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9/11 and after. Six years on and still taking stock… September 24, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in 9/11.

Reading Donagh recently on Dublin Opinion I couldn’t help to some degree agreeing with him as regards 9/11. He writes:

One of the reason it continues to have an impact is because of the way people like Amis fixate on it as being a sort of massive schism. I don’t want to suggest that 9/11 is without historical significance, but if ever there was an event that has been misused as a weapon of mass distortion it is this one.

Watching a remarkable and quite moving program a week or two ago on Channel 4 about the Cornish born head of Security in Merril-Lynch, Rick Rescorla [who had the basic sense to see the vulnerability of the WTC and planned for it so that most M-L employees made it out safely, although tragically not himself], it was difficult not to see how for a brief period the attacks could not be interpreted as epochal. Here were civilian airliners flown into one of the most prominent civilian buildings on the planet. The deaths of near 3000 people by that methodology in the space of a couple of hours was unprecedented in terms of pure terrorism.

Yet the physical irruption into the US that was 9/11 was thankfully relatively limited. The scale of the attack was considerable but open to disruption by counter-measures. This was a one-time tactic, not the ground work for a strategy. Civilian airliners would prove vastly more difficult to compromise after it and the scope for attacks on urban targets would become more limited. The murderous nature of the attack was something that could be combated by actually quite simple but increased security measures.

The psychological irruption into the US (and arguably the Western) psyche was, by contrast, much greater. At one fell swoop 9/11 provided the back story for an intransigent and unthinking global policy prosecuted by the US. It transformed a rather indolent and isolationist US administration (remember the US surveillance aircraft forced to land by the Chinese?) into an activist hegemon. Projects that had been left on the back burner, such as dealing with Iraq, suddenly assumed an importance out of all significance to their real or potential threat.

The nature of the discourse entered into by the US administration was one which was, over time, utterly counterproductive as regards their ultimate aims. The ‘War on Terror’ is a sound bite of such inherent self-limitation that it is difficult to believe that they thought it would be of any serious utility.

I say that because despite everything it is clear that the response immediately after 9/11 by the US was sufficient to break up or disrupt the Al Quaeda networks then extant. But the shift towards war with Iraq changed the nature of the conflict. Suddenly one “War on Terror” became subsumed in another, entirely different sort of war.

Eric Hobsbawm once noted, rather grimly, that the US could sustain many multiple attacks like 9/11. Of course no society would want to, and I wouldn’t wish it on any society either. But that ability to sustain remains a basic fact. And a crucial point is that AQ was, and one hopes, remains, in no position to mount such attacks. In fact it is hard to envisage any non-state organisation being able to do so. It took years of planning and large numbers of personnel to bring 9/11 to fruition. On the day the attacks were not entirely successful. Knowledge of what was happening was dispersed rapidly, so rapidly that it seems fairly safe to suggest that the fourth aircraft was prevented from carrying out it’s objective precisely because the passengers knew of their likely fate and worked to prevent that outcome.

But that narrative, not one of complacency – because AQ was and remains a threat – but instead one of a proportionate and clear-headed analysis of the situation was ignored. Rather as a British Labour aide considered 9/11 to be a good day to conceal bad news, so the US administration saw an opportunity to change the world ( Incidentally was there ever a more dishonest and self-serving thesis than that of Norman Podhoretz – quoted by Donagh – when he suggests that Saddam was supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Whatever else Saddam was, and he was a despicable near-genocidal dictator, he was not entirely stupid and the idea that he would hand out WMDs like candy to groups which he could have no control over is an absolute nonsense).

And that is an even more central point. 9/11 itself, for all it’s horror – and it was an horror – was limited. It’s historic significance considerably less than was thought at the time. It was a catalyst, but not one that led to an inevitable outcome. What was historic was the course determined by the US administration. That was the hinge upon which our contemporary history would swing for better or for worse.

