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.