At the time I was living in a bedsit in Dunedin. Space was at a premium, and I’d put the TV on my bedside table. Then I fell asleep with it on. It was September 10th 2001.
When I awoke with a splutter at 6am the next morning, I didn’t laugh or cry. I don’t know anyone who laughed and I frankly don’t believe anybody in the civilized world did, however often they insist the contrary. And tears simply didn’t occur to me at the time. My first thought was “Man, that’s cool footage.” It was only six hours later, while I lunched with two computer jocks who had suddenly and unaccountably acquired incisive knowledge of suicide psychology, Islam, aviation technology, civil defense, structural engineering and international law, that it occurred to me that we were dealing with anything of widespread social import.
The 9/11 attacks were atrocities. That is, they were atrocious. Five years of minute examination by the entire population of the world has not diminished the fact that their definitive quality was their deplorably high degree of atrociousness. This point unites John Howard, freshly ground-strafed Afghan peasants, the Prince of Wales and the Christchurch peace activist who wore a balaclava while I interviewed him because he didn’t want the CIA to have his face on file.
Indeed, the only statement more common than “9/11 was an atrocity” is “9/11 was an atrocity but…” The ‘but’ is usually a hinge by which some piss-ant can use the attack as an anthill to piss from – “but they deserved it”, “but they should have foreseen it”, “but it was mostly just stupid Americans, ha ha ha” Speaking as a piss-ant myself, therefore, I feel justified in using the idiom to point out something that the last half-decade has made startlingly apparent. 9/11 was an atrocity, but it was also an atrocious failure.
Five years on it’s easy to forget al-Qaeda’s statements after the attacks – “We didn’t do it and watch out or we’ll do it again.” They were full of warnings about how there was worse to come and that America and its allies would soon fall before a wave of righteous violence. This hasn’t happened. Western civilization in general, and America in particular, endures. Children play. Students study. Petroleum flows, at least for the moment. Media culture remains wholly pluralistic; diatribes by Fox News scriptwriters and book-length tantrums by anti-American crybabies are openly sold, often from the same shelf, while Team America sits in the DVD section brilliantly deflating both. The Patriot Act sounds scary, but you’ll notice the Dixie Chicks lost audience goodwill, not their citizenship, liberty, lives or even record deals. The maelstrom of blood and fire al-Qaeda warned us about has turned out to consist of various mawkish stand-up routines about how having your nail scissors confiscated at the airport is annoying. This is not a weakened, frightened or damaged society.
Nor are we a world at war. In a world at war, pretty much everybody’s boyfriend heads to the battlefront and a noticeable proportion of them don’t come back. In a world at war, the economies of continents are re-organised to keep the troops supplied, people dig air raid shelters in their backyards, peaceniks are ignored rather than interviewed and cities, rather than buildings, get demolished. In a world at war, there is no wriggle room for civilians or even civil society. This situation occurred within living memory and was inconvenient for all concerned. It will take more than an act of human sacrifice by frustrated ideological throwbacks to make it happen again.
That said, Osama bin Laden often finds himself compared to the guy who brought it about – Adolf Hitler. And the comparison makes sense insofar as both men can also be characterized, ultimately, as retrograde ideologues working out their frustrations through idiotically self-destructive outrages. But Hitler, despite his lack of ideological discipline, knew not to give it all up in one hit. He fought for six years, managing not only to conquer Europe and become the defining factor in the lives of a billion people, but to lose it all again and get Germany destroyed and then, most productively or all, commit suicide. bin Laden, by comparison, has fought for three or four widely-separated days, inspired numerous people to commit suicide and accomplished almost nothing.
9/11 did provoke the War On Terror. Here pundits have a point when they say America ignored the Arab world for too long. This conflict was long overdue and has become all the more difficult as a result. But this in itself has not advanced al-Qaeda’s agenda or made things easier for them. There’s a school of thought that holds that al-Qaeda is less about fighting America than it is about fighting moderate Islam, and the way the War On Terror has panned out backs that up. If we discount the awful – but, in military terms, marginal – attacks on London and Madrid, al-Qaeda has fought its nasty little excuse for a war in Islamic countries, chiefly the countries Rumsfeld always said they’d be in anyway. And they’re not exactly prospering there either. I notice, for example, that it’s not Marines or members of the Iraqi Security Forces who’re hiding behind masks and websites, making their press releases from basements and having their weapons smuggled in through tunnels under the closed border with Syria. Meanwhile anyone with any doubts about who has the moral high ground in the War On Terror might want to ask a leader of one of Iraq’s blackly comic lolly scramble of insurgent groups when he plans to investigate allegations that his agents killed or mistreated Iraqi civilians.
The War On Terror will, of course, be a long-term thing. Contrary to popular truism, Bush never suggested otherwise. But five years in, while things haven’t gone according to plan – name me a war that has – its progress is interesting to reflect on. The Taliban haven’t been rubbed out, but they’re back where they belong, scampering around in the hills fretting over how many bullets they have left, while someone connected to the real world runs Kabul. The Iraqis got to choose their own path. Sadly that path involved a harebrained sectarian conflict likely to destabilize the country for years yet. It’s hard to see how that’s America’s fault, but hopefully they’ll stick around and help to sort it out. And besides, Iraq, troubled and uncertain, functions. Elections were held. A government was eventually formed. And a country ‘consumed’ by civil war would not have time to go to the international community and, without even any help from Bob Geldof, successfully negotiate a massive debt-relief deal.