War with an enemy that is broadly quiescent is frustrating. AQ itself subcontracted terrorist attacks to affiliates and emulators. There have been, and no doubt will be, attacks around the globe. But to date there has had the raw visceral power of 9/11. Madrid and Bali were also terrible crimes. But they lacked – and I am conscious of the need to be sensitive here – a visuality that 9/11 had. The scale and the backdrop of the latter was greater, more immediate, more novel. I was reminded of an article in Atlantic Monthly by Richard A. Clarke (national coordinator for security and counterterrorism for Clinton and Bush) who of all people should know something about these matters, written some years ago. In it he presented an alternative history from 2005 to 2012 which saw waves of attacks by AQ that took various forms, most of them remarkably simple. The upshot was a militarized US society, civil rights leaching away, locked down by massive security at transport, communication and economic hubs slowly losing power and influence. And the worrying aspect was that it was all too feasible. Clarke, no fan of the Iraq invasion saw it as the possible catalyst for much worse events. He pointed to a basic mistake, that in the intervention in Afghanistan – one supported by the UN – there was insufficient effort made to take Osama. But to return to the visceral power of 9/11, few of the attacks he writes about retain that sort of immediacy. A horror is no less a horror because it is difficult to see, but nevertheless the form it takes does shape responses to it.

That we have had no reprise, even in limited form, suggests to me that Al-Queda was always more limited in capability than was presented after the fact. And as noted above, while it remains a threat, it has been unable to operate at the level seen as plausible by Clarke.

9/11 was gestural terrorism. There was no clearly defined objective [By the way OBL’s latest screed is quite fascinating in that regard. He presents a sort of generalised, and then sometimes overly specific, complaint against a range of issues ranging from the banal to the extraordinary]. Indeed one might argue that it was entirely counterproductive on any rational political or military standard. Had Iraq not taken place the enormous global sympathy that followed in the aftermath might have been retained. Yet even with Iraq it is hard to see global attitudes to the US – as distinct this administration – as substantially worse than prior to that event.

And simply put the world hasn’t changed much either for better or for worse. I think that one might view it as largely similar to the assassination of JFK. Something that at the time was seemingly earth shaking, but as time moved on appears less so. The system reasserted itself. History was torn from its course for a period, but the broader historical, social and political dynamics continued to shape the future as they largely would have anyway. Vietnam would most likely still have happened. Ironically some social progress might have been more difficult to implement in the area of equal rights but they would have arrived eventually.

With 9/11 we can see, from this remove, as Clarke notes, that the single greatest shift was the Iraq War. Yet as we move towards the end game there the most likely outcome appears to be a situation where a regime of greater or lesser authoritarianism – perhaps politically not dissimilar to the authoritarianism we see in China will take power attempting to consolidate the state of Iraq as a single unitary entity. This is far from the outcome promised – it’s arguably as bad or worse, if one factors in the sectarian violence, than the Saddam regime. The waste of human life on all sides is prodigious and profligate and the awful pointlessness of the exercise is best exemplified by the latest round of ‘non-partisan’ ads spots on US television arguing that to withdraw now would make a mockery of the sacrifice of those who fell or were injured in the past four or five years. I’ve heard similar arguments from dissident Republicans as regards the Good Friday Agreement and I find them no more convincing. Whatever the individual sacrifice, and it has been considerable on the part of many, to argue more sacrifice is necessary because of past sacrifice seems to be a counsel of desperation. Unless the outcome is significantly better than the present there is little point in continuing. And after all the promises made, and broken, who would or could see the risk of progressing as worthwhile? Timothy Garton-Ash argued last week in the Guardian that to withdraw now would be folly, despite the original sin of the invasion. On the one hand I tend to agree, but then looking closely at the situation outside of a genuinely international effort I cannot see how the current players can operate in good faith, or more importantly be regarded as acting in good faith. Perhaps the situation will improve. That seems to be the thinking in Washington (while London gently steps away from the fray). Slim hopes upon which to construct a new and better world.

