The 9/11 Decade
- September 10, 2011
Tomorrow it will be exactly ten years since 19 deluded fanatics murdered nearly 3,000 people in the United States. After the last fortnight of documentaries, interviews, profiles, newsclips, ‘9/11 short stories’, a special ‘9/11 Question Time’, BBC broadcasts from ‘ground zero’ and a torrent of opinion pieces in the press and on the Internet, you would have to be extremely detached from the outside world not to know this.
Much of the media coverage has focused on the anniversary as an opportunity for remembrance as well as reflection on September 11 and its consequences. There have been interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors telling their stories and remembering their friends and loved ones, tv programmes about the ‘children of 9/11’ and a documentary about the 40-odd twins who lost their brothers and sisters in the World Trade Centre.
I see nothing wrong with using the anniversary as an opportunity for remembrance and reflection. What took place on September 11 was a crime against humanity and an epochal historical event, whose catastrophic consequences have yet to be played out – regardless of the extra-judicial killing of Osama bin Laden that has been hailed by the Obama administration and the media as some kind of ‘closure’ to coincide with the anniversary.
But the focus on the victims of 9/11 tends to obscure the massive death toll resulting from the wars and other ‘counterterrorist’ interventions launched in response to the attacks, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and the other tributaries of the ‘war on terror.’
For most of us this was a strange war, a war that we watched on television or heard about in the car on the Today programme on our way to work. We were often told during the last ten years that ‘the world had changed’ as a result of 9/11 and that we were faced with a maniacal and evil enemy that was intent on destroying our ‘way of life.’
Yet for most of us in the Western world at least, this war was a distant background narrative. We went about our business. We shopped. We went on holiday. We dutifully handed over our suntan lotion and yoghurt pots to security checks at the airports, because we knew, as one airport security officer once solemnly informed me “it’s a very dangerous world.”
We knew this of course, because our leaders never missed an opportunity to remind us. And because it was so dangerous many of us accepted whatever our governments told us was necessary to ‘make us safe’, whether it was flying terrorist suspects to Syria to have the soles of their feet beaten with cables, or unleashing another round of shock n’ awe on Iraq in order to prevent Saddam Hussein from killing us in 45 minutes with weapons of mass destruction that he did not have.
In case we were tempted to get complacent, there was a continual flow of terrorspectacles in Madrid, London and other cities. There were endless terror plots, some real and some that were exaggerated or even fictitious, to remind us that ‘the world had changed’ and we were living through an international ‘state of emergency’. And whenever another country experienced ‘its 9/11’, we were told by our leaders that even more radical actions were necessary to protect ‘our way of life’.
Meanwhile arms companies, private military contractors and corporations providing services to the military made vast profits, and so did the bankers and speculators who have done more damage to ‘our way of life’ than Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. And all the time people the death toll as a direct or indirect result of actions and decisions taken by our governments continued to rise across the world.
Seventy-two years ago, on September 1 1939, WH Auden wrote these memorable lines in response to the news that war had broken out:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Tomorrow, the ‘9/11’ decade comes to an end and I suspect that historians – and poets – will not look back on these years with much favour or nostalgia. Because this has really been a period of rancid history, a decade of lies, deceit and fear, of political folly and manipulation on a grand scale, of coarseness, waste and brutality, vengeance, and fanaticism.
So we should remember the victims of September 11. But let’s also remember the soldiers and civilians who have been killed in so many countries in the cascade of wars and pseudo-wars that followed the attacks. Let’s remember the thousands of Afghans killed during and after the toppling of the Taliban, and the hundreds of thousands or perhaps a million dead Iraqis who have died as a result of Bush and Blair’s wars to ‘keep us safe’.
Ten years after it began, the Afghan war is still going on. Eight years after Operating Enduring Freedom, Iraq remains a traumatised and shattered country where people are being killed almost every day. These are also ‘victims of 9/11’ with widows, relatives and children. Most of them will not have documentaries made about them, or interviews and human interest stories about the survivors of suicide bombings or air strikes.
Most of them will never be known to us, and it is unlikely that they will get a mention at the official anniversary ceremony tomorrow.
But if we are even to stand a chance of moving out of our own ‘low, dishonest decade’ and lay the foundations for a better future, we need to acknowledge that they died and pause to wonder why such things happened.