Monday, September 11, 2006

911: five year on

Five years ago a series of events changed the world. It started with the fateful day when terrorists struck mainland America for the first time since Pearl Harbour, and struck the very symbolic buildings of US economic (the WTC) and military (the Pentagon) prowess.

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of September 11, it is no surprise that the national broadsheets, international magazines, TV networks is full of ‘looking back’ coverage. Michael Moore’s award-winning Fahrenheit 911 is on at the moment, while the conspiracy-theorists will be able to rejoice at the very well-made and convincing low-budget documentary Loose Change.

How has the US, or more specifically, the rest of the world under the shadow of the US, changed in the past five years?

  • The struggle of the current age is one based on faith, carried out by fundamentalists on either side who will do anything to assert and justify their actions with the (ab)use of religion

  • Threat of terrorism will now and forever be with us and amongst us

  • The War on Terror began under a wide ‘international coalition’, but will be an endless war, an endless terror campaign in itself as means of the ‘west’ to root out anything remotely at odds with its doctrine or interests

“The Bush administration has specially defined the struggle vaguely, so that there can be no end to it. George W. Bush enjoys the privileges at his disposal as a war president. Therefore the government has expanded the objectives and goals of this war from one group or from one region to another. [After the Taliban and Iraq] even North Korea is now and then being included in this continually expanding campaign. It is no coherent war, it is a list of desires of a hawk. If the ‘War on Terror’ in reality does include this all, it can drag on for many decades more, but perhaps the American public would no longer accept such an expensive grab bag. ”[1]

  • Democracy and freedoms have become the rallying call on both sides, each with different, and at times opposing, opinions on how those values should be established and defended

  • A new era has begun in international relations, one earmarked by a black-and-white division between good and evil, one in which you’re either ‘against us or against us’.

“All that happened after 11 September 2001 must be seen as a struggle between good and evil—because one is bad, everything we do must be good. That is not only skewed rhetoric from powerholders who [are undermining] their moral position through a perverse hardening in their own wrong approach and geopolitical blunders, it is also a last means to seal the mouth of the critics. You see the same with the opponent, who continuously compares the Israelis with the Nazis. That is the problem: everyone [sees] himself as a fighter against fascism. [2]

The ‘us’ can be capitalised and read as ‘the US. And it is this very outlook on the world that the US today, as then, stands at odds with many countries, especially the European counter-balance across the Atlantic

“Europeans have had enough of war for good, and believe that their peace-through-talking is an enlightening example. Americans live in a Hobbesian world, in which goodness is not the normal [state of affairs] and peace is laid down with the hard hand if necessary.”[3]

  • Threats can be taken out before they actually become one, under the new established doctrine of pre-emptivism. But this applies only for big powers.

  • International law on war, peace and prisoners has been openly flouted undermined, because the world’s only superpower operates beyond the bounds of the law in a network of secret prison cells, concentration camps and torture chambers which are ‘not-in-my-backyard’.

  • Fundamental freedoms of (free) expression, privacy, personal integrity can be downgraded each time the terror alert level is upgraded. Democratic governments can now justify random searches, eavesdropping, spying in the name of intelligence gathering and national security…or quite simply without the need to give a reason.

  • International travel, especially with the plane, is increasingly becoming a hassle due to heightened security alerts, as passengers are increasingly wary and suspicious of who is sitting next to them (especially those with a dark(er) complexion). But the question is how far do you go?

“Everyone understands that hand luggage can not be banned in a metro or train, not even after the attacks in London, Madrid and Mumbai. Why [can they be banned] in planes then?”[4]

  • Social integration and dialogue between different population, cultural and religious groups in our multi-culutral society have been seriously hindered, and at times burst into open confrontation and violence against one another as churches and mosques are set on fire. Thus the ‘them’ against ‘us’ feeling is not just an element of international relations.

Ivo Daalder[5] illustrates a number of winners and losers from the aftermaths of 911:


  • Islamic jihadism, once an obscure and fringe element has suddenly been thrust into the limelight and elevated to a new threat labeled “Islamic fascism”. More and more moderate (and young) Muslims are attracted to the hatred and twisted interpretations preached by extremist imams. Coupled with increasing Islam-bashing, the already disenfranchised positions of Muslims in the west in terms of their social and employments prospects, as well as the incursions in the Middle East, Israel’s actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the blunders of Abu Graib, Guantanamo Bay.

