Sowing The Wind: And the whole world has reaped the whirlwind of American wrath.
IT WAS A Wednesday morning, much like any other, ten years ago, when I switched on my television set to witness the fall of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. I stood there, transfixed, as all the air left my lungs. It was as if someone had punched me in the gut.
I wasn’t alone. The blow struck that day connected with the soft emotional tissue of the entire world; and in the ten years that have passed since “9/11”, the entire world has hardened-up.
But not in a good way.
The enormity of the assault upon the United States conferred upon its Al Qaeda perpetrators a momentary equivalence that proved to be entirely spurious. Yet, at the time, and when the inevitable American counter-attack came, it was enough for people to be convinced that human savagery had become uncontainable, and that all those who sought to “rescue” and “improve” humanity were, ultimately, cheats and liars. After 9/11 and Abu Ghraib, the best thing we, the sparrows of this world, could hope to do was stay out of the hawks’ field of vision.
Which suited the hawks just fine.
Conservative intellectuals and politicians all over the world – but especially in the United States and the United Kingdom – had long maintained that the human animal was wild, vile and in need of constant restraint. Enduring moral fables, insisted the followers of the conservative philosopher, Leo Strauss, were necessary to keep the masses headed in more-or-less the right direction. And for those who stepped out of line there needed to be punishments of sufficient severity pour encourager les autres.
I use the word “fables” advisedly here, because the stories constructed by the men who were empowered by 9/11 did not need to be true – merely motivational. In fact “truth”, with all its unrelenting and indiscriminate powers of illumination, was actually much less helpful than untruth. Those “weapons of mass destruction” – ready for deployment in 45 minutes – were far more effective in mobilising war-fever than any number of tiresome lectures on the geopolitics of middle-eastern oil.
9/11 has cowed and coarsened the quality of public discourse to the point where, increasingly, the wielders of power at home and abroad are treated as forces to be appeased rather than challenged.
We have witnessed some particularly telling examples of this attitude over the past fortnight as conservative academics, politicians and journalists have responded to the investigative journalist, Nicky Hager’s, latest book, Other People’s Wars.
Central to the conservatives’ response is the effort they’ve devoted to shoring up the “moral fables” justifying New Zealand’s involvement in the post-9/11 conflicts. The scorn directed at the book’s author by his fellow journalists shows clearly what a vital role the news media plays in perpetuating the “necessary fictions” so important to New Zealanders’ self-image.
As well they might. The horrors of the 9/11 attacks unleashed, in their turn, many new horrors (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, prisoner rendition, waterboarding, drone-aircraft-assisted assassination) as well as rehabilitating many old ones (carpet-bombing, free-fire zones, collateral damage, extra-judicial killings, mass surveillance of civilians).
Many of these latter evils date back to the United States’ last great exercise in imperial power projection – Vietnam. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that many of the principal architects of the post-9/11 global horror franchise (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld) cut their political teeth in the Nixon Administration. While 9/11 spawned many historical novelties, it also reproduced an equally large – maybe greater – number of continuities.
At the heart of these continuities lies the inescapable fact that the United States remains the planet’s dominant military, economic and cultural power. Like Hitler before him, the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, misread the secular pluralism and cultural heterogeneity of his enemy as signs of weakness. He paid for that miscalculation with his life.
Nevertheless, the attacks carried out in Al Qaeda’s name ten years ago have produced enduring – if unintended – consequences.
It wasn’t just the twin towers that crumpled and fell on September 11 2001. Demolished also was America’s faith in the humane and progressive ideals which for so many centuries had distinguished it from other great empires. Bin Laden’s true triumph came when President George W. Bush was persuaded to tear up the Geneva Conventions and sanction the use of torture.
How tragic that the man occupying the White House on 9/11 lacked the rare moral strength and wisdom of Norway’s Labour Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who, when confronted with the horrific work of Anders Breivik, told his people that the only answer to such violence was “more democracy, more openness”. And who then, using the words of one of Breivik’s intended victims, spoke directly to our broken world:
“If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 September 2011.