September 9, 2011
Number 09/11 #03
This Update is devoted to three different pieces reflecting on where the world now is, ten years after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks – both in terms of the current understanding of those events and in terms of the their consequences.
First up is noted journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who reflects on the understanding that he think needs to be preserved of those events ten years ago – primarily that they were very simple, or at least should be understood in very simple terms. He take strong issue with the idea that it is the job of intellectuals to always introduce complexity into discussions of events – in this case, he says, these efforts end up as “as half-baked obfuscations or distractions.” He continues to argue that what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 was ” a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form.” For this complete piece, written with Hitchens’ inimitable flair, CLICK HERE.
Next is noted military historian Victor Davis Hanson, who notes what he believes is a consensus that has largely developed around the key elements of the response to the Islamist terror attacks. He notes that America has avoided a second attack, which was widely predicted, and most of the security and foreign policy measures that helped prevent this have been “either embraced or expanded” by the Obama Administration, which was forced to recognise their utility despite earlier criticism of them. Also, he notes, that, contrary to some early analysis on what caused the attacks, “no one has yet refuted the general truth that bin Laden tried to hijack popular Arab discontent over endemic poverty and self-induced misery.” For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE. Also noting that the most salient fact about the ten years of the “war on terror” is that it sucecssfully prevent another major attack on the US is strategic expert George Friedman.
Finally, noted Middle East expert Fouad Ajami draws an interesting line from 9/11 to the current Arab Spring. He argues that most of the Arab world reacted to the events of September 11 with a sense of “unmistakable satisfaction that the Americans had gotten their comeuppance” which was rooted in a refusal to recognise that the extensive problems of the Middle East were a product of local history – it was easier to believe that “the Americans had willed those outcomes.” He concludes that following the American interventions in the region in the wake of 9/11, this has changed and now “the rage is not directed against foreign demons, but against the cruel rulers who have robbed that population of a chance at a decent life”. For this interesting and knowledgeable argument about how the last decade has affected the ideas dominating the Middle East, CLICK HERE. Also drawing a line between 9/11 and the rise of the Arab Spring movements is the inimitable intellectual Paul Berman – the most thoughtful scholar of the ideas behind Islamist terrorism – in a very long but invaluable essay.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Cliff May on how the work of Edward Said has distorted understandings of terrorism and Islam over the past 10 years.
- A provocative article about the anniversary from American counter-terror analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross , who claims ” Al-Qaeda Is Winning”, plus a response from military analyst Max Boot.
- A more even-handed discussion of the military winners and losers comes from Israeli counter-terror expert Yoram Schweitzer.
- An Israeli counter-terror policing expert argues that even after all these years, the Americans can still learn some things from Israel on successful counter-terrorism.
- An analysis of why the UN’s Palmer Report ended up being so much fairer and more balanced than the Goldstone Report.
- Another disturbing example of official Palestinian TV making terrorists who killed Israeli civilians into heroes.
- A look at how Yasser Arafat successfully turned terrorism into power – something bin Laden arguably sought to imitate.
- PA President Mahmoud Abbas is reported by the New York Times as saying Palestinians ” have been under occupation for 63 years” that is, since Israel’s foundation in 1948, not since the territories were captured in 1967.
- Leonard Cohen’s touching song about 9/11 – “On that Day”.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- A deconstruction of Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul McGeough’s take on the Palmer Report.
- A post on the EU’s dilemmas with respect to the Palestinian quest for UN recognition of statehood.
- A post on the end of Israel’s summer of social protest – and where the movement it sparked might lead next.
- A post on how, despite an ostensible unity deal, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority cannot even agree on the time of day – literally.
A decade after 9/11, it remains the best description and most essential fact about al-Qaida.
By Christopher Hitchens
Slate, Sept. 5, 2011, at 10:12 AM ET
The proper task of the “public intellectual” might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either. To the government and most of the people of the United States, it seemed that the country on 9/11 had been attacked in a particularly odious way (air piracy used to maximize civilian casualties) by a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and “unbelievers,” and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.
To me, this remains the main point about al-Qaida and its surrogates. I do not believe, by stipulating it as the main point, that I try to oversimplify matters. I feel no need to show off or to think of something novel to say. Moreover, many of the attempts to introduce “complexity” into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions. These range from the irredeemably paranoid and contemptible efforts to pin responsibility for the attacks onto the Bush administration or the Jews, to the sometimes wearisome but not necessarily untrue insistence that Islamic peoples have suffered oppression. (Even when formally true, the latter must simply not be used as nonsequitur special pleading for the use of random violence by self-appointed Muslims.)