  • A blind eye is turned to Pakistan for its nuclear ambitions in the exchange for support and intelligence in the ensuing War on Terror. The likes of North Korea and Iran have been able to develop real potentials for enriching plutonium, while the US sought for fictitious weapons of mass destruction and became bogged down in the mess in Iraq.

  • China is another obvious winner, rising silently in the East economically and politically, while the US and the ‘west’ busy themselves starting and trying to end the ‘international’ struggle against Islamic extremism and the quagmire of the Middle East. With its newly found power, China has been able to expand its influence in the developing world, to scour poor(er) countries for much needed resources, and form a coalition of non-aligned, non-interested regimes which are characterised by oppression and tyranny.


  • Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, because it has lost much of its organisation and power after the Afghan campaign. Though, personally I think both bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were winners in losing, since they managed to champion a cause which much of the Muslim world has more or less accepted as legitimate against the (over)reaction of the West after 911. Whether or not Muslims actually endorse or would encourage it is another matter, but on the whole bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s legacies live on, and will continue to inspire aspiring terrorist cells, as well as attract disgruntled Muslims living in the democracies of the ‘west’.

“Embittered, fanatic and vengeful the people who [are in resistance] move into the world, in search of retribution, not only against the regimes that have misshaped them, but also against the West, which has supported the dictators of the region in the interest of ‘stability’.”[6]

  • Neo-cons, arguing for a more aggressive and assertive American foreign policy resulted in an ill-founded and ill-prepared invasion (and later occupation) of Iraq. Saddam is toppled, but increasingly civil war between Shites and Sunnis are looming. Saddam’s tyranny was perhaps replaced by a foreign tyranny. And the recent (non)action in the war in Lebanon (not to mention possible war plans against a defiant Iran), as well as standing staunchly by Israel despite (again) disproportionate reaction to the kidnappings of two soldiers underline the neo-cons’ self-interested agenda.

  • The US is a big (perhaps the biggest) loser, in terms of the way it saw its international support, standing, credibility and power rise immediately after the 911 attacks, and then dramatically fall in a series of blunders and mishaps. Sympathy directly after 911 was short lived, and increasingly people see the US as a colossus trying to stamp out ants with its disproportionate show of force, coercion and indiscriminate means, and in the process sowing my insecurity and instability than the (empty) promises of freedoms and democracy would have you believe

“Internationally the understanding that you cannot effective fight radical Islam by sending in the army has now seeped through. It is not the so-called appeasers who have been naïve in the last couple of years, but the self-proclaimed Churchills, who, blinded by their own rhetoric (“the values of freedom”) have unleashed a civil war, agonised countries like Iran and North Korea, and given terrorism worldwide a vital impulse.” [7]

[1] Juan Cole, ‘De oorlog tegen het terrorisme is onafzienbaar’ [The War on Terror is endless], Opinie & Debat, p21, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[2] Bas Heijne, ‘Is het nu weer gezellig?’ [Is it cosy again now?], Opinie & Debat, p23, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[3] Marc Chavannes, ‘Verrast door onze bondgenoot? Echt?’ [Surprised by our ally? Really?], Opinie & Debat, p18, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[4] Maarten Huygen, ‘Na 11 September is er te veel begrip voor hinderlijke passagierscontrole’ [After September 11 there is too much understanding for restrictive passenger checks], Opinie & Debat, p19, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[5] Ivo Daalder, ‘Winnars en verliezers van 11 September’ [Winners and losers of September 11], Opinie & Debat, p17, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[6] Mai Yamani, ‘We zijn niet meer allemaal Amerikanen’ [We are no longer all Americans], Opinie & Debat, p18, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[7] Bas Heijne, ‘Is het nu weer gezellig?’ [Is it cosy again now?], Opinie & Debat, p23, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

‘Nous sommes tous Americains’

Some five years ago front page of the French Le Monde ran with the headline ‘Nous sommes tous Americains’ [We are all Americans]. It was an expression of solidarity of the (rest) of the (western) world with the horrendous events which thrust the US into a period of state of shock and victimisation. But within weeks that wounded pride turned into fuel for aggression, revenge, and eventually a blank cheque for the US to do as it pleases, even it meant flagrantly flaunting the established norms of international law and politics. We’ve gone from the ‘with us or against us’ speech to the Axis of Evil address, each further entrenching the sense of division between regions, cultures and forces in this battle for hearts and minds.

