9/11, five years on: what has been learned?
The attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 were the prelude to a still unfolding global conflict. In the week of their fifth anniversary, openDemocracy asked our contributors and other writers to reflect briefly on what they have learned since the "two hours that shook the world".
Sidney Blumenthal, journalist and author: What are we fighting for?
A few things I have learned since 9/11 are:
▪ that cadres of neo-conservative ideologues were ready and waiting to transform the constitutional foundation of American government
▪ that they had clearly devised plans to use the power over the law to rescind and restrict rights in the interest of concentrated unaccountable authority in the executive (which after 9/11 is subsumed completely by the identity of commander-in-chief, or what Bush calls "war president")
▪ that the radical overthrow of constitutional checks and balances, of the longstanding American view of rights, and of the rule of law notably began with abrogation of Article 3 of the Geneva convention of 1949 on the treatment of prisoners of war forbidding cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners (thus rolling back a policy that began with George Washington's order for the humane treatment of captured Hessian soldiers during the American revolutionary war).
I have also observed that, more or less, for much of the press, Bush's radical presidency has created realities too radical and therefore dangerous to report, perhaps especially the persistent campaign of intimidation against the press. This is yet another aspect of the effort to derange the constitution, in this case to vitiate - by displays of power, condign threats, and manipulations of indulgences of status - the check and balance guaranteed under the first amendment.
I have also learned that virtually all serious people in the senior military, intelligence community and law enforcement, not only in the United States but throughout Europe, do not believe in President Bush's "war on terror" as he describes it, or believe that it is or can be effective in meeting its end. And I have observed that few of these considered views have entered a highly constricted public debate - a narrowing of democracy that is essential to Republican preservation of power. President Bush speaks about "freedom" and "liberty" as his objects. So what is it we are fighting for? The extension of power of Bush's radical presidency?
Which reminds me of President Lincoln's statement, on 18 April 1864, during the civil war: "The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing."
Jihad Fakhreddine, media analyst: What's left of We Are All Americans?
Since the emotional pledge in the Le Monde on 12 September 2001 - "We are all Americans" - I have been in futile search for those who will now make such a claim. I was not one them, but I could at least have claimed then: "We all have green cards".
For me, the most intriguing question is: how could the United States administration allow two things to happen: failure to capitalise on the sympathy the world demonstrated towards the US on 9/11, and allowing the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to win the war?
The 9/11 attacks could not have been more than symbolic. Al-Qaida could win neither a military battle nor a war against the US. It did nevertheless achieve the aim of the attacks: to drive an insurmountable psychological wedge between the US and the Arab and Muslim worlds.
I spent the entire 1980s studying and working in the US, and have directed close to twenty-five national public polls in Arab and Muslim countries for the Gallup organisation since 9/11. So I feel that I am a virtual holder of a green card.
But still, upon my arrival at the JFK international airport this spring, the officer of the homeland-security department greeted me by asking: What are you doing here? After waiting for two hours for finger and eye-scanning, I asked for directions to the toilet. The officer who directed me to one, commanded his colleague: Watch him.
As "We are all Americans" becomes a vanishingly rare sentiment, I still hold tightly to my virtual green card, which I strongly believe is a passport for coexisting. All my friends, and even my US-educated wife, wonder why I have not denounced it yet?!
Al-Qaida won the war not by its sheer power, but because of the US's misuse of its own political, cultural, and military power.
Godfrey Hodgson, journalist: Beyond paralysis
Outrage was a justifiable response to the atrocities of 9/11 on the part of American public opinion. The administration's policy, however, was "worse than a crime, it was a mistake", motivated and justified by hubristic fantasies. It has forfeited much of the goodwill won by generosity and restraint in the cold war, gravely damaged the international system, and prevented common action to confront other urgent and dangerous issues.
I have learned that many Muslims, both in Muslim countries and especially in Europe and America, are more unforgiving of western conduct, especially but not only in relation to Israel, than I had realised. I have learned that American public opinion is deeply divided, with at least half of the electorate, led astray by cynical media, committed to dangerous, because unrealistic and narcissistic, views of America's destiny. I have also learned how divided and impotent Europe is too, and how marginalised by American contempt.
