9/11 in history: chapter or footnote?
The opinions expressed are his own.
Historians like to break up human progress into bite-sized pieces. It’s a useful technique: segregated and labelled, historical eras offer prisms through which to view the past, making it easier to comprehend. Typically, they’re bookmarked by inventions: the wheel, the steam engine, the atom bomb. Intellectual movements fit nicely, too: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism. Each innovation provides a paradigm shift, ushering in a way of thinking previously inconceivable but, after its emergence, unignorable.
Occasionally, waypoints are provided by momentous events. A happening of sufficient magnitude (the argument goes) jars the historical process decisively, severing the connection between past and future, sweeping away the old and paving the way for the new. The Flood in Genesis, the birth of Christ, the attack on Pearl Harbor – all “watershed” moments. Bookmarking such events not only provides useful academic waypoints, it also offers another important service: reassurance. With the sweeping away of the old comes trepidation. The birth of a “new era” provides a link to the past: there have been epochal events before. Things have changed rapidly, and not always for the better. We have survived them. We will again.
The impact of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8.46 a.m. on 11 September 2001 was immediately labelled a watershed event. Seventy-six minutes later, after both the South Tower and the Pentagon had been hit, United Airlines Flight 93’s calamitous descent into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,marked the end of the attacks – and the start of a still-ongoing attempt to define what, exactly, they meant.
Certainly, the strikes were unprecedented. For George W. Bush, they marked a change of political eras ‘as sharp and clear as Pearl Harbor’. Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed. ‘Not only is the Cold War over,’ he explained, ‘the post-Cold War period is also over.’
Around the world the media reiterated the global significance of the event, most famously Le Monde. “Today,” stated the French newspaper, “we are all Americans.” Perhaps Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s deputy at the State Department, put it most pithily: “History starts today.” Intuitively, all of these statements made perfect sense. The magnitude – and audacity – of the 9/11 attacks were staggering. All, however, was not as it seemed.
For politicians, as for historians, predictively labeling eras is a hazardous procedure: history is littered with declarations of new eras that have somehow failed to materialize. In the aftermath of the attacks it seemed reasonable to assume that 11 September would trigger a new way of thinking.
In a hundred years, when schoolchildren discover what happened at the start of the twenty-first century, what will they think? Will they see the photographs of the collapsing towers, turn the page and forget them? Or will they learn that history stopped, then restarted in some new, fundamentally different direction? Will 9/11 be a chapter or a footnote?
Understandably, the first post-9/11 reaction was shock. Why had the United States been targeted? How had this happened? Could it happen again? Within days, however, this sense of insecurity was overwhelmed by a counter-wave of certainty. America had been attacked because it was free. The perpetrators were cowards. They were evil. We would get them.
Almost from the beginning, another ingredient was present, too: idealism.
“The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux,” Tony Blair told the Labour Party Conference three weeks after the attacks. “Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”
The slate had been wiped clean; now was the time to make a few changes. Now was the time to implement the policies we had always wanted, but never had the chance. In this sense, what 9/11 really offered policymakers was an opportunity. Rereading speeches of the time, the repeated use of this word is striking: “opportunity.” America had been struck. Innocence had been lost. What could be salvaged? What could we gain?
This equation – uncertainty, certainty, opportunity – paved the way for everything that happened next. Administration spokesmen announced that the United States was working on the dark side; that the gloves were coming off. Now was not the time to err on the side of caution. If the goal was the greater good and the dissemination of freedom, how could that be wrong? In the light of 9/11 and the need to protect its citizens from the ‘existential threat’ of Osama bin Laden, the United States could have made a rational-sounding case for almost any policy decision.
In short order, America and her allies invaded Afghanistan, then moved on to Iraq. In the process, international alliances – NATO, the United Nations – were sidelined. Inside the country, civil liberties were curtailed. US citizens were incarcerated without trial or access to lawyers. Telephone lines and Internet hubs were tapped. Dissent was quashed. Outside it, suspects were kidnapped, “rendered,” then tortured and – in some cases – murdered.
To those of a cynical disposition, it was the rhetoric that gave the game away. Once the administration got the hang of it, there was no incongruity in referring to hunger-striking prisoners as engaging in acts of “voluntary starvation,” suicide attempts as “manipulative, self-injurious behavior” – or even, in one famous case, “asymmetric warfare.” It was entirely reasonable to assert that the Coalition of the Willing held a majority in the United Nations; that the invasion of Iraq was not only legal but necessary.
Objectors could easily be placated with a false dichotomy (“either we act on asylum seekers or let them all in and hang the consequences”; “either we invade Iraq now or let Saddam hand nuclear weapons to al-Qaeda”). A little verbal dexterity was necessary, but, then, the world had changed. Old rules, drafted in a more innocent time, were no longer sufficient – not with bin Laden on the prowl. They had to be changed, or at least reinterpreted. The law was, after all, a fluid thing.
There’s a school of thought that views terrorism as an act of provocation. Violence is involved, of course; civilians die. According to this theory, though, the actual deaths themselves are incidental. The true aim of the terrorist atrocity is not the carnage it creates. The real objective is to push the target into a reaction – preferably an overreaction – that might conceivably further the protagonists’ goals.
Admittedly, atrocities committed by al-Qaeda are different. The organization seems to relish the prospect of civilian casualties: if they’re not Muslims, they have no right to life. Ignoring this homicidal ignorance for a moment, however, the organization’s goals are broadly similar to those of other, more conventional, terror groups: disruption. Fear. Publicity. Recruitment.
Seen in this light, 9/11 was not simply an atrocity but a political act with a political goal. Al-Qaeda’s aim in striking America was not to kill a few thousand financial workers but a more insidious prodding: Bin Laden wanted to provoke the United States. He was out to wake a sleeping giant. Results were immediately gratifying.
Initially, war was declared on the terrorists responsible. Shortly afterwards, it was expanded to include terrorists everywhere, even those who had not been involved. Finally, war was launched against anybody who might become – at some point in the future – a terrorist.
Extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures. The “War on Terror” was, according to George W. Bush, a “new and different war . . . on all fronts.” It required a “new and different type of mentality.” “[The war] may never end,” Vice-President Dick Cheney admitted to a journalist days after the attacks. “At least, not in our lifetime.” For the first time in the alliance’s history, NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding charter – an attack on one was an attack on all – and joined the fray. Nations that declined to assist in the struggle were themselves classified as hostile.
The President’s ruminations on the theme led him further into the trap.
“Our responsibility to history is already clear,” he announced on 14 September: “to rid the world of evil.” A two-bit organization in a Third World country had succeeded in provoking the most powerful nation on earth, and her allies, into war.
Administration officials recognized that al-Qaeda represented a uniquely twenty-first-century threat. The problem, it seemed, was something to do with globalization. Prior to the Internet era, a bunch of disgruntled Arabs in the Middle East may have threatened the Gulf states; 11 September proved that they now threatened the rest of the world, too. Our own technological advances had been hijacked and used against us. 9/11 demonstrated, as never before, that the door of globalization swung in both directions.
When it came to our response to the attacks, the door swung in both directions, too. The moment the War on Terror was launched, all aspects of the new conflict were destined to spread. Those behind it saw this as a good thing: how could a war fought for democracy and freedom be anything other? Not everyone agreed. To many, the Global War on Terror was an aggressive campaign to export American power and, with it, the kind of hypocrisy that had prompted the attacks in the first place. It was likely to prove counter-productive. Worse, the campaign would have far-reaching reverberations. In all likelihood, these reverberations would outlast not only the war itself but also the administration that had launched it.
Were they right?