The chief editor of Le Monde today argues that none of us could be American, not with the behaviour of the US after 911:

“The shock of 9/11 lured a reflex of unity and consensus. Now, five years later, we must establish that that capital has been wasted, thrown away, abused. Seldom has such a discrepancy presented itself between a certain historical event and the capacities of the man who as the first to be present have had to react to it: president Bush. As much as the former is so serious, the intellectual and strategic qualities of the American president is so weak.”

Weak, not because of the strength and aggressiveness of his reaction, but because of how the Bush administration tarnished the image of the US as a harbinger of peace and security and realigned the world order on their own terms:

“The free world after 1945 was rebuilt on two fundamentals: ‘containment’ and development. While the Soviet empire had to be [tamed], at the same time the development of democracies had to be promoted through free exchange.

But what has George Bush jr now decreed? Pre-emptive action, preventative war instead of containment. That has changed everything. And further, an increasingly protectinistic stance, which hinders every worldwide [attempt to solve problems]—for example through the resistance against the Kyoto protocol.

[…] We may not loose sight of who committed the attack (Al-Qaeda), and with which means (mass terrorism) and with which aim: calling a halt to every democratic development in the Islamic countries , and dragging these countries [into] the ‘holy war’.

Nothing would be more harmful than attaching ourselves to the idea of a clash of civilisations, exactly at the moment [when] the principal front is actually being formed in the struggle between regressive and progressive forces within the Islamic universe, this obliges us to a fundamental solidarity with the United States. But it forces us, Europeans, to also ensure that together we put more weights on the scale—far more than the influence that we have should be remain divided.”[1]

How else has the Bush regime squandered away the unprecedented sense of unity and solidarity shown by the rest of the world towards the US?

“For the American government every action in the drama of the War on Terror —Afgahnistan, Iraq, the Palestine and Hezbollah—[was an isolated event]. But the public that breathlessly followed Al-Jazira and other Arabic satellite broadcasters in front of the tube, the diverse battlefields of the War on Terror to gradually look like a chain of events in an all encompassing conspiracy against Islam.

Worse was that America wedged war under the banner of democracy. Every hope of the parties involved in democracy, be it secular or Islamic, has in the meantime been buried under the ruins or wiped away in the bloodbaths of Baghdad, Beirut and Kandahar.

[…] America, like so often, has left them out in the cold and continued to support regimes that oppressed them. American could simply not relaise its scenario for the promotion of democracy.”[2]

It is no surprise why American foreign policy seems to be increasingly isolationist and unilateral. Already back in 1997, the neo-cons in the current administration (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz) pledged to “make the case and rally support for American global leadership.” Elsewhere, a more assertive (also read aggressive) American foreign policy is advocated to ensure ‘world mastery’, and to ensure that international politics is conducted and preserved that are friendly to “our security, our prosperity, and our principles”. ‘Our’ here of course refers to the US.

Clash of Civilisations?

While many Muslims may see the US (re)action to 911 as a direct attack, and at times insult, to their way of life and religion, the question to ask is whether Huntington’s doom-scenario of ‘clash of civilisations’ is being realised. Is the current conflict unleashed after 911 a new break from the past, or a continuity of US foreign policy, only with more assertiveness and aggression under the watch of neo-con hawks? University of Michigan Historian Juan Cole argues ‘no’:

[According to recent polls] a great deal of the Islamic world view democracy as the best form of government. […] The only area in which the Islamic [population] indicate that it maintains another yardstick than the United States and Europe is that of the norms for sexual behaviour, and [especially] the acceptance of homosexuality. In other words: the Muslims reject Holloywood-morality—just like the American conservative and evangelical circles. […] It is a clash of policy. […] [American] occupation of Iraq [has become] another point of irritation: the Islamic world does not believe that Iraq would be better off through American intervention. When Muslims speak of ‘democracy’, they seem to mean ‘autonomy’ and ‘national independence’, and they see western interference in Islamic affairs as betrayal of democratic ideas.

September 11 and the American reaction to it have deepened [this] policy gap, but they did not cause a clash of civilisations.[3]

The professor goes to argue that in fact 911 did not change the course of US policy, and if it did change anything, it was to harden and solidly provide the necessary fuel to pursue a ‘strike hard’ policy against unwanted regimes.

“without the attacks the [US] government had [tried to topple Saddam] with limited bombardments, a domestic operation or a coup attempt. Because of the attacks, the long-lasting war on the ground in the Middle East suddenly became acceptable. But that energy has evaporated now, and fundamental changes in American policy have hardly been brought back.

