Sunday, 11 September 2011

9/11 Ten years on

I haven't blogged for some time now.

It's the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the other two terrorist attacks on US targets.

The TV coverage is extensive, sombre and occasionally reflective, but for the most part it makes painful harrowing viewing. It was a dramatic, deliberate and deadly attack, so utterly successful in meeting its malign objective of spreading fear and provoking a response.

What can I add to the thousands of hours of media debate on the aftermath of 9/11?

Did it change the world? Was America's response right? Are we safer now after all the violence unleashed by American forces in pursuit of their arch enemy, after all the missile and drone attacks, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, the bloody pursuit of non-existent WMD in Iraq, after regime change in Iraq?

Who knows? Every politician's answer to these questions merely reinforces their prejudices. No one wants to admit they got it wrong, everyone seeks to justify, however tenuous the logic, the decisions they took at the time.

But whatever we may think of the long term effects of the 9/11 attacks, they cannot be fully disentangled from the consequences of the particular policies pursued by the US and its allies in their attempts to guarantee the security of the homeland. By one reckoning the hundreds of thousands of deaths added by the wars of the last decade to the 3000 of 9/11, were all worth it - justified by the fact that there has not been a repeat of 9/11. By this reckoning we at least know the relative value of a human life in different parts of an unequal world. After all the dead of 9/11are being remembered and commemorated today; the others are statistics remembered fleetingly, namelessly in blogs like this one.

By another reckoning, US actions following 9/11 made a scary situation terrifying; the war on terror heightened the risk of terrorism worldwide even as it made it harder for another attack on US soil. Arguably 10 years of war and trillions of dollar expended on a military response against whole peoples, accompanied by debt, and the near collapse of the financial system in 2007 and the subsequent recession, have left America  weakned to the point where the only positive claim it can make for the last 10 years is that there has not been another attack by aliens on US soil.

What a calculus of terrorism and counter-terrorism, attack and reprisal!

What a legacy for the true victims of 9/11! Avenged, yes but future enemies deterred? Lessons learned? The world a happier, better, more peaceable place?

Maybe not.

It all depends on what you mean by security and how that translates into living in safety.  One way to gurantee security is to have friends, the other to have better defences and more guns than your enemies. The one prevents attacks, the other at best lets you thwart an attack at the cost of infringeing your own liberties, and at worst, gives you a half decent  chance of going after your attackers should they breach your defences. The one is based on equality, and respect for others, the other on a stubborn belief of inherent superiority over everyone else.

There were a few voices back then in 2001 calling for a different response to the 9/11 attacks than the one we got, but they were unpatriotic, cowardly appeasers who deserved vilification by the press until they were muted. Like Susan Sontag's whose essay in the New Yorker is reproduced here in full:

Susan Sontag's essay:

The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.
Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.

—Susan Sontag