The act of remembrance
does not automatically guarantee against a failure to forget. The first
anniversary of September 11 will inevitably attract more attention and
be more significant than all ensuing anniversaries of that date. Its importance
is reinforced by the prospect of military intervention against Iraq; a
venture attached to the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon by
the argument that the real lesson of these atrocities is the imperative
to move earlier to confront emerging threats next time.
In ceremonies across the United States and the world, those who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania will surely be commemorated in a dignified fashion. But the battle over the interpretation of how their sad deaths should best be understood, by contrast, will continue to be bitter.
The first response of this newspaper, like almost every other publication, to the events of September 11 was to argue that it was a transformative moment of an importance rarely witnessed. This was sweepingly summarised by others in the sentiment that “life would never be the same again”.
Twelve months later, in many spheres, it could be asserted that those fears were exaggerated. The world economy did not implode last September as some had predicted, the airlines did not collapse en masse because of a public too terrified to fly again, as others had prophesied, and the security measures introduced in the wake of September 11 have not fundamentally changed the character of ordinary life, as others had insisted that they would.
This enduring “normalcy” should not be misinterpreted. Much of what we have come to appreciate as the most powerful moments in history did not lead to the whole pattern of human activity being overturned overnight. The impact in this case, as in so many others, is on a scale beyond conventional comprehension. It will endure, in all probability, for many decades to come.
The anniversary has provided the critics of political leaders in the United States and elsewhere with the chance to marshal cynicism and scepticism. It will be contended, for example, that the War on Terror has been a failure because we do not know that Osama bin Laden and his closest associates are dead, or because we cannot be certain that the al-Qaeda network has been entirely smashed, or because Afghanistan, while released from the hold of the Taleban, remains a deeply troubled nation.
These are potent debating points but beg the essential question. This should be whether or not the world is safer now than it was on September 10, 2001 and, if so, whether the strategy adopted by George W. Bush and his Administration contributed to that outcome. The answer, with little ambiguity on careful reflection, is affirmative on both counts.
It is not difficult, nor improper, to produce photographs of those known to have been senior figures around bin Laden and to note that many are still “at large” at the moment. This newspaper among others has conducted such an exercise. But, in truth, the phrase “at large” in this context does not mean the same as it would some 12 months after an audacious bank robbery. It refers to the absence of a body either in a grave or a prison cell.
The extraordinary nature of the vast American bombing campaign in the last three months of 2001 means, however, that many of those killed will never be identified. The “daisy-cutters” dropped on the Tora Bora mountains and elsewhere will have accounted for at the very least some, possibly most, of those whom US Forces are still technically hunting. It is a search which may well be fruitless not because those pursued are hidden, but because have literally been liquidated.
This applies as much
to bin Laden as his allies. He could be alive, or in extremely poor health,
or deceased. The past months have brought many whispers but no hard information
one way or the other. The videotapes that he was so happy to release in
the first few weeks after September 11 do not suggest that he suffered
from an allergy to publicity. If he is in robust condition, his reluctance
to mobilise his own supporters and antagonise the United States by reappearing
in a fashion that ends the debate as to his fate is curious. If this week,
especially, passes without any proof of his being alive,the balance of
presumption must start moving towards the notion that he either died some
time ago or is in such a miserable condition that for him to be displayed
would dishearten his troops.
And those troops already have many reasons to be disheartened. On September 10, 2001, the al-Qaeda organisation enjoyed a secure base in Afghanistan, had affiliates in perhaps 40 countries and access to resources that may have exceeded $100 million. None of that is true today. None of that would have ceased to be true without the measured but massive retaliation ordered by President Bush. If the War on Terror since September 11 is to be considered a “failure”, that is the consequence of an excessively stringent concept of success.
The same is, once more, valid for Afghanistan. That country has not been transformed into Sweden courtesy of the expulsion of the Taleban and the arrival of outside forces. It remains poor, unstable and prone to civil war, as the assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai last week indicates.
This does not mean, however, that the people of Afghanistan are no better placed as a result of American intervention than they were one year ago. The quality of life for many hundreds of thousands of individuals there has been improved. The nation is no longer a danger to many hundreds of millions of individuals located elsewhere.