Underlying these and other attempts to change the subject there was, and still is, a perverse desire to say that the 9/11 atrocities were in some way deserved, or made historically more explicable, by the many crimes of past American foreign policy. Either that, or—to recall the contemporary comments of the “Reverends” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—a punishment from heaven for American sinfulness. (The two ways of thinking, one of them ostensibly “left” and the other “right,” are in fact more or less identical.) That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist “targets,” was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali. There was always some “intellectual,” however, to argue in each case that the policy of Tony Blair, or George Bush, or the Spanish government, was the “root cause” of the broad-daylight slaughter of civilians. Responsibility, somehow, never lay squarely with the perpetrators.
So, although the official tone of this month’s pious commemorations will stress the victims and their families (to the pathetically masochistic extent of continuing to forbid much of the graphic footage of the actual atrocities, lest “feelings” and susceptibilities be wounded), it is quite probable that those who accept the conventional “narrative” are, at least globally, in a minority. It is not only in the Muslim world that it is commonplace to hear that the events of 9/11 were part of a Jewish or U.S. government plot. And it is not only on the demented fringe that such fantasies circulate in “the West.” A book alleging that the Pentagon rocketed the Pentagon with a cruise missile—somehow managing to dispose of the craft and crew and passengers of the still-missing Flight 77, including my slight friend Barbara Olson—was a best-seller in France, while another book about another 9/11 conspiracy theory was published in the United States by the publishing arm of the Nation magazine. Westminster John Knox Press, a respected house long associated with American Presbyterianism, published Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, which asserted that the events of that day were planned in order to furnish a pretext for intervention in the Middle East. More explicitly on the Left, my old publishing house Verso—offshoot of the New Left Review—published an anthology of Osama Bin Laden’s sermonizing rants in which the editors compared the leader of al-Qaida explicitly, and in the context not unfavorably, to Che Guevara.
So, for me at any rate, the experience of engaging in the 9/11 politico-cultural wars was a vertiginous one in at least two ways. To begin with, I found myself for the first time in my life sharing the outlook of soldiers and cops, or at least of those soldiers and cops who had not (like George Tenet and most of the CIA) left us defenseless under open skies while well-known “no fly” names were allowed to pay cash for one-way tickets after having done perfunctory training at flight schools. My sympathies were wholeheartedly and unironically (and, I claim, rationally) with the forces of law and order. Second, I became heavily involved in defending my adopted country from an amazing campaign of defamation, in which large numbers of the intellectual class seemed determined at least to minimize the gravity of what had occurred, or to translate it into innocuous terms (poverty is the cause of political violence) that would leave their worldview undisturbed. How much easier to maintain, as many did, that it was all an excuse to build a pipeline across Afghanistan (an option bizarrely neglected by American imperialism after the fall of communism in Kabul, when the wretched country could have been ours for the taking!).
My solidarity with soldiers, cops, and other “responders” didn’t make me a full convert to the police mentality. I was a named plaintiff in the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the National Security Agency, for its practice of warrantless wiretapping. I found a way of having myself “waterboarded” by former professionals, in order to satisfy my readers that the process does indeed constitute torture. I have visited Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, those two grotesque hellholes of American panic-reaction, and written very critically from both. And I was and remain unreconciled to the stupid, wasteful, oppressive collective punishment of Americans who try to use our civil aviation, or who want to be able to get into their own offices without showing ID to a guard who has no database against which to check it. But I had also seen Abu Ghraib shortly after it was first broken open in 2003, and could have no truck with the moral defectives who talked glibly as if that mini-Auschwitz and mass grave was no worse. When Amnesty International described Guantanamo as “the Gulag of our time,” I felt a collapse of seriousness that I have felt many times since.
One reason for opposing excesses and stupidities on “our” side (actually, why do I defensively lob in those quotation marks? Please consider them as optional) was my conviction that the defeat of Bin-Ladenism was ultimately certain. Al-Qaida demands the impossible—worldwide application of the most fanatical interpretation of sharia—and to forward the demand employs the most hysterically irrational means. (This combination, by the way, would make a reasonable definition of “terrorism.”) It follows that the resort to panicky or degrading tactics in order to combat terrorism is, as well as immoral, self-defeating.
