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Approaching Zero

David Collins

John Strawson, ed.
Law After Ground Zero
Glasshouse Press, 2002
222 pages

We’ve been told for some time that September 11 changed the world. A book examining just how would be welcome. In Law After Ground Zero, British and Canadian academics have composed fourteen short articles ostensibly treating how the September 11 attacks and their aftermath altered the legal landscape. The topics range broadly, from perceptions of Islamic feminism to conflict-resolution traditions in Afghanistan, as well as that old-saw, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Recurrent ideas include the need for greater recognition of human rights and legal clarity in the definitions of terrorism and war. Despite its ambitions, however, and its occasionally probative discussions, little of what Law After Ground Zero offers is original, and most of it is superfluous.

Perhaps things haven’t changed so much. Or perhaps these authors are able to do little more than lay out a few vague suggestions to remedy a fallen world. Although John Strawson, the editor, opens by advising that ‘great efforts need to be made’ to recognize human rights, he does not specify how. Instead he simply exhorts readers with the boilerplate rhetoric of combating racism and sexism. Dissatisfied with the toothlessness of the United Nations, Carty and Sait advocate an authoritative international agency, but they do not attempt to consider what form such a body could take. Carty’s call for a world judiciary composed of non-state appointed members is hardly novel, and he makes no effort to address the difficulty of creating such a court. Talbot’s criticism of British anti-terrorism legislation is particularly deficient in normative analysis. In addition to failing to consider any case law, Talbot decries the lack of balance between national security and civil liberties without advocating an effective middle ground.

Variation in voice and breadth of subject matter is both a strength and a weakness of Law After Ground Zero. Unconventional viewpoints from within the Islamic community, such as the delightful quotations from Salman Rushdie in Strawson’s conclusion, keep the reader moving through an otherwise tiresome rehashing of 20th century international politics. But the volume’s cohesion suffers. Sait’s chapter is scarcely more than a narrative of the Middle East’s refugee catastrophe. Wardak’s section on Afghan dispute-settlement customs, while sociologically compelling, has virtually nothing to do with September 11. One begins to wonder not only why these separate works have been placed together, but why the volume has this title. Few sources are quoted that date after September 11, 2001, as if the authors simply modified existing works to fit the theme.

Several articles – notably those of Bowring on the legality of military action and Meltzer’s on the trouble of defining the term ‘terrorist’ – are rigorous legal analyses. These are Law After Ground Zero’s best moments. Bowring’s commentary on the failure of the United Nations to safeguard human rights is both succinct and stirring. Similarly compelling is Meltzer’s notion that classifying members of Al Qa’ida as criminals and not terrorists would achieve legitimacy and increase tactical flexibility for America. On more of a literary than a legal note, Hayward and Morrison contribute the most gripping piece of the book, placing the terrorist attacks within a symbolic framework that is inescapably resonant. They observe that the image of the empty White House on the day of the attacks was as chilling as that of the fallen towers.

And such images, like the black and white photo of New York City’s devastation on the book’s cover, still sell. In the end, editor Strawson is guilty of the very sensationalizing of the terrorist attacks that he implicitly condemns in his own introduction.

David Collins is a Canadian lawyer at Linacre College, Oxford, where he is completing an MSc in Economic and Social History.