Surviving 11 September: the future in the past?

Jean-Pierre Lehmann
24 September 2002

Anthony Barnett’s excellent assessment of the lessons of 11 September brings to mind a perhaps apocryphal remark of the late Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai; when asked a few years after the Chinese Liberation of 1949 what he thought of the French Revolution, he replied “too early to tell”!

There is of course a difference between one year and 160 years. But Zhou Enlai was not wrong. There is, after all, history with a small ‘h’ (the past, its accumulated events and non-events, its passions and ideologies, its moments of beauty and its many moments of barbarity), and History with a capital ‘H’ - History as it becomes incarnated in the collective memory.

Invariably, the embellishments and distortions that occur ultimately render unto History the quality of myth. Questioning, even worse challenging, the Myth in some countries could (or still can) lead to imprisonment, torture, execution, while in others, it might be more subtle forms of discrimination.

And so it was with the French Revolution. Indeed until fairly recently, questioning the History (ie, the Myth) of the French Revolution in academic and intellectual circles in France would lead to ridicule and ostracism. And yet! When today, we find ourselves, reflecting on the blood that has flown for centuries in the name of some (supposedly) greater good, we can ask: is this really necessary? In the 1950s, it was perhaps too early. From 1789 to 1962 (the year war with Algeria was brought to an end), France experienced a highly turbulent and not always glorious history, culminating in the humiliation of the German occupation, followed by defeats in Indochina and Algeria. While the process of rebuilding the nation took place, it was not the best time to challenge its most cherished myths. The French Revolution, it was held, a bit of excess here and there notwithstanding, was undoubtedly a good thing, not just for France, but also for all humanity!

As we stand on the threshold of the 21st century, perhaps we can have another go at that one. And ask some other questions that might help in thinking where we go and what 11 September might come to represent in both history and History as it will be written in the different corners of the globe. And in so doing, one might be guided by Winston Churchill: “the further back you look, the further forward you can see”.

11 September in history and History

The history (note, with a small ‘h’) of 11 September 2001 might, in a nutshell, be written along the following lines:

On the morning of 11 September an appalling tragedy occurred with many lives lost. The crimes were perpetrated by a group of men emanating from a region in the world that currently stands out for its abysmal governments, its intolerance, its discrimination against women and minorities, and its dismal economic performance. The Middle East and North Africa has had an average annual negative per capita growth rate of 2.3% for the last 20 years – by far the worst region in the world economy, and in stark contrast with East Asia that has been growing at plus 6%. One of the countries (Saudi Arabia), from which the majority of the criminals hailed, had seen its GDP per capita fall by almost two-thirds in the last fifteen years alone. The other country, Egypt, has been in a state of decline for several decades, not only economically and politically, but also culturally, when one considers that whereas in the 1960s an average of 3000 books were published per annum, in the 1990s the figure had dropped to 300.

The attack would appear to have been minutely prepared and orchestrated by a group known as al-Qaida, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, had been a protégé of (and financed by) the American government at the time of the Afghan war against the Soviet invasion.

As all murderous fanatics throughout history have sought to cloak their heinous acts in spiritual and ideological garb, these desperate men claimed to be acting in the name of (pure – it always is!) Islam and its alleged incitement to carry out war (jihad) against infidels, something that has as much legitimacy as the Christian crusaders claiming Jesus had ordained them to rape and pillage.

The history of these events is rapidly being transformed into the History. The History of 11 September aims at more than relegating the events to a criminal act of terrorism carried out by desperate men – after all, there have been so many of these in so many places for several decades, including in the United States with its tragedy in Oklahoma. It aims at nothing less than ‘a war against civilisation’. (How we got from the ‘history’ to the ‘History’ will be a fascinating PhD thesis some decades down the road).

In the meantime, it is rather chilling. Because this Manichean view and presentation of History is what has led to the spiritual and ideological cloak in which retribution is now to be carried out, not just against the perpetrators of the attack, but against ‘the axis of evil’! The ‘clash of civilisations’, hitherto seen by most as the rather preposterous, and very disappointing, musings of a Harvard professor (Samuel Huntington), now risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, by looking very far back, it seems time to ask a few pointed questions to try to lift the burdens of the past – as presented in History – and take us forward into a better era – a new enlightenment? Specifically: is it not conceivable that in the West we might be liberated from intolerant dogmatism? Or must we continue to be afflicted by that curse? As we have become more secular, might we not also escape from the ideological and intellectual shackles of monotheism?

Having become over the last year involved in work on Bosnia-Herzegovina and visiting Sarajevo quite often, I have increasingly given thought to the fact that in less than a dozen years we will be ‘celebrating’ the centenary of the occasion when Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke Ferdinand - the date, historians generally agree, that marked the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

The last century has been given various labels, my own favourite being that of Eric Hobsbawm in the title of his book, Age of Extremes – the short history of the Twentieth Century, 1914-1991. The 20th century witnessed about every ‘ism’ one can think of: capitalism, communism, liberalism, feminism, fascism, humanism, racism, internationalism, nationalism. Yet throughout much of the world during most of the century, it was the extremist ‘isms’ – communism, fascism, racism, nationalism – that prevailed. Recent years provide a window of opportunity for the light of tolerance and openness to shine in on the world. Will the window stay open? What will the world look like on 28 June 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the shot that launched a century of carnage and barbarity?

Alas, there is cause for alarm that we seem to be repeating the mistakes of the past. There seems to be in the West an addiction to dogmatism. “I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m good, you’re evil.”

The aftermath of 11 September

George Bush’s initial reaction to the tragedy of 11 September was to call for a ‘crusade’. The philosophy of Chinese historiography is probably correct. History is not, as it believed in the West, a linear process, but a cyclical one. We have gone back a millennium, with the leader of the Western (Christian) world declaring holy war on the infidel. The statement was retracted, but the retraction and all the politically correct protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, it manifested how much the gut instinct of dogmatism remains strong. At present we are being offered a war of good against evil. It is not yet a war of civilisations, a war of dogmas, but it is taking an ever-more dangerous turn in that direction.

It is difficult to see how a victory – in the conventional sense of the term – can emerge from 11 September. When the US declared war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbour, victory could be concretely defined as the ultimate capitulation and surrender of the enemy country, its government and its sovereignty. There can be no such victory in the war against terrorism, at least not for the time being. Myriads of legal, political and indeed moral problems press forward. Japan is a readily defined piece of territory with a population that at the time counted about 75 million. As many have pointed out, the precise definition of and distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is one of the many, many problems that this ‘crusade’ raises. Iraq is of course a country. Whether war against Iraq is justified or not, the link with 11 September is certainly not obvious.

In thinking about the aftermath of 11 September, it is not the victory that one should be too concerned about, but the possibility of a major defeat in respect to the advances one could have hoped we were making in the last decade in the prospects and promises of liberalism, humanism and secularism – in short, of what a truly open democracy should be about.

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