- 11 Sep 21
On the 11th of September 2001, suicide bombers trained by Al-Qaida, carried out a brutal and spectacular attack on the Two Towers in New York – among other key targets in the US. The attack was brutal, indiscriminate, appalling – and horribly effective. But above all what it achieved was destructive and poisonous. We are still counting the cost. Illustration by David Rooney
Nine eleven. What happened when those two numbers were scorched into the collective consciousness was as devastating as it was unexpected. The infamy of that hour came in the form of a series of bolts from the blue – unleashing hell on earth, spearing symbols of western capitalism and culture right at the very epicentre of global power. It was, in its own twisted way, the coup to end all coups.
Al Qaida, a force with no intercontinental missiles, no air force and no way to evade security on the ground, took the war against what they called “the crusaders” to the heart of all their pomp and circumstance.
On nine ten, many people didn’t know what the word ‘jihad’ meant. After nine eleven, emphatically, they did. A whole new lexicon had been opened up. We had to find the words to describe the kind of world that had been tilted on its axis, or felt that way at least.
Jihad. According to Merriam-Webster, a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty. Also: a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline. Elsewhere, we are told that the word is used “inaccurately” by Western politicians and media. It means “effort” or “struggle”.
What became known as jihadis call the USA “The Great Satan”. Are they using the term 'Satan' correctly? No matter. Wall Street is a brash and self-gratifying statement of US wealth, its wheeling and dealing, its desire to dominate the world with the power of money.
The ‘Twin Towers’ looked like an eleven and were targeted for the eleventh of the ninth. Strictly mathematical.
We’ve all seen the video of the planes approaching and then crashing into the Towers so many times that it is easy to forget the shock and horror, the conflagration and cataclysmic collapse, the tsunami of dust and stone, the figures falling from the disintegrating buildings, the fleeing figures – and the sense that nothing could, nothing would, ever be the same again.
It was an apocalypse. And it was now.
Viewed objectively, from a political – and especially a military – perspective it was devastating, bold and brilliant. Did the members of the Provisional IRA, partially at least put out to grass in the recent wake of the Good Friday Agreement, look on and think: now there’s a proper spectacular. Did they somehow, deep in their hearts, envy their brothers in the art of terrorism? Did they feel, perhaps, that the pupils had finally outshone the masters?
From a humanitarian viewpoint, what happened was an appalling outrage, a fireball of anger and hate and nihilism masked as zeal. They put seven twenty-one – on the 21st July 1972, remember, the IRA placed 24 bombs in the commercial district of Belfast, of which at least 20 exploded, killing nine people and injuring or maiming 130 – into the halfpenny place. But they were, indisputably, cut from the same cloth.
SOCIETIES TORN APART
From today’s vantage point, the feeling we had then – that things had changed utterly – may not fully compute. Time has a way of sanding things down. But back then it felt like you were waking up every morning into a different world.
So many things changed in those moments, with one key feature. Nine eleven ushered in a new era in which surveillance and security, imposed by the State, and directed on or against its own citizens, had been legitimatised as never before. This brave new world had long been foretold by sci-fi writers. Now we think nothing of removing our shoes at airports, being screened, knowing we’re being watched, being tracked every step of the way, every hour of the day, by one invader of our privacy or another.
Would all of that have come to pass if the attack on the Twin Towers hadn’t taken place?
It is worthwhile, on occasion, paying attention to what history tells us. The attack itself didn’t launch a new war so much as open a new theatre in a longstanding one, that had been going on for generations, if you take the western viewpoint – or centuries, if you heed the jihadis.
There is no doubt about the regressive nature of what the most messianic Islamic fundamentalists aimed – perhaps, in the light of the shift in the balance of power, in the wake of the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, we should say ‘aim’ – to achieve.
They want to reverse the clock. They seek to conquer and convert heathens and apostates by force and put them under the strictest and most ancient fundamentalist laws. Watch what is unfolding in Afghanistan to see it in real time.
They remember the expulsion of Arabs from Spain and they want it back. To them, Andalusia is al-Andalus.
History. You can’t just wipe the slate clean. The recovery of Spain, and resistance to the Moors and Ottomans, was more than justified. But the West cannot deny its own murderous interference in the affairs of countries with oil reserves; nor can it dis-imagine the corruption, naked robbery and exploitation – and ultimately the abasement of politics and military resources to the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
The war, of which 9/11 was, in its moment, the latest and most singularly spectacular episode had been going on for a long time and in different ways.