And it is a dispiriting example for the left, because it suggests that transformative projects are perhaps much more difficult than we like to imagine (indeed I need hardly reiterate the point about how former and current Trotskyites of various positions appear to loom large in the meta-history of the War). If the US couldn’t do it in a society crying out for stability and progress then what hope for the tiny groups that seek change in largely content societies? Realistically, for all the huffing and puffing of the past three or four years, the world has largely been a bystander, taken on journey which it has little or no control of – and the greatest irony of all is that the architects of the interventions subsequent to 9/11 despite their seeming omnipotence in the months afterwards are clearly also lack any capability to control this journey.

Robert Scheer on KCRW’s ‘Left, Right and Centre’ often uses the phrase ‘people must make their own history’. He believes that Iraqi’s should have been, and should continue to be, given the opportunity to shape their own society. When I first heard him use it it infuriated me, but as time has progressed I think I finally understand where he is coming from, and to a degree I think he is right – albeit with certain caveats. But it’s worth noting that in a fundamental way people are shaped by history. Sociopolitical dynamics feed into traditions and beliefs that direct behaviour. The inability to recognise how those dynamics would play out in Iraq is a part of the continuing tragedy of 9/11.


1. Eagle - September 25, 2007

So much here. I’m not sure I have the wherewithal to make a long, reasoned response. So, I’ll just pick a few points.

(1) For me, the biggest issue with Sep 11 is that it was their second attempt to kill thousands in lower Manhattan. The first attempt took place in 1993. That “AQ” failed in that attempt was as much due to pure luck as anything. If they had succeeded in toppling one building onto the other – as planned – it would have exceed the death toll from 2001 by a factor of 10. Of course, Sep 11’s death toll could have been much greater if (a) the attacks had been later in the day or (b) the buildings hadn’t withstood the impact, which was a real possibility.

Anyway, after the attempt to kill tens of thousands in 1993, the Clinton Administration’s response was probably as strong as could have been hoped for given the mood of the country, but clearly inadequate to the threat. That the Bush team sought something bigger is hardly surprising given this experience.

(2) “He believes that Iraqi’s should have been, and should continue to be, given the opportunity to shape their own society.” Never, ever going to be allowed to happen. Sure, the US and its allies might withdraw, but unfortunately for Iraqis, they don’t live in a safe neighborhood. There is no way that either the Iranians (& friends) or the Saudis (& friends) will sit back and see how the Iraqis sort their country out in a post-withdrawal scenario.

(3) “The murderous nature of the attack was something that could be combated by actually quite simple but increased security measures.” Which ones? The Patriot Act? Guantanamo? Finger-printing visitors? Or all of them? Or do you mean, simply better screening at airports and reinforced cockpit doors?

I’m not trying to be a smart alec, but I’m curious as to which security measures you think are necessary to combat AQ.

(4) The visual nature of Sep 11 is probably very important to AQ, but strangely a huge limitation on what they could achieve. The ‘blind sheikh‘, who lived in the US, had a better understanding as to how to truly terrorize Americans. As well as his role in the WTC bombing, he had helped spawn plots to bomb tunnels during rush hour. This would not make good t.v., but if Sep. 11 had been followed up with these sorts of less visual attacks it could have made New York City a ghost town.

I’d like to imagine that the US government can prevent this from happening through an airtight defense, but I don’t believe it. In fact, once Osama the media hound is out of the way, it’s entirely possible that AQ could reorganize with new tactics, which would not be so televisual, but would be – possibly – even more terrorizing, even if less deadly. (And, I’m ignoring the nuclear or chemical attacks so often cited as the nightmare scenario because – I hope – that the American government can prevent that kind of attack.)

This is what Clark, and frankly, any American can see. The US is extremely vulnerable to attacks from agents inside the country. The only sure-fire defense is to ensure that no bad guys get into the country, a lovely idea, but one that is simply impractical.

Look at the recent German terrorist incident. Some of those guys were German-born & not even of Turkish or Arab descent. In other words, hardly beyond imagination that such people could get into the US.

This is the same conundrum as confronted the Clinton Administration, only with the reality of mass casualties as opposed to the plans and aspirations of ‘AQ’. Is there any policy that might change the situation sufficiently so that groups like AQ lose their appeal and they fade away?