Despite all the stories about a ‘War on Terror’, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, the monarchies of the Persian Golf, Morocco and Pakistan are still good allies of the US. […] Washington already had Iran and Syria in the visor well before September 11. the plans of the American government to liberate the Middle East and to democratise have brought not much more than a failed state in Iraq, an unstable Lebanon which is being torn by Hezbollah and Israel, and experienced no promising sounds from allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”[4]

Freedom vs Terrorism

As I wrote elsewhere, terrorism’s is not just in the number of times it succeeds, but in the fear that it galvonises, regardless of the scale or success of its operations. And it is this fear that can freeze the very basic principles of democratic societies that poses the greatest threat to civilian lives.

“For a successful terror attack with many victims requires careful planning, creativity, the exploitation of the vulnerabilities of the opponent and a sizeable portion of luck. To make a terror attack fail […] you also need careful planning, creativity, the exploitation of the vulnerabilities of the opponent and luck. Only, the terrorists have the advantage. They can fail dozens of times; but one big success more than makes up for the failures."[5]

How western democracies in the US and Europe respond to this threat, and try to prevent it without curtailing the very principles for which they stand for, will be testing of who triumphs.

The debate that has gone on until now was greatly an unenlightening clash of ideological extremes, whereby one camp rejects every adaptation of the old model of deterrence and the maintenance of civil liberties, while the other party argues for the necessity of preventing terrorism […] as more important than traditional worries about civil liberties.”[6]

Terrorism’s strength is drawn from the roots of society, especially appealing to disgruntled youths who have been marginalised, or made to feel marginalised, by the rest because of their apparent differences in terms of religious belief, skin colour and cultural identity. And the fact that terrorists are perversely celebrated in life and in death gives them an advantage over democracies which must adhere to strict norms which cannot be compromised.

“[Terrorism] has an unlimited number of recruits at its disposable, because radical Islam has created an unique culture (or religion) of death, in which suicide is glorified, person who commits suicide posthumously becomes a rock star after whom places are named, and his (or her) family would be royally compensated [and celebrated]

[…] Democracies may profit from a strength in weapons; but terrorists compensate that difference through [the fact] that they have no moral limitations in performing their deed. While [contrarily] democracies do have to maintain high moral and juridical norms in the fight against terror.”[7]

Patriotism, manipulation and deceit

Immediately after 911 the whole of the US was wounded beyond belief. Because truly no single event in the past decades has shocked the country to a standstill. Newspapers, TV networks, radio broadcast talked about the need to unite together as one against terrorism and threats to the American way of life. Even today, five years on, people are moved to tears as they think back to the day when the heart of America was struck so unexpectedly and devastatingly.

“The feeling of permanent security on the American continent was shattered. Like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour sixty years ago which severed a feeling of unassailable security. Everything was different, nothing [could be talked about], the American soul was put on the electric fence. Almost all American media was dragged into the frenzy of national mourning, wounded pride and fear for an enemy without comprehensible values, and with a telephone number.”[8]

But it is a dangerous phenomenon. It seems there are few who dare to reflect on, let alone openly criticise why it is that America was under attack. 911 thrust the US and a lot of its people into a permanent state of self-pity and a newly found comfort of being a victim. Many American cannot understand why so many hate the US to the extent it is the target of terrorism. It comes from a combination of pure ignorance, wilful isolationism, media manipulation of news and reporting, and a selective memory when it comes to the effects US foreign policy has on the rest of the world.

“[Today] the criticism of America is more vicious than ever before—in the media and in the general public discourse. That criticism is not surprising: the combination of ignorance and arrogance was always a potentially deadly element in the way in which America interacted with the rest of the world. The certainty to take on the whole world militarily, has strengthened those factors to unpleasant proportions.

[…] Americans not only know even less about the rest of the world [today], but also believe that they need to know even less. Why should you be interested in the rest of the rest when, after all, they all want to be like you? And if groups of people in the rest of the world suddenly, even in a violent manner, show that they do not want to be like them [the Americans], America cannot see it other than a sinister handicap, of which those peoples should be healed from as quickly as possible. Whether they want that or not.”[9]

An afraid and unstable America is one in which voices of dissent and criticisms of its actions at home or abroad are quick to be dismissed as unpatriotic and disrespectful of an administration doing its utmost to secure America’s interests and security. At best those who criticise are loonies and leftists. At worst, critics can be labelled as terrorist sympathisers, or even terrorists themselves.

