9/11, five years on: what has been learned?

David Hayes
3 September 2006

The attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 were the prelude to a still unfolding global conflict. In the week of their fifth anniversary, openDemocracy asked our contributors and other writers to reflect briefly on what they have learned since the "two hours that shook the world". 

Sidney Blumenthal

Noha Mellor

Arthur Ituassu

Jihad Fakhreddine

Vesna Goldsworthy

Faisal Devji

Michele Wucker

Godfrey Hodgson

Grahame Thompson

Alexander Rondeli

Patrice de Beer

Frank Vibert

John Palmer

Adam Szostkiewicz

Ivan Krastev

Kyi May Kaung

Ivan Briscoe

Saskia Sassen

Mariano Aguirre

David Theo Goldberg

Mary Kaldor

Abdul-Rehman Malik

KA Dilday



Sidney Blumenthal, journalist and author

What are we fighting for?

A few things I have learned since 9/11 are:

▪ that cadres of neo-conservative ideologues were ready and waiting to transform the constitutional foundation of American government

▪ that they had clearly devised plans to use the power over the law to rescind and restrict rights in the interest of concentrated unaccountable authority in the executive (which after 9/11 is subsumed completely by the identity of commander-in-chief, or what Bush calls "war president")

▪ that the radical overthrow of constitutional checks and balances, of the longstanding American view of rights, and of the rule of law notably began with abrogation of Article 3 of the Geneva convention of 1949 on the treatment of prisoners of war forbidding cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners (thus rolling back a policy that began with George Washington's order for the humane treatment of captured Hessian soldiers during the American revolutionary war).

I have also observed that, more or less, for much of the press, Bush's radical presidency has created realities too radical and therefore dangerous to report, perhaps especially the persistent campaign of intimidation against the press. This is yet another aspect of the effort to derange the constitution, in this case to vitiate - by displays of power, condign threats, and manipulations of indulgences of status - the check and balance guaranteed under the first amendment.

I have also learned that virtually all serious people in the senior military, intelligence community and law enforcement, not only in the United States but throughout Europe, do not believe in President Bush's "war on terror" as he describes it, or believe that it is or can be effective in meeting its end. And I have observed that few of these considered views have entered a highly constricted public debate - a narrowing of democracy that is essential to Republican preservation of power. President Bush speaks about "freedom" and "liberty" as his objects. So what is it we are fighting for? The extension of power of Bush's radical presidency?

Which reminds me of President Lincoln's statement, on 18 April 1864, during the civil war: "The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing."

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A post-9/11 openDemocracy debate that can be accessed free in our archive:

"The politics of global justice"

Among the highlights:

Timothy Garton Ash, "The beginning of the 21st century?"
(13 September 2001)

Paul Gilroy, "The American Jihad"
(18 September 2001)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Bizarre new world"
(18 September 2001)

Tony Borden, "An appeal to international law"
(26 September 2001)

Mary Kaldor & David Held, "New war, new justice"
(28 September 2001)

Tom Nairn, "Black Pluto's door"
(4 October 2001)


Noha Mellor, scholar and writer


Every human life

9/11 was another reminder that the hierarchy of human life determines the mournability of lost lives.

When I first watched the tragedy of 9/11 on TV, I felt overcome by fear. I thought that one man with a heart of darkness, and whose ideas undermined, inter alia, women's autonomy, had triumphed over the Enlightenment ideal of freedom. The TV screen was like a window onto doomsday, with the same tragic scenes repeated over and over again.

Five years later, fear has not been eliminated: it has been intensified. The same Enlightenment ideals seems to be used to exalt the suffering of 9/11 while diminishing that of others, whose self-esteem is shattered in the name of security. "War on terror" is carried out at the expense of equally precious and equally innocent lives, whose loss is hardly commemorated.

We don't need stricter regulations or a stronger army; we all, in east and west alike, need a stronger sense of egalitarianism, in order to see each and every human life as equally worthy.

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Arthur Ituassu, professor of international relations


It seems to me that there is a lack of political language to constitute life as a community in specific spaces and in the multiple relations among them all. There is need for the creativity of political scientists and agents to "invent" different ways of living in a human community, with all its minor environments included. Five years after 9/11, I see violence spread where politics is not.

