play sport that is at stake, and as Australia reflects on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it might also reflect on the fuller meaning of freedom and how Australia’s values expand or limit its enjoyment.