Ten years ago I wrote to a despairing friend that a time would come when al-Qaida had been penetrated, when its own paranoia would devour it, when it had tried every tactic and failed to repeat its 9/11 coup, when it would fall victim to its own deluded worldview and—because it has no means of generating self-criticism—would begin to implode. The trove recovered from Bin Laden’s rather dismal Abbottabad hideaway appears to confirm that this fate has indeed, with much labor on the part of unsung heroes, begun to engulf al-Qaida. I take this as a part vindication of the superiority of “our” civilization, which is at least so constituted as to be able to learn from past mistakes, rather than remain a prisoner of “faith.”
The battle against casuistry and bad faith has also been worth fighting. So have many other struggles to assert the obvious. Contrary to the peddlers of shallow anti-Western self-hatred, the Muslim world did not adopt Bin-Ladenism as its shield against reality. Very much to the contrary, there turned out to be many millions of Arabs who have heretically and robustly preferred life over death. In many societies, al-Qaida defeated itself as well as underwent defeat.
In these cases, then, the problems did turn out to be more complicated than any “simple” solution the theocratic fanatics could propose. But, and against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain. Among them: Holocaust denial is in fact a surreptitious form of Holocaust affirmation. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a direct and lethal challenge to free expression, not a clash between traditional faith and “free speech fundamentalism.” The mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the random product of “ancient hatreds” but a deliberate plan to erase the Muslim population. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called “evil.” And, 10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.
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Ten years later, we’ve reached a bipartisan consensus.
Victor Davis Hanson
National Review, SEPTEMBER 8, 2011 12:00 A.M.
Why did radical Islamic terrorists kill almost 3,000 Americans a decade ago?
Few still believe the old myth that U.S. foreign policy or support for Israel logically earned us Osama bin Laden’s wrath. After all, the U.S. throughout the 1990s had saved Islamic peoples from Bosnia and Kosovo to Somalia and Kuwait. Russia and China, in contrast, had oppressed or killed tens of thousands of their own Muslims without much fear of provoking al-Qaeda.
Moreover, thousands of Arabs have been killed recently, but by their own Libyan and Syrian governments, not Israeli Defense Forces. Al-Qaeda still issues death threats to Americans even though its original pretexts for going to war — such as U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia — have long been irrelevant.
On this ten-year anniversary of 9/11, no one has yet refuted the general truth that bin Laden tried to hijack popular Arab discontent over endemic poverty and self-induced misery. In cynical Hitlerian fashion, al-Qaeda’s propagandists sought to blame the mess of the Arab Middle East on Jews and foreigners, rather than seeking to address homegrown corrupt kleptocracies, inefficient statism, indigenous tribalism, gender apartheid, and religious fundamentalism and intolerance.
Past Western appeasement of terrorism only convinced the manipulative bin Laden that he might kill Westerners without much fear of retaliation, as he presented himself to the Islamic street as the new Saladin who had humbled the Western infidel.
Another post-9/11 myth assured us that George W. Bush foolishly squandered a rare national unity by enacting unlawful and unnecessary homeland-security measures and starting wasteful and unwinnable wars. The myth seems to suggest that if only we had not gone into Iraq or opened Guantanamo, we would still be at peace and, left and right alike, flying American flags from our cars’ antennas.
But we know that this theory is largely a fable. From 2001 to 2008, almost every domestic and foreign security expert assured us that the next 9/11 was not a matter of “if,” but only of “when.” Yet ten years later, there has not been a single comparable terrorist attack, despite dozens of foiled efforts to shoot and blow up Americans. What happened?
The Patriot Act, renditions, tribunals, preventive detention, new bothersome security measures, and the use of Predator drones have all weakened al-Qaeda and have made it difficult to attack Americans at home. For all the acrimony over Afghanistan and Iraq, tens of thousands of jihadists were killed abroad, and consensual governments that fight terrorists still survive in place of dictatorships.
And where now are the likes of Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, Moveon.org, Code Pink, and the entire anti-war movement that for years dominated the news, assuring us that we had lost our freedoms at home and caused only mayhem abroad?
The truth is they mostly dropped out of the news when Barack Obama was elected president. Apparently these loud megaphones had all along been more interested in partisan politics than principled criticism. In one of the strangest turnabouts in modern political history, fierce anti-war and anti-administration critic Barack Obama, upon taking the office of the presidency, either embraced or expanded almost all of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism policies.