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Jihad Fakhreddine, media analyst

What's left of We Are All Americans?

Since the emotional pledge in the Le Monde on 12 September 2001 - "We are all Americans" - I have been in futile search for those who will now make such a claim. I was not one them, but I could at least have claimed then: "We all have green cards".

For me, the most intriguing question is: how could the United States administration allow two things to happen: failure to capitalise on the sympathy the world demonstrated towards the US on 9/11, and allowing the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to win the war?

The 9/11 attacks could not have been more than symbolic. Al-Qaida could win neither a military battle nor a war against the US. It did nevertheless achieve the aim of the attacks: to drive an insurmountable psychological wedge between the US and the Arab and Muslim worlds.

I spent the entire 1980s studying and working in the US, and have directed close to twenty-five national public polls in Arab and Muslim countries for the Gallup organisation since 9/11. So I feel that I am a virtual holder of a green card.

But still, upon my arrival at the JFK international airport this spring, the officer of the homeland-security department greeted me by asking: What are you doing here? After waiting for two hours for finger and eye-scanning, I asked for directions to the toilet. The officer who directed me to one, commanded his colleague: Watch him.

As "We are all Americans" becomes a vanishingly rare sentiment, I still hold tightly to my virtual green card, which I strongly believe is a passport for coexisting. All my friends, and even my US-educated wife, wonder why I have not denounced it yet?!

Al-Qaida won the war not by its sheer power, but because of the US's misuse of its own political, cultural, and military power.

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Vesna Goldsworthy, lecturer and writer

New York

The most important thing I learned is how much I love New York and why. It is a cliché to say that it is the most European of American cities - compact and walkable - but in its verticals it is also the most American of cities. If its European compactness and American modernity are also the reasons for its fragility, then so be it: we would be poorer without that beauty. I saw in last new year in Times Square, with tens of thousands of people from every corner of the world who wanted to be there. I have nothing to say about 9/11 five years on. It was the most horrible of days imaginable, but I would like to think that it changed nothing.

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Faisal Devji, author of Landscapes of the Jihad

A global arena

Osama bin Laden declared 9/11 to be a statement of the world's unity. The attacks were a statement of unity because they allowed al-Qaida to demonstrate the world's inter-connectedness by holding everyone in it responsible for Muslim suffering. Bombing America was an announcement of universal complicity, as well as a promise of universal retribution. From now on it would be impossible for anyone to escape the consequences of anyone else's actions.

In this macabre way, 9/11 ushered mankind itself into the glare of history as both its agent and its victim. Until now humanity has existed in history only negatively, as an entity guilty and innocent in turns, but al-Qaida aims at nothing less than forcing humanity to claim responsibility for acts it has hitherto only tolerated or acquiesced in. While bin Laden and his acolytes cannot succeed in this endeavour, their actions demonstrate the coming into existence of a global arena which possesses as yet no institutions or politics proper to itself.

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A post-9/11 openDemocracy debate that can be accessed free in our archive:

"US upside down"

Among the highlights:

Todd Gitlin, "Is this our fate?"
(12 September 2001)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Can America go modest?" (10 October 2001)

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, "Only connect: lessons from Harvard"
(19 December 2001)

Rana Sarkar, "The addiction of optimism" (18 September 2002)


Michele Wucker, author

A renewed commitment

To me, the lesson of 9/11 is how quickly cynicism and complacency supplant the heroism and compassion that tragedy calls forth. For a brief moment in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the world stood with America and Americans stood together. Today, America has lost credibility and goodwill in the eyes of many of the citizens of her major allies. Americans' common sense of purpose soon dissipated as the memory of the attacks became a weapon used to silence dissent and justify crackdowns on immigrants. After five years of fighting over the fate of Ground Zero, the site remains a gaping crater dotted by mud puddles and silent machines, a reminder of resolve dissipated.

Our response should be not to despair but instead to recognise the failures of the past five years and to renew a commitment to the better side of human nature. Heroism and compassion may not be as apparent today as they were rising up in stark relief against the horrors of 9/11, but they have not disappeared. They live in the acts of those who oppose fear and false judgment; those who refuse to surrender their belief in opportunity and liberty; and those who embrace unity even without the need of an enemy, imagined or real, to persuade them that joining together is the only way forward.

