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Gary Younge
Actually, random lawlessness ruled last Monday too

But that was long, long ago. A time when aeroplanes were a means of transportation rather than weapons of mass destruction and the twin towers of lower Manhattan symbolised the invincibility of global capitalism rather than its vulnerability. It was an era whose distance from ours is measured not in time but events - less than seven days but more than a million repeated images and thousands of lives have passed since then.

To arrive this weekend was to touch down in another country altogether. It is a painful sight. A nation of hushed tones, of pacing aimlessly in circles. Several states away, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the airport is almost deserted - planes and people all in the wrong places. Business travellers, five days late in a country where minutes once mattered. At the meeting of five departure gates that would once have been overrun with a thousand passengers, just one airport employee sits, reliving the drama on CNN.

The area of rubble that was the World Trade Centre is now labelled Ground Zero; the hour at which it began to crumble feels like year zero. But just as there is a physical relationship between the towers and the debris, so too is there a connection between the international political climate before the attacks and after. The world last Monday was a very different place.

A boatload of refugees from Afghanistan lingered off Australia's borders, finally heading for a detention centre on the island of Nauru. Afghanistan, a country now deemed sufficiently sinister to warrant an international, military attack, was not then regarded as being oppressive enough to justify offering refuge to those from it who sought asylum. When 433 people tried, they were demonised by the Australian government as scroungers. That refusing them contravened international and domestic law seemed neither to bother the Australian government, nor most of its citizens.

An ocean away, at an anti-racism conference in Durban, western powers would not apologise for slavery. The few countries who now seek to lead a coalition founded on the moral indignation of last Tuesday's atrocities, held out against the many who wanted them to accept their historical responsibility for treating people like chattels. Push your point, said the powerful, and we will leave.

Just up the road in Zimbabwe, Britain finally looked as though it had brokered a welcome deal with president Robert Mugabe. But while the west, rightly, condemned his regime for the lawless, chaotic and deadly seizure of land from a privileged minority, it continued to defend the lawless, chaotic and deadly seizure of land by a privileged minority in the Middle East.

All this looks as nothing compared to the thousands of body bags now piled up in New York, but it does provide a snapshot of what global politics had been reduced to. Whatever the west wanted, it eventually got (except from China). Whether in trade, diplomacy, politics or war, the west used its wealth and muscle to force its interests on the rest of the world. The west, led by the US, had become not only the global policeman, but the world's judge, jury and executioner.

Worse still, like the most shameless corrupt copper, the west not only made the rules but decided which ones it could break as well. Serbia is a cogent example. When the west could not reach a global consensus to curtail Serb aggression, it simply bypassed the rest of the world's concerns and bombed the Balkans in contravention of international law. When it wanted to see Slobodan Milosevic in the dock in the Hague, it waved a chequebook in the direction of the Serb authorities, and he was grabbed. They day after Milosevic was handed over, the US released $1.28bn in aid to rebuild the nation it had bombed.

Meanwhile the Pentagon, which was attacked last Tuesday, remains the most implacable opponent of the international criminal justice system, refusing the idea that an American could ever be indicted as a war criminal. Republicans recently promoted a bill in Congress permitting the president to use force to free any American ever "captured" by the Hague prosecutors.

The relationship between these facts and last week's atrocities is contextual, not causal. Those who believe that America got what it deserved as a payback for its former ills lack the very humanism which they argue has been missing in America's foreign policy. But, similarly, those eager to stifle any critical understanding as to why these attacks happened lack the faculties to begin to imagine how to make the world a safer place.

This time last week the world was already in a state of maverick lawlessness. The moral, economic and political parameters were set by the powerful and imposed on the powerless, and shifted according to their interests. That the west's two favourite pariahs - Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden - were once on the payroll is not ironic but logical. The attacks on New York will not halt that trend, but more likely entrench it. With reservists on call and the army on standby, the US is ready, waiting and willing for war. Talkshows reveal a popular mood: shoot now and ask questions later. It is a brave, but rare voice, that chooses to dissent in this atmosphere.

Elsewhere, things are not much better. Asked last week whether the Israeli government was exploiting the carnage in New York to justify its activities in Palestine, which had left a nine-year-old girl dead, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington said: "We do not need justification. We will fight not only the terrorists but those who harbour them." But America's response to those attacks could expose just how much political capital it has expended by going it alone in the past.

Last week the US enjoyed the support of the full range of global opinion, from Colonel Gadafy to Ariel Sharon, in its grief. But as it moves to avenge the attacks, the coalition that it seeks to back its military action is ready to crack. Some of the US's western allies will not want to risk joining it on the list of terrorist targets for the sake of what could well be a gratuitous act of revenge. Others, particularly in the Arab world, will come under considerable domestic pressure not to back Israel's sponsor in the midst of an intifada.

Last Tuesday's attacks might feel like year zero. But as New Yorkers return to their desks today, others around the world are also remembering life this time last week. And many do not like what they see.

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