David Hayes, editor, ‘9/11, Ten Years On: Reflections, openDemocracy, 7 September 2011 – my contribution:
The great interruption
The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 had a huge impact on world politics in the following decade, but they did not mark a fundamental change like the 1989-91 upheavals or 2011’s extraordinary beginning of transformation in the Arab world. Indeed looking at 2001 in the light of these more important turning-points shows the limited character of the actions and the modest historical significance of both major protagonists in the subsequent conflict, al-Qaida and the George W Bush administration.
9/11 was an appalling mass murder and marked a quantum-leap in spectacular atrocity politics. Al-Qaida so effectively turned the Hollywood disaster-movie genre against the United States that it became, for a few years, an indispensable actor in world politics; yet the tactic reflected the organisation’s underlying political and military weakness. This has been cruelly exposed in its failure to execute a further major atrocity attack after the Madrid (2004) and London (2005) bombings, and underlined by the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
9/11’s main effects were to prompt President Bush to declare the “global war on terror” and enable him to invade Iraq. But Bush’s overreach also exposed the exaggeration of US power which its apparent victory in the cold war had encouraged. He in turn dissipated the worldwide support for the US after 9/11, provoked a low-grade genocidal civil war in Iraq itself, and left office one of the most discredited presidents in history, his principal legacy the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Any western success against al-Qaida was down to intelligence and policing, not war or the detention and torture with which Bush besmirched western democracy.
Bin Laden and Bush had in common that they attempted to short-circuit democratic change in world politics, the former with terror attacks and the latter with militarised regime-change. The main effect of their different but mutually reinforcing forms of substitutionism was to interrupt the twin processes of democratisation and legitimate global institution-building which had gained momentum after 1989. But with the fading of al-Qaida and neo-conservatism alike, the Arab revolts have shown a new birth of mass democratic movements and the possibilities of synergy with more responsive action by western governments and United Nations institutions.
In the light of 2011, it is hard to understand how bin Laden ever gained a significant following among Muslims – or Bush among western democrats. Yet during the “great interruption” of the 2000s, superficial journalism and scholarship followed superficial politics in embracing the notion that terrorism was the greatest threat to world society and the struggle against it the great challenge of our times.
We can now see that, however necessary is continuing vigilance against terrorist attacks, counter-terrorism was and is no more than a sideshow of world politics in the 21st century. It may, however, still be an uphill struggle to take the measure of the daunting challenges of democratic change, global equality and legitimate international order: not least because these are posed not just by the heroism of protesters on the Arab street but by the deepening crisis of a dysfunctional world economy.