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Godfrey Hodgson, journalist

Beyond paralysis

Outrage was a justifiable response to the atrocities of 9/11 on the part of American public opinion. The administration's policy, however, was "worse than a crime, it was a mistake", motivated and justified by hubristic fantasies. It has forfeited much of the goodwill won by generosity and restraint in the cold war, gravely damaged the international system, and prevented common action to confront other urgent and dangerous issues.

I have learned that many Muslims, both in Muslim countries and especially in Europe and America, are more unforgiving of western conduct, especially but not only in relation to Israel, than I had realised. I have learned that American public opinion is deeply divided, with at least half of the electorate, led astray by cynical media, committed to dangerous, because unrealistic and narcissistic, views of America's destiny. I have also learned how divided and impotent Europe is too, and how marginalised by American contempt.

The Democrats seem paralysed, but the other half of American public opinion is coming to understand how wrong Republican policy has been. In November we shall see whether this disastrous episode in America's public life is over. In the meantime, it feels like 1938.

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Grahame Thompson, professor of political economy

Many worlds

The post-9/11 events surely illustrate the difficulty of still thinking there is in principle a single universal sphere into which we can all tap or to which we can all adhere; a common "language" through which we can all properly make sense of each other and negotiate. Rather, they demonstrate that we may well be seeing the emergence of a radical "pluriverse" and not a single "universe" making up the international system.

If this is so, it means that there is no single "cosmos" to which cosmopolitanism, for instance, would be the politically possible answer - the "globe" of globalisation does not exist. We are instead facing several "cosmoses" driven by different gods and others, which in turn drive humans. The question then becomes: "can there be a dialogue of the gods?"

Under such circumstances, peaceful coexistence must be composed anew, and this is likely to take a long-time. In the meantime, can the traditional separation of church from state so carefully crafted in the west - which is in many ways the defining characteristic of liberal pluralism and its measure of peaceful coexistence between what were at one time fratricidally rivalrous religious communities - survive the renewed onslaught from religious fundamentalisms?

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Alexander Rondeli, Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies

The short and the long term

What I have learned since 9/11 is that the cleavage between the western Christian world and the non-western (especially Muslim) world is deepening and that this ideology of hatred and radicalism is taking over. This is going hand-in-hand with what I would call - please excuse this expression - "global redneck-isation." By this I mean the transformation of subtle and complicated problems of survival and development into populist and vulgar visions and slogans.

If we were to use less hypocrisy and a more normative approach to socio-economic and political issues, perhaps we could soften the effects of the current cleavages. We need to stick to at least some universal values, which would put multicultural relationships into a more-or-less clear framework of moral judgment and political behaviour. Extremism and radicalism can be defeated only by superior moral values and behaviour, which have the potential to elicit a similar response among all cultures.

This will take a long time, however. The modern state of affairs is one in which the struggle for supremacy and resources is taking on a new dimension. This normative approach might look idealistic and unrealistic. Maybe the most practical way of addressing these issues in the short run is to strengthen the state and state institutions, making them capable of fighting the most extreme manifestations of cultural and radical malaise.

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A post-9/11 openDemocracy debate that can be accessed free in our archive: "9/11: the 'war on terror"

Among the highlights:

Paul Hirst, "Future war" (18 October 2001)

Frank Vibert, "Three cheers for the Bush doctrine"
(13 February 2002)

Allenna Leonard, "After the cataclysm: a systems analysis"
(27 September 2002)

Mary Midgley, "Understanding the 'war on terrorism'"
(25 October 2002)


Patrice de Beer, journalist

The kings have no clothes

So much has been written about 9/11. So, I'd rather remain at ground-zero level. Though not very hopefully, especially in light of a White House report (dated 5 September 2006) stating that "while America is safer, we are not yet safe".

A nice piece of bureaucratic jargon concealing a dark truth: for all the administrative measures and restrictions of civil liberties imposed in the aftermath of the 9/11 disaster, different government agencies remain unable to work efficiently together. Departmental turf wars are an obstacle in the anti-terror war, and the threat is still there despite the enormous sums of money spent.