The land of the free and the home of the brave, as the US defines itself in the last sentence of the national anthem, was after 9/11 not [able to receive] criticism on the nation and its leader. America under Attack, according to the banner of CNN on 9/11. Bush said so that day too, and that became the national analysis: fighting back was the only option.

Afterwards comformism determined the public debate […]”[10]

Watch works produced as a tribute to the events of 911 (such as United 93) and you’ll soon get the sense of how deep this emphasis on America’s courage and determination is embodied even in the lives and actions of ordinary and innocent civilians.

War to end all wars

Almost immediately after terrorists struck America, the country declared war, a war which would later evolve to an all encompassing War on Terror. But traditionally war can only be declared against another state, or at the very least an identifiable threat. According to Lawrence Wilkerson, the Chief of Staff of then Secretary of State Colin Powell, this choice of words was not a coincidence. One that would be a blank cheque for the president to do as he pleases.

“ ‘We said to each other: you cannot win a war against a method. Terrorism will always continue to exist […] So came the catastrophic decision into place to begin a war an end to which there would never be.’

Later he discovered […] important principles for the use of ‘war’. It gave the president as commander-in-chief unlimited competences—at least according to himself—to enact far reaching anti-terror measures without consultation with the Congress. ‘He could behave like a dictator’”[11]


· Visit this site for an excellent comic version of the events of 911 and immediate reactions thereafter

· Clinton, 9/11 and the Facts

Five years later, the questions surrounding what exactly happened on September 11, and why they were allowed to happen, remain unsettled. A recent national poll conducted by Scripps Howard/Ohio University states that more than one third of Americans believe that Bush's government either actively assisted in the 9/11 attacks, or allowed them to happen so as to create a justification for war in the Middle East.

The New York Post, reporting on this poll, stated, "Widespread resentment and alienation toward the national government appears to be fueling a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories about the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Seventy percent of people who give credence to these theories also say they've become angrier with the federal government than they used to be."

"Thirty-six percent of respondents overall," continued the Post, "said it is 'very likely' or 'somewhat likely' that federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them 'because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.' 'One out of three sounds high, but that may very well be right,' said Lee Hamilton, former vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also called the 9/11 Commission). His Congressionally-appointed investigation concluded that federal officials bungled their attempts to prevent, but did not participate in, the attacks by al-Qaeda five years ago. 'A lot of people I've encountered believe the U.S. government was involved," Hamilton said. 'Many say the government planned the whole thing.'"

[1]Jean-Marie Colombani [Chief editor of Le Monde], ‘We zijn niet meer allemaal Amerikanen’ [We are no longer all Americans], Opinie & Debat, p18, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[2] Mai Yamani, ibid.

[3] Juan Cole, ‘9/11 was een botsing van beschavingen’ [9/11 was a clash of civilisations], Opinie & Debat, p18, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[4] Ibid.

[5] Alan M. Dershowitz, ‘Een zelfmoordterrorist kun je niet straffen—maar hoe ver gaan we in preventie?’ [You cannot punish a suicide terrorist—but how far do we go in prevention?], Opinie & Debat, p23, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[6] Alan M. Dershowitz, ‘Een zelfmoordterrorist kun je niet straffen—maar hoe ver gaan we in preventie?’ [You cannot punish a suicide terrorist—but how far do we go in prevention?], Opinie & Debat, p23, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad.

[7] Alan M. Dershowitz, ‘Een zelfmoordterrorist kun je niet straffen—maar hoe ver gaan we in preventie?’ [You cannot punish a suicide terrorist—but how far do we go in prevention?], Opinie & Debat, p23, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[8] Marc Chavannes, ‘Amerikaanse media slikte kritische vragen in na ‘911’’ [American media swallowed critical questions after ‘911’], Zaterdags Bijvoegsel, p44, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[9] Jan Donkers, ‘De Amerikaanse Droom is een illusie. Gelukkig maar.’ [The American Dream is an illusion. Fortunately.], p78-82, 8 July 2006, Vrij Nederland

[10] Tom-Jan Meeus, ‘Nog nooit zo alleen’ [Never before so alone], Zaterdags Bijvoegsel, p45, 10 September 2006, NRC Handelsblad

[11] Ibid.

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