It is not a legitimate test of Mr Bush to ask how he will create a multi-ethnic, multiparty, market democracy in Kabul. Nothing close to such an entity exists in the space between Israel and India. It is instead better to consider whether the authorities in Afghanistan are less of a menace to their own citizens and the outside world than was the case on September 10, 2001. That standard has been met and by some margin.
The serious legacy of September 11 rests instead in three theatres. These are America’s relationship with the rest of the world; Islam’s attitude towards the remainder of humanity; and the central structure of the international system itself. In each one of these realms, massive implications, not minor adjustments, are already evident.
The United States during the Clinton era enjoyed spectacular prosperity that masked an underlying uncertainty of purpose. The idea that the end of the Cold War might usher in an “end of history”, the rapid and universal acceptance of values strongly linked with the United States, acquired a seductive quality. Some Americans lost interest in external issues.
That period of innocence and indulgence ended on September 11 and it is unlikely to be revisited soon. The United States became painfully aware that it was not only an advertisement for human progress, but, for its opponents, the citadel that had to be destroyed for others. Nor was there any course that Americans could take to isolate themselves from that hatred. As Richard Hofstadter, an eminent American historian, had observed decades previously, it was, is and will always be, his country’s destiny “not to have an ideology but to be one”. Future Presidents as well as the present one will now appreciate that statement.
On the other side of the same coin is the role of Islam. In the days after the September 11 assault, huge efforts were made, rightly, to emphasise that the majority of ordinary Muslims were utterly appalled by what had occurred and that it had been undertaken falsely in the name of their religion. A vigorous drive took place, correctly, to distinguish between mainstream Muslims and radical Islamists and their fanaticism. Bin Laden was, accurately, portrayed as something closer to the leader of a cult than a theological figure.
Despite these efforts, there remain disturbing facts that it is convenient to marginalise. The minority which either fully or partially sympathised with those who committed mass murder in the United States was not infinitesimally small. The numbers who were content to condemn al-Qaeda but moved swiftly on to find alibis or excuses for their anger remain awkwardly large.
The size of the contingent within either the community of Islamic scholars or on the streets who have felt able to ask themselves whether Islam would be well served by a revolution in thinking - similar to that experienced by the Christian Church through the Reformation or for the Jewish faith courtesy of an Enlightenment - is tiny. It is this unfortunate state of affairs, not globalisation or any other trend that may be connected with America, that is at the core of the tension between civilisations. It will emerge again as the United States steps up its initiative to deal with President Saddam Hussein.
That the process has moved on from al-Qaeda to Iraq does not constitute an opportunistic dash by the United States to settle old scores but instead reflects the reality of a new international order. What the attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon displayed in its full horror is that, while the nature of the nation state has not changed as much as some care to contend, the character of what is a threat to the nation-state has undeniably evolved.
The history of humanity is one where the structure of power and the state of military technology have long had a symbiotic relationship. Terrorism of the audacity and scale seen in New York and Washington is not the only manifestation of this. The anthrax attacks in America last autumn, although they claimed mercifully few lives, were another type of warning.
Neither the United States nor Britain is at serious risk over the next few decades of invasion by a conventional army. Even a nuclear missile strike, numbing as the thought is, would not stop an utterly devastating reaction in return. Weapons of mass destruction are another matter. They allow war to be waged without fingerprints. They are the sole tools which would allow those dedicated to the destruction of lives in the advanced world to secure their objectives. It is logical, and unavoidable, that their arrival will transform the international system. The al-Qaeda attacks were low-tech but high-impact. The anthrax envelopes were the exact reverse. Biological and chemical weapons would be high-tech, high-impact but with a worryingly uncertain prospect of detecting those who directed them.
This then is the paradoxical conclusion on September 11. In a vast number of ways that contribute much to the conduct of life, it has altered very little. In a small number of extraordinarily important spheres, it may change everything. We are only at the beginning of the attempt to understand what this will demand of capitalist democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In that sense, while it is September 11 2002 today, the hands on the clock have barely moved since September 11, 2001.
(The Times, Editorial, 11 September 2002)
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