Europe is hardly doing better. There is much talk of extending cooperation between national police forces and judiciaries to stop border-crossing by potential terrorists. But nationalist or protectionist feelings have blocked a more rigorous, integrated strategy. We in Europe talk more than we act. Meanwhile, procedural finesses have led courts to set free people linked to al-Qaida or its affiliates.

As a whole, then, the democratic west has shown a dismal inability to reform, insensitivity to emergency, and a tendency to put domestic priorities before the need for a coherent strategy for the survival of our values and way of life. Osama Bin Laden has shown us that our kings - and perhaps we (citizens) too - have no clothes.

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Frank Vibert, European Policy Forum

The case for intervention

After 9/11 came Afghanistan, Iraq, and a large question: the circumstances under which outside intervention in the affairs of an undemocratic government is justified. Iraq offered four principles: the government must be blatantly undemocratic, and constitute a triple threat (to its own people, to neighbouring countries and to the international rule of law). There must also be a dual "reality-check" - the likely effectiveness of intervention, and the prospect of a self-generated internal regime change that would make intervention unnecessary.

Critics of the Iraq intervention have tended to focus on the shortcomings of the prior "reality-check" and avoid the questions of principle.

One way of looking at these principles is to think how they might apply to the most immediate test case: Iran. The country has elements of democracy and its people are intimidated rather than physically terrorised. Nevertheless the present regime in Tehran is a threat to neighbouring countries and to the international rule of law.

Perhaps there would be fewer such cases, and fewer hard and dangerous choices to be made, if the international system were generally more tilted in favour of democracies and less lenient towards undemocratic regimes.

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John Palmer, policy analyst

Europe's critical role

The learnings of the post-9/11 period are six-fold.

First, the scale of the transnational network behind the 9/11 atrocity adds a new thread to the "multiple globalisations" of our period. State terror has long had global outreach. So too, now, does non-state terror.

Second, the fact that the al-Qaida masterminds behind 9/11 survive to play some role in the wider jihadist movement is a striking demonstration of the limits of United States global power. This is a signal that we may be entering a post-imperialist world, because the entry costs needed to sustain worldwide hegemony are beyond the capacity of any actual (or even potential) state power.

Third, the catastrophes of Iraq and Lebanon underline the elements of disintegration at the heart of the US capacity to function as a superpower.

Fourth, the accelerating demise of the US as the alleged sole post-cold-war superpower has left its principal ally and advocate - Blair's Britain - increasing an object of ridicule.

Fifth, the post-9/11 world has confirmed that only variants of Islamist politics seem able to express any energy or vision in the Muslim world. The middle-east autarchies, monarchies and dictatorships look highly vulnerable. The Shi'a version of Islamism may be winning an increasing influence because of its greater capacity than Sunni Wahhabism to embrace aspirations for social progress, human rights and even some form of democracy.

Sixth, the priority surely must be the rehabilitation, reform and radical extension of multilateralism, global political and legal governance - along with the building of a global, democratic demos. In this the European Union has a (perhaps the) critical role to play as exemplar and benchmark.

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Adam Szostkiewicz, Polityka, Warsaw

The core message

About 9/11 I haven't learned much, nor have I found myself surprised. Don't get me wrong: I was shocked and hurt. But the core message which I took was nothing new. First: how vulnerable democracy and high-tech civilisation can be. Second: how unsympathetic some of the citizens of the democratic world can be in a moment of crisis.

Some of the western reactions to 9/11 were as frustrating to me as the very attacks on America. But then I remembered talking to German peaceniks back in the 1980s who could not see any difference between the United States and the Soviet Union, their systems and their agendas. Then I remembered travelling to the west in the mid-1980s when I was, for the first time in my life, let out by the regime to see how it looks and feels. In Paris, I heard comments on my Solidarity movement: fine, but you guys were paid by the CIA and served the Reagan mafia.

With memories like this, one cannot but be a little bit concerned about the future. What 9/11 teaches me is simply that democracy may die when people are not willing to fight for it when compromise fails or is not viable. But this, as I said, is not anything new for a man my age and my background in the heart of Europe.

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Ivan Krastev, Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia

An age of conspiracy

What strikes me about the post-9/11 world are the threatening similarities among the three discourses that largely shape global politics today - anti-terrorism, anti-corruption, and anti-Americanism. All three are "empty boxes", easily filled with vague anxieties and cynically designed political strategies; each is a response to the growing gap between publics and elites. Groups with totally conflicting purposes can exploit all three to serve their own agendas.