Meanwhile the public’s frankly morbid fascination with the war has provoked a hopelessly muddled public attitude towards the media. Last February I sat behind an American scholar at a conference presentation about political spin in ancient Rome. During the Q&A, he got up, complained with little introduction that because of spin he didn’t know anything about Iraq, then spouted a headache-inducing flurry of awful statistics about the war. Where’d he learn that? If Bush exercises Machiavellian control over the world’s media, why is the news from Iraq is always so bloody horrible? Partly, obviously, it’s because some bloody horrible stuff is happening there at the moment. Partly, though, I suspect it’s because muckrakers are basically just people. Chronicle something as serious and important as a war and you might avoid bias and misinformation, but you probably wouldn’t be able to avoid thinking of yourself as serious and important too. You’d feel a serious, important obligation to your serious viewers and important readers. And as such, you’d obviously have to use serious, important expressions, expressions like ‘massacre’, ‘escalating’, ‘innocent victims’ and ‘Vietnam’. But just try working them into a story about legislative debates.
And while Iraq’s organized crime syndicates provide John Campbell and Robert Fisk with a steady stream of things to sound serious and important about, their sympathizers and suppliers have lost traction across the Islamic world. Egypt has finally held elections worthy of the name. After seeing what Bush was actually prepared to do about nitwits trying to get nukes, Libya flushed its uranium and promised to play nicely. The military occupation that allowed Ba’athist Syria to play Lebanon like a violin for two decades was ended via popular referendum; one might just hope that those Ba’athists themselves do the same before America hits its real targets in Damascus. And recent activities by their patsies Hezbollah has provided useful intelligence on what Iran’s nuclear ambitions amount to . There are some notable exceptions – Somalia is one, Palestine another – but the most unsexy point about this most unsexy of wars is that we are winning.
The fact a lot of people refuse to believe this stems, I think, from the pre-existing idiocies that got me interested in the first place. To a large proportion of the population, especially those who, like me, were born between about 1975 and 1985, 9/11 had recognizable symbolic power. Pulp messiahs from ET to Peter Jackson primed us for insightful young outlaws outsmarting and overturning an overarching establishment, and here it was, we hoped, in real life. We loved it. It was “I don’t like McDonalds” with better special effects. Ever since, we’ve dedicated more intellectual and emotional energy to examination of the attack and its consequences than any other pursuit except getting laid.
That’s hardly surprising. Consider how much the generation of ‘Creep’, ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ and ‘I’m Not Okay’ enjoys bleating about how nobody understands us. Every one of us, without evident exception, is on the lookout for some way to demonstrate that we’re something more complicated than an unexceptional, chubby, cash-strapped, twenty-something suburbanite with bad eating habits and inappropriate designs on a classmate . The War On Terror ranked alongside Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar as an opportunity to do so. Being able to point to footage of dead Iraqis while sniveling about how awful life is has been tremendous and edifying fun. Even compared to taking Marilyn Manson seriously, however, loudly declaiming the War On Terror and suggesting that 9/11 was somehow justified is an obnoxious and unconvincing way of demonstrating personal depth. Anyone who’s ever thought about this, rather than just blogged about it, knows that the battle for solemnity must be fought within. Our alienation is real, it hurts, and it’s a product of many things – ridiculous expectations of adulthood, infantile self-mythology, unconscionable sexual license, booze, the irresponsible shit who walked out on Mum. Claiming it’s a product of the War On Terror is just emo with a minor in POLS.
Perhaps this was Osama bin Laden’s intention – get us to stick our noses so deeply into Fahrenheit 9/11 that we won’t notice when he fulfills his own preposterous daydream of moving into the royal palace in Saudi Arabia. If so, he may have had one strategic victory. For every deluded patsy he’s got wearing a suicide harness, he’s got five of my idiot friends, classmates, colleagues and siblings wearing an I Hate America-type badge. The most noticeable downstream effect 9/11 had on my life was send my generation and its attendant aging hipsters – Rammstein, Te Radar, Helen – into a sustained fit of petulant, vapid, pointless self-dramatization from which a lot of us will probably never recover. Dispiriting and tiresome as that is, however, it’s a hollow victory. As whinging young idiots have been saying for fifty years now, nobody listens to us.
During the Reagan Administration, hawkish Americans coined a highly unofficial slogan – “he who fucks with the eagle best learn how to fly.” Twenty years later, and five years after 9/11, this has never been more true. Osama wanted to fuck with the eagle, so he sent some guys to learn to fly. They did something disgusting. But rather than changing the world, subsequent events reinforced existing truths. Losers don’t flinch from long, difficult, probably intergenerational tasks such as rooting out unacceptable, stupid criminal activity in the sillier parts of the world. And winners don’t hijack aeroplanes. Winners have an air force.