Responding to terror

After September 11th, the world no longer looks the same. What can we do to pickup the pieces?

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Responding to terror

On September 11th, people's mental map shifted. Much of what previously occupied our attention now seems trivial. Many people, and many organisations, are still in shock, unsure how to react. There is no force on earth that can reconstruct the world that existed before September 11th. So how do we respond, individually and collectively?

Rising to the challenge

While governments were still reeling from the shock, individuals and organisations rose to the challenge. The immediate response to the crisis revealed a spirit of co-operation that often seems hidden beneath the competitive struggle for survival. This spirit does not depend on institutions, or on coercion from above: the evidence is that people respond spontaneously to moments of crisis. Many individual acts of heroism and selflessness were recorded; many more went completely unnoticed.

The technology industry played its part, offering facilities to help trace relatives and put people in touch, and by setting up swift systems for donations to rescue organisations. Mobile phones proved their worth, in some cases supplying the only method of communication that worked. Emails got through while international phone lines were blocked. The Internet did what it was designed to do, healing the breach when some nodes were knocked out, and finding ways to route around the problem. Communication systems were grossly overloaded... but survived. Through communication of all kinds, from television pictures to personal emails, people understood the reality of what happened, and its human consequences, better than any comparable event in history. In comparison with this direct reality, conventional responses seem wholly inadequate.


September 11th proved conclusively just how interconnected the world now is. No previous event affected so many people, so quickly and so completely.

Of course, the terrorists exploited that interconnection to do what they did, building international networks that turned the tools and technology of society against itself. It is an unfortunate fact that those without scruples are often the first to identify new possibilities, and act on them. A small group used freely available resources to inflict serious damage on the world's most powerful country. But if interconnection can be used for terror, it can also be - and must be - used for positive ends.

Rebuilding security

One result of September 11th is a lingering feeling of insecurity. But these events also proved that security can no longer be guaranteed by force. If there was a failure, it was a failure of intelligence; and the response must be an intelligent one.

In an interconnected world, security is no longer guaranteed by building walls and guarding them with guns. Of course, physical checks can be stepped up; but this is not enough. As security experts acknowledge, a truly determined adversary can always find a way under - or through - the wire. Real security depends on networks of trust: a lesson learnt long ago by those involved in online systems. Networks of trust can identify problems early, and nip them in the bud before they have a chance to grow into a real threat.

Rebuilding business

The economy was already under threat before September 11th. How business leaders, and ordinary consumers, respond now will set the economic pattern of the next decade.

Successful business requires the same networks of trust that will ensure security. This time, trust networks need to be constructed on a truly international scale, involving all parts of the world in the process of construction, and in the benefits.

Technology has made all things possible. Entire industries can now be created by the simple application of capital. The economic climate is no longer determined by impersonal, external factors, and nothing about it is inevitable: it is based on consumer and investor confidence.

How can we rebuild? The era demonstrated how quickly new industry can be created; but it was based on insecure foundations. What we need now is new industry based on solidly researched propositions, with customer feedback and involvement from the start. Many dot.coms were created purely by supplier and investor push; customers existed only as a theoretical concept, a line in the business plan. The rebuilt economy must be built on the needs of real people, tested and evolved as each business develops.

In the end, the 'new economy' failed. September 11th provides the need, and the motivation, to try again, this time on a sounder footing, and perhaps with different goals. How, for example, can the people of Afghanistan be given a stake in the rebuilt global economy? We now know that any group excluded from the process provides a breeding ground for terror.

Overcoming the disease

Nothing and no-one will be unaffected by the events of September 11th. Those who think otherwise are simply burying their heads in the sand.

In many ways September 11th has crystallised a change that had already happened, but until now was latent. If terrorists act globally, so must governments and institutions. One positive result of these apalling events is the unprecedented co-operation between governments of all political colours and beliefs.

Will industry respond in a similarly global way? If not, the rebuilt economy may be some time in coming. Without global agreement, any recovery is likely to be fragile, and easily undermined by those who have no stake in its development.

Responding to terrorism is more like fighting a disease than fighting a war. Staying healthy involves many different things. Like the human body, the rebuilt economy needs a well-developed and globally active immune system, able to recognise and deal with threats wherever they arise. Such a robust system could provide everyone on the planet with an improved quality of life.

But without this, everything we see as success risks being identified as a cancer and a threat by those who see themselves as excluded; and whose response, as we have seen, can be swift and bloody.


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©Mediation Technology 2001


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