The Democrats seem paralysed, but the other half of American public opinion is coming to understand how wrong Republican policy has been. In November we shall see whether this disastrous episode in America's public life is over. In the meantime, it feels like 1938.
Ivan Krastev, Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia: An age of conspiracy
What strikes me about the post-9/11 world are the threatening similarities among the three discourses that largely shape global politics today - anti-terrorism, anti-corruption, and anti-Americanism. All three are "empty boxes", easily filled with vague anxieties and cynically designed political strategies; each is a response to the growing gap between publics and elites. Groups with totally conflicting purposes can exploit all three to serve their own agendas.
Washington adopted a high profile in promoting the anti-corruption agenda, attempting to bypass unfriendly governments by telling civil-society actors that corrupt governments are the problem and using democracy promotion as an instrument to confront the rise of anti-Americanism.
In the case of anti-terrorism, Washington allowed discredited but friendly governments to label their domestic opponents as terrorists in return for support in the global "war on terrorism".
In the case of anti-Americanism, corrupt governments are trying to convince frustrated publics that the United States is the problem for everything that is going wrong in their own countries and in the world. The end result is a world that is marked by the rise of conspiracy theories of any kind and paranoid-style politics. So, personally I feel the post-9/11 world as the age of conspiracy.
Saskia Sassen, scholar and author: An empire trapped
Nothing was learned by the current United States administration from that tragic event on 11 September 2001 about the multiple interdependencies of the US with other countries. In an article published by the Guardian the next day, I argued that this was a moment for those wielding immense power in the world – the US government and multinationals, the International Monetary Fund, global banks, and other powerful actors - to interrogate the ways they handle their power.
The reason for such interrogation is not so much because of any direct connection between the attacks and the oceans of deprivation in the world, but because of the many, multiple interdependencies binding them:
“We may think that the debt and growing poverty in the south have nothing to do with the violence in New York and Washington. But they do. (“A message from the global south”, 12 September 2001)
Terrorist suicide-attacks have very specific origins. So does HIV/Aids. And so does the absolute immiseration of one billion people. How we contribute to these conditions and how we handle them can make a big difference. To respond by bombing Iraq was reducing a complex world-map of interdependencies to a one-to-one fist-fight. As is so often the case with quick and dirty responses, it has not worked – nor helped us address so many other aspects of today’s world that need addressing, urgently. The result has been the ultimate entrapment of US power – a massive distortion of the country’s capacities and of the dispositions of so much (though not all) of its citizenry.
David Theo Goldberg, scholar
To say that 9/11 changed our world is a clichéd and forcibly America-centric view of things: cataclysmic events striking other societies - from political to natural disasters - seem not to register as volubly on the mediatised public’s global scale of concern. More deeply, though, 9/11 exacerbated broader political and social forces already underway.
First, neo-liberal commitments - increasingly institutionalised since the 1980s era of Thatcher, Reagan, and Kohl - have transformed the state into a structure focused on the protection of privatised interests from perceived threat: of those deemed not to belong, to have little or no standing, or who are too expensive to care for.
This shift places a premium on security. Neo-liberal states commit to guaranteeing privatised interests the conditions to flourish. This requires extensive policing – both of flows of information, capital, and consumer goods, and of people. The result is an expansion of institutions of violence - military, policing, homeland security. The combination caps the succession of the caretaker or pastoral state of mid-20th-century welfare liberalism to the traffic-cop state of the millennial turn.
At the macro level neo-liberalism expresses itself in terms of the nation over - even at the expense of - the state. The state is to stand for protecting me (and those “like” me, my national family). The rest can be damned. The traditional language and objects of racial humiliation – immigrants and refugees, young Muslim men, nations not in the orbit of acceptable power - are expunged from the neo-liberal state’s terms of reference but return as silent, shadowy figures of potential contamination. There they figure, as threats to the fiscal wellbeing or the social security of the nation, or to the new world order entire.
To Read all of the Commentaries