Washington adopted a high profile in promoting the anti-corruption agenda, attempting to bypass unfriendly governments by telling civil-society actors that corrupt governments are the problem and using democracy promotion as an instrument to confront the rise of anti-Americanism.

In the case of anti-terrorism, Washington allowed discredited but friendly governments to label their domestic opponents as terrorists in return for support in the global "war on terrorism".

In the case of anti-Americanism, corrupt governments are trying to convince frustrated publics that the United States is the problem for everything that is going wrong in their own countries and in the world. The end result is a world that is marked by the rise of conspiracy theories of any kind and paranoid-style politics. So, personally I feel the post-9/11 world as the age of conspiracy.

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A post-9/11 openDemocracy debate that can be accessed free in our archive:

"9/11: Islamic worlds"

Among the highlights:

Malise Ruthven, "Cultural schizophrenia"
(27 September 2001)

Murat Belge, "Inside the fundamentalist mind"
(4 October 2001)

Navid Kermani, "Roots of terror: suicide, martyrdom, self-redemption and Islam"
(21 February 2002)

Omar al-Qattan, "Disneyland Islam"
(18 October 2002)


Kyi May Kaung, Burmese writer

Everyday learnings

The fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon has come around again. What have we learned? Look at the record.

After 9/11, the Bush administration launched an invasion of Afghanistan, on the grounds that it was harbouring al-Qaida terrorists. The war in that country continues to this day. Osama bin Ladin is still at large and still releasing videos about the Crusaders through al-Jazeera.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found. The war in that country continues to this day. There have been thousands of civilian deaths, and new reasons for the war have arisen to replace the phantom ones given as it began.

These two great learnings are serious enough. There are many smaller ones - from abuses of human rights in prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay to the rise in our shock thresholds about news of war and killing.

A final learning makes all these events worse. This is the growing awareness that the tragedies of the post-9/11 world - violence, suspicion, killing of innocents, maltreatment of the marginal and the weak - are the responsibility of human error and misjudgment, and therefore preventable. Can it really be that the answer to the question "what have we learned" is "nothing at all"?

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Ivan Briscoe, El País (Madrid), English edition

The world's new face

At the time, once the dust and horror has cleared just a bit, it seemed like a landmark. Although no one knew exactly of what: the talk was, if I remember correctly, of global divides to be mended, desert chieftains to be hunted, and a new middle east to build. The last, it would seem, was the only objective that endured in the minds of those entrenched in power via a few poorly-punched ballot papers.

It has proved a landmark, however. Utterly unexpected, inconceivable but to schlock authors - whatever intelligence briefings might have posited - 9/11 built up a new geopolitical reality lightning-quick. Part of it was a simple rediscovery of cold-war normality, now that the 1990s charades of corporate prosperity were terminated: fear at the base, sabre-rattling abroad, and a few stock slogans about freedom from on high. Part was a radical reinvention of past personae: Trotskyists turned to neocons, morally mandated intervention abroad became shock and awe, the political Id deposed the smiling face of reason.

We expected pragmatism in our leaders, but not this: the George W Bush of 2000 never even mentioned foreign policy but for Latin America. The great sociologist Max Weber witnessed the same: according to his wife, he was "profoundly moved ... by the fact that on its earthly course an idea always and everywhere operates in opposition to its original meaning, and thereby destroys itself."

The new face of the world is familiar now. Diplomacy of fists and newspaper small print on the dead in Baghdad are daily events. The glamour of the imperial power has become tawdry. Yet we are only at five years. An unasked question looms: the world's deep currents still push toward material growth and the spread of capitalism. How this is mirrored or distorted by the current jousting of fanatics and bullies (a hiatus, a turning-point, a sideshow?) is surely the greatest issue, and one that will not become clear for years more.

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Saskia Sassen, scholar and author

An empire trapped

Nothing was learned by the current United States administration from that tragic event on 11 September 2001 about the multiple interdependencies of the US with other countries. In an article published by the Guardian the next day, I argued that this was a moment for those wielding immense power in the world – the US government and multinationals, the International Monetary Fund, global banks, and other powerful actors - to interrogate the ways they handle their power.