The Bush team thought that a democratic, economically liberal Iraq would be the impetus to kickstart this transformational process throughout the Muslim world. Us conservatives were always skeptical that such a transformation was possible and liberals were skeptical that this was what the Bush Administration really wanted.

That this gamble by the Bush Administration has (seemingly) failed, is not good for them, not good for America, not good for W. Europe, not good for Muslims, not good for anyone, other than those fascists/ideologues who see chaos as opportunity. That’s the future we’re looking at right now. Iraq as Afghanistan where warlords rule little fiefdoms, sell their allegiances to whoever pays the best, but ensure that the average citizen lives in squalor & fear. Only, this time it might expand to other near-by states.

Anyway, I’ve rambled too much and it’s write anything here in these little boxes.


2. eamonnmcdonagh - September 25, 2007

It transformed a rather indolent and isolationist US administration (remember the US surveillance aircraft forced to land by the Chinese?) into an activist hegemon.

I don’t get the example. What else could they have done? What do you think they would do different now if it happened again?


3. WorldbyStorm - September 25, 2007

Eagle – seemed pretty reasoned to me – and I’d pretty much agree with all you say there. However, a couple of points. Whether the first attempt was Bin Laden is open to question, but I’m not entirely sure that I agree that Iraq was the logical waypoint in the Bush team’s “seeking something bigger’ and even the phrasing seems to indicate within it the limitations of that approach. Saddam had supported, mostly rhetorically, terrorism in the Middle East, but there remains no evidence that he had any linkage to Al-Queda (incidentally I’m only using the initials for brevity).

Your point (2) is gloomily realistic although not necessarily one that precludes withdrawal or whatever other course of action. And arguably if we’re looking at sovereignty then Iraq was much more sovereign and better able to defend itself against the depredations of its neighbours, although not free, under Saddam than now.

(3)… First up a much more considered approach to civil aviation. I was watching Pushing Tin the other night for a short while. Seems like another world now, a very naive world. Basic measures such as aircraft security had been ignored for decades despite significant threats from other sources, not just AQ. Some structural changes in the nature of US intelligence gathering both in terms of the organisational elements, and also basic stuff like arabic speakers, etc, etc. Guantanamo? No, not in retrospect. Bad move. Finger printing visitors – perhaps. Definitely increased security at economic and transport hubs. And having said that, at some point AQ would get through as you rightly say.

Which leads us then (4) and the point is how to internationally disrupt it through security and political means. And that means facing up to some difficult issues of perception in the Middle East. Thing is, there was no mass uprising in the Middle East because of US intervention, but US credibility, and following on from that authority, is now less strong than previously. I think it is awful that the face of the US in the Middle East is now largely limited to a military one. I’d also argue that in some respects – and I say this carefully – that certain tactics drawn from Israeli experience were completely counter intuitive…indeed, and saying this as one who strongly supports Israel’s right to exist, the overly close identification of US and Israeli interests has also been highly counterproductive. And genuinely it is hard to see how the last six years have made the US safer. If anything they have exposed the limitations of geo-political power when applied in localised areas – unless one is willing to act in an utterly ruthless manner which is largely impossible in the context of broadly liberal democracies…

eamonnmcdonagh, fair question, but I’d presume were we back in 2002/2003 they might have avoided entanglement in the enormous diversion that was Iraq and concentrated on Al-Queda and its supporters. Seems to me an awful lot of US military lives could have been saved in that context, that the actual object of the exercise – to get those who perpetrated 9/11 – could have been achieved, and the very genuine sympathy that 9/11 rightly evoked for the US could have been retained – which being entirely pragmatic might have served US long-term interests better than any of the rhetorical nonsense emanating out of Washington afterwards in the run up to Iraq.

Re the example, there was considerable sabre rattling over Taiwan/PRC (and the PRC were no slouches at that I might add) and the level of rhetoric ramped up. But it was all pretty detached. Six, seven years later it’s a non-issue, as more or less was was all along (US security guarantees to Taiwan tending to stick).


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