Inevitably, the sheer effrontery of nine eleven triggered retaliation, not just aimed at Osama bin-Laden – who was executed in a special forces hit at his compound in Pakistan in time for the tenth anniversary – but for Afghanistan, where the Taliban had tolerated jihadi groups training and indoctrinating.
War on terror. Language offered us more to parse and analyse and rage silently about.
Iraq was invaded again and Saddam Hussein dethroned and executed. So was Muammar Ghaddafi in Libya later on. But all of this took place at a terrible – immeasurably terrible – cost. The vacuum created was filled by an even more extreme jihadi group, Islamic State (ISIS). Then Syria was pulled apart in an unsuccessful attempt to dethrone Assad. People were butchered. Entire cities that had been thriving metropolises destroyed. Societies torn apart. Innocents killed, maimed or driven out.
ARMY OF FIRST-RESPONDERS
The list of costs and consequences is long, and the temptation to despair is strong. The carnage that has followed is as complete as carnage gets. Many trillions of dollars fuelled myriad infernos, reduced historically important places to mere incinerated waste. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and wounded and displaced.
And the world is more dangerous and more extreme now. To say that, somewhere along the line, someone – and their advisers – got it appallingly wrong is to put it mildly.
The US didn’t collapse after 9/11 but once the first hammer blows had been delivered its innate tendency towards isolationism steadily took hold again, ultimately culminating in Trump’s lamentable ‘America First’ slogan. In that sense, nine eleven put nationalism back on the map. It fuelled sectarianism, bitterness, hostility to refugees and immigrants – not just in the US, but in the UK too and in Europe.
In some ways, it can be seen as the precursor of Brexit.
Indeed, all forms of fundamentalism and extremism have gathered heft. In Europe, the far right found the post nine eleven world to its liking. They used the sight of wretched refugees washing onto Mediterranean shores and gathering in hungry, hounded hordes on eastern borders to fan rejection and hostility, now deeply embedded in the eastern members of the EU.
Meanwhile, despite all the firepower and tactical and technical support pitched against it, militant jihadism has grown considerably. Worse still, the rift between mainstream Islam and the west is now deeper than in aeons. Old alliances have crumbled. There is very little that is good or positive to hold onto, in a world where Qatar can host the World Cup, despite the shocking apartheid regime that rules, in what is a horror spot from a human rights perspective.
It has been said before and it bears repeating: the war on terror only yielded more war and more terror.
Meanwhile, we are shadowed by other terrors: disease and climate change in particular. The twin Towers inferno, you might observe, is now repeatedly and routinely mimicked by fantastical firestorms generated by climate change. Hunger, floods and famine also ride across our skyline.
And then there’s the malign way in which technology has been allowed to creep up on us all. The capacity of the internet and social media for generating vast harvests of information and knowledge, and for engaging in covert surveillance marked as market research, has merged with the increased interest in all States, from ruthless autocracies right across to countries that like to present themselves as bastions of freedom, in infiltrating us personally and individually, all the better to manipulate and control us.
Bad actors are at it too, challenging the very idea of a free and fair democracy. We are more watched now than ever before. But we are also more managed. Nine eleven may not have been the only trigger for all of that, but it was a crucial one.
Well, we won’t change that, or not this morning at least. And so, for now, on the 20th anniversary of that attack, let us pause and remember that it did also reveal something better.
In the immediate carnage, and as a drama unfolded the true dimensions of which no one could properly know – was there another assault planned, and if so how deadly might that be? – an army of first-responders went into action, in a desperate bid to reduce human suffering.
So many served then, and in the days and months afterwards with heroism and nobility, care and compassion. As was also the case when the first wave of Covid struck, they put themselves in harm’s way so that others might be saved.
Many died. The toll on ordinary working people was immense. But, as we stumbled through those tortuous months, reliving the terror and trying to find a hopeful perspective somehow amid the debris, a light did shine: the light that is created by the ongoing, innate goodness of people who put the interests, the health and the well—being of others first; who believe in the idea of a shared love of what and where we are – creatures trying to make the most of a brief time together on a planet that spins around the sun in a way that is still magical, beautiful, inspiring and brilliant, albeit increasingly in peril.
One thing’s for certain, then: with the way the world is shaping up twenty years after the cataclysmic events of nine eleven, there’ll be more and more need for those qualities. And soon.
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