The reason for such interrogation is not so much because of any direct connection between the attacks and the oceans of deprivation in the world, but because of the many, multiple interdependencies binding them:

“We may think that the debt and growing poverty in the south have nothing to do with the violence in New York and Washington. But they do. (“A message from the global south”, 12 September 2001)

Terrorist suicide-attacks have very specific origins. So does HIV/Aids. And so does the absolute immiseration of one billion people. How we contribute to these conditions and how we handle them can make a big difference. To respond by bombing Iraq was reducing a complex world-map of interdependencies to a one-to-one fist-fight. As is so often the case with quick and dirty responses, it has not worked – nor helped us address so many other aspects of today’s world that need addressing, urgently. The result has been the ultimate entrapment of US power – a massive distortion of the country’s capacities and of the dispositions of so much (though not all) of its citizenry.

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Mariano Aguirre, scholar and activist

Moving backwards

The attacks on the United States have had several political consequences in international and domestic politics. Two are especially relevant.

The first is the systematic and strategic attack on international law and legal regimes governing human rights. The United States administration (with the enthusiastic cooperation of the British government) has used its “war on terror” and war in Iraq as alibis to restrict, cut, reform and diminish the rules of international law and legal instruments for the defence of human rights.

Some academics and commentators argue that greater security can be guaranteed only by restricting democratic freedoms and allowing public authorities to interpret the law in restrictive ways; this includes the use of force (from torture to the launch of pre-emptive wars) without legal checks and public accountability. The logic of these policies and arguments is that violations of human rights become normalised.

The second consequence is that the debate about peace and security that was developed in the 1980s and 1990s came to an end. This had focused on the need to address the roots of armed conflicts, seek a comprehensive definition of security, and find ways to advance cooperation and common security. In its place arrived an ideology-led neo-conservative project in Washington coupled with old-fashioned, state-oriented and nationalist security models. From Washington to Teheran, from Beijing to Moscow – and many points between - there is evidence of this regression. .

Five years after 11 September 2001, the world is less secure and we have moved backwards.

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David Theo Goldberg, scholar

Neo-liberalising 9/11

To say that 9/11 changed our world is a clichéd and forcibly America-centric view of things: cataclysmic events striking other societies - from political to natural disasters - seem not to register as volubly on the mediatised public’s global scale of concern. More deeply, though, 9/11 exacerbated broader political and social forces already underway.

First, neo-liberal commitments - increasingly institutionalised since the 1980s era of Thatcher, Reagan, and Kohl - have transformed the state into a structure focused on the protection of privatised interests from perceived threat: of those deemed not to belong, to have little or no standing, or who are too expensive to care for.

This shift places a premium on security. Neo-liberal states commit to guaranteeing privatised interests the conditions to flourish. This requires extensive policing – both of flows of information, capital, and consumer goods, and of people. The result is an expansion of institutions of violence - military, policing, homeland security. The combination caps the succession of the caretaker or pastoral state of mid-20th-century welfare liberalism to the traffic-cop state of the millennial turn.

At the macro level neo-liberalism expresses itself in terms of the nation over - even at the expense of - the state. The state is to stand for protecting me (and those “like” me, my national family). The rest can be damned. The traditional language and objects of racial humiliation – immigrants and refugees, young Muslim men, nations not in the orbit of acceptable power - are expunged from the neo-liberal state’s terms of reference but return as silent, shadowy figures of potential contamination. There they figure, as threats to the fiscal wellbeing or the social security of the nation, or to the new world order entire.

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Mary Kaldor, Centre for the Study of Global Governance


The 1990s were a hopeful period when it seemed possible to "humanise" globalisation and to establish the international machinery for ending wars. 9/11 brought back the politics of insecurity, which many of us hoped that we had left behind after the end of the cold war.

The world is actually more peaceful now than at any time during the last century, at least partly thanks to those efforts in the 1990s. Even ten years ago, there were more ongoing wars and more people being killed in wars. The terrible slaughter underway in Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently Lebanon still has not reached the levels of killing experienced in the wars in ex-Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda.

