There are few events in history that are truly inescapable, penetrating and global. Revolutions come to mind, world wars and spectacular natural catastrophes as well. Despite its relatively local impact, the terror attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 have been turned into such a global event.
In fact, 9/11 has - as the media coverage of its tenth anniversary shows - been “marketed” as an instantly recognisable worldwide brand: an epithet for terror, destruction and spectacular cruelty. This is the biggest single impact of 9/11: globalised violence. 9/11 means many things to different people, but today it can’t be associated with anything positive, ethical, or humane. After all, who would say, “I was born on 9/11”?
Yet like any other global event, 9/11 has been the midwife of something new. It was the first example of postmodern terror organised and executed within the networked structures of a globalising world order that contracts the transaction of violence beyond space. Geographical distance is not a security guarantee anymore, and war has ceased to be a state of exception. Consequently, as a global event, 9/11 cannot be mourned in isolation. After all, it also delivered the “war on terror” which devastated Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently Pakistan too.
On 7 October 2011 (10/7, according to the American style), the war on terror will enter its tenth year. Globalised violence: 9/11 contracted the space between “their” terror and “ours”. We are all implicated in 9/11 and its consequences now. The terror of the day and the decade-long global war it provoked left orphans behind in the United States, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But who counts the dead in the latter three countries? Why don’t we know how many innocent Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis have been killed as a result of our actions? When the numbers blur, the value of life fades away as well.
The next battle
9/11 had immense political ripple effects, and some unlikely beneficiaries. A protest vote against George W Bush and his administration’s pursuit of the war on terror helped propel Barack Obama to the White House.
The war in Afghanistan 9/11 provided the Taliban with a constant stream of fighters who have broadened the conflict into one between a national independence movement and a foreign invader; the Taliban may see all this as a divine blessing.
Iran is another winner, a bitter pill for those who designated it in the aftermath of 9/11 as part of an “axis of evil”. The war on terror eliminated Tehran’s most strident geo-strategic competitors: Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the al-Qaida-Taliban alliance in Afghanistan.
But the most important winners are the hate preachers in “east” and “west”. These are the disciples of what I have called the “clash regime”, the cultural system that suggests that Islam and the “west” are at war - that we are in the middle of a clash of civilisations. This is, of course, what Osama bin Laden wanted in the first place; 9/11 was a key part of the strategy intended to entrench “us” and “them”. In this sense, who would say with a clear conscience that al-Qaida’s strategy has not been partially successful?
The Islamophobic waves that have swept away so many of our personal freedoms reached a new pitch when Anders Breivik mass-murdered innocent Norwegian children in the name of a global campaign against Islam. His 1,500-page manifesto reveals that he drew inspiration from the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, the racist English Defence League and right-wing figures in Israel and the United States. Indeed, Breivik and Wilders have dragged Israel into their global war against Islam, the former considering the country the “first line of defence for the West”.
To recapture the spirit of freedom, empathy, and tolerance from the clutches of these agents of hate is probably one of the most important battles of my generation. The outcome will determine the future direction of Europe and its relationship with the Muslim world. It will also determine whether there will be another war, or another act of terror waged in the name of a clash between Islam and the “west”.
Here lies the meaning of 9/11 for me personally and probably for millions of others with a similar biography as mine, for we are both “here” and “there”, we are both “us” and “them”. This peaceful synthesis that we live on a daily basis turns the clash of civilisations into an improbability.