The United Nations and the European Union have developed methods and capabilities for sustaining peace agreements even if they have not learned how to deal with the underlying structural conditions that lead to conflict. Today, the risk of dying from disease (HIV/Aids, TB, or malaria) or from a natural disaster (the Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricane Katrina, or the earthquakes in Kashmir and Bam, Iran) is much greater then the risk of dying in war or from a terrorist attack.

Yet we feel less safe. Of course, terrorism means that we in the west experience some of the horror of war; even so, most terrorist incidents take place elsewhere, in Asia or the middle east. But more importantly, we feel less safe because of the rhetoric of the "war on terror". Like the cold war, the war on terror provides a framework for suppressing debate and restricting liberties. The politics of fear allows the political class to sustain itself through appeals to prejudice. The main danger is not being killed by a terrorist but the closing down of reasoned and cooperative approaches to the big global challenges including terrorism itself.

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A post-9/11 openDemocracy debate that can be accessed free in our archive:

"Don't link back"

Among the highlights:

Isabel Hilton, "Semper Fidel"
(25 September 2001)

Anthony Barnett, "Too soon to look back"
(4 September 2002)

Tom Nairn, "Just another country"
(11 September 2002)

Mary Kaldor, "Terrorism as regressive globalisation"
(25 September 2003)

Abdul-Rehman Malik, Q-News

Four lessons

I have learned four lessons in these five years.

First, that there is more than one 9/11. Baghdad, Jenin, Gaza, Beirut, Darfur, Afghanistan, the millions dying of HIV/Aids and preventable poverty are other "ground zeros". In this light, 11 September 2001 was one of a long line of tragedies - including the violent encounters and deadly manipulations that are the contemporary history of Europe and the United States's "engagement" with the rest of the world.

Second, 9/11 has taught me to be a cynic. It is now considered a cliché to say we live in a world of doublespeak. But when we have serious discussions about the effective and legal use of torture and debate in sombre tones whether the recent bloodletting in Lebanon really was the "birth-pangs" of democracy in the middle east - a healthy cynicism is often the only refuge against blinding anger and madness.

Third, 9/11 taught me that we - the many Muslims who saw the rise of a thoroughly modern, literalist, soulless jihadi-creed as terrifying and dangerous - were right. But the knee-jerk vengeance talk of "infinite justice" and "enduring freedom" in response played into its hands.

Fourth, I have learned that even in the rubble of America's "ground zero" not all are equal. Salman Hamdani, a New York emergency worker and American Muslim, was an FBI suspect for months until his pulverised body was recovered from the bowels of the wreckage. Salman died trying to save people while the buildings fell around him. The dead of that day are as diverse as America; the "dark" and the "different" deserve equal commemoration.

For all those who have suffered and lost lives and lived in fear since 9/11, I pray for peace and security, even as that dream seems terribly far.

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KA Dilday, writer

Different worlds

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 the world has changed, an observation so obvious it is akin to saying the sky is blue. But for Americans the changes are the inverse of those for people in the countries invaded after the attacks.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, citizens - at least at a formal, constitutional level - have increased civil liberties, among them freer access to information, more freedom of speech, and less fear of random imprisonment. Yet non-state sponsored crime has increased in these countries and citizens live in daily fear of renegade attack, random bombings or guerrilla abductions.

In the United States, people have fewer civil liberties and less confidence in the liberalism of their democracy. Americans can no longer buy a book without fearing that their reading tastes will be reported to authorities, nor speak on the phone without wondering if the government is listening. People in the United States can disappear - stolen away to a secret prison, confined for months without glimpse of friend, family or attorney, or even being charged with a crime. And for Americans of the Muslim faith or of Arab descent the fear of such encroachments is amplified.

Yet in daily life there is the semblance of safety. Americans undergo more routine security checks and there are many more police officers keeping guard in public places. The increased presence of law-enforcement personnel has no doubt contributed to the steadily declining crime rate since 2001 in large US cities.

Yet it seems that none of us are happy with the changes we have wrought during these last five years; not Iraqis nor Afghans nor Americans. And the one thing we have learned since 11 September is that fear, uncertainty and anger have taken heartily to globalisation. As long as one person, anywhere, is dissatisfied, no one, anywhere, feels safe.

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How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Josh Rudolph Fellow for Malign Finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy 

Further speakers to be announced

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