Obama also left mostly unchanged U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and joined a third Middle East war by bombing Libya. Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden boasted that a calm Iraq could be one of the administration’s “greatest achievements.” In 2012, there will be no Obama reelection commercials bragging about the promised closure of Guantanamo Bay, but plenty taking credit for killing bin Laden inside Pakistan, a country where we have increased targeted drone assassinations fivefold since 2009.
President Obama, unlike candidate Obama, understood that the past unpopular U.S. measures kept us safe for seven years, and so had to be continued. He also guessed that when he put his own brand on these once widely caricatured but necessary anti-terrorism measures, the furor that had plagued the country from 2003 to 2008 would simply end in a whimper. And he was absolutely right on both counts.
Conservatives were once demonized for George Bush’s “smoke ’em out” and “dead or alive” tough talk about the War on Terror. Liberals were caricatured for Obama’s “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters” touchy-feely euphemisms. But the unspoken truth of the decade following 9/11 is that, for all the left and right talking points, Americans institutionalized policies and protocols that so far have kept us safe from another murderous attack.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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The current uprising is directed not against foreign demons, but against cruel rulers who robbed their people of a decent life.
By FOUAD AJAMI
Wall Street Journal, SEPTEMBER 8, 2011
The Arabic word shamata has its own power. The closest approximation to it is the German schadenfreude—glee at another’s misfortune. And when the Twin Towers fell 10 years ago this week, there was plenty of glee in Arab lands—a sense of wonder, bordering on pride, that a band of young Arabs had brought soot and ruin onto American soil.
The symbols of this mighty American republic—the commercial empire in New York, the military power embodied by the Pentagon—had been hit. Sweets were handed out in East Jerusalem, there were no tears shed in Cairo for the Americans, more than three decades of U.S. aid notwithstanding. Everywhere in that Arab world—among the Western-educated elite as among the Islamists—there was unmistakable satisfaction that the Americans had gotten their comeuppance.
There were sympathetic vigils in Iran—America’s most determined enemy in the region—and anti-American belligerence in the Arab countries most closely allied with the United States. This occasioned the observation of the noted historian Bernard Lewis that there were pro-American regimes with anti-American populations, and anti-American regimes with pro-American populations.
I traveled to Jeddah and Cairo in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In the splendid homes of wealthy American-educated businessmen, in the salons of perfectly polished men and women of letters, there was no small measure of admiration for Osama bin Laden. He was the avenger, the Arabs had been at the receiving end of Western power, and now the scales were righted. “Yes, but . . . ,” said the Arab intellectual class, almost in unison. Those death pilots may have been zealous, but now the Americans know, and for the first time, what it means to be at the receiving end of power.
Very few Arabs believed that the landscape all around them—the tyrannical states, the growing poverty, the destruction of what little grace their old cities once possessed, the war across the generations between secular fathers and Islamist children—was the harvest of their own history. It was easier to believe that the Americans had willed those outcomes.
In truth, in the decade prior to 9/11, America had paid the Arab world scant attention. We had taken a holiday from history’s exertions. But the Arabs had hung onto their belief that a willful America disposed of their fate. The Arab regimes possessed their own sources of power—fearsome security apparatuses, money in the oil states, official custodians of religion who gave repression their seal of approval.
But it was more convenient to trace the trail across the ocean, to the United States. Mohammed Atta, who led the death pilots, was a child of the Egyptian middle class, a lawyer’s son, formed by the disappointments of Egypt and its inequities. But there was little of him said in Egypt. The official press looked away.
There was to be no way of getting politically conscious Arabs to accept responsibility for what had taken place on 9/11. Set aside those steeped in conspiracy who thought that these attacks were the work of Americans themselves, that thousands of Jews had not shown up at work in the Twin Towers on 9/11. The pathology that mattered was that of otherwise reasonable men and women who were glad for America’s torment. The Americans had might, but were far away. Now the terrorism, like a magnet, drew them into Arab and Muslim lands. Now they were near, and they would be entangled in the great civil war raging over the course of Arab and Muslim history.
The masters and preachers of terror had told their foot soldiers, and the great mass on the fence, that the Americans would make a run for it—as they had in Lebanon and Somalia, that they didn’t have the stomach for a fight. The Arabs barely took notice when America struck the Taliban in Kabul. What was Afghanistan to them? It was a blighted and miserable land at a safe distance.
But the American war, and the sense of righteous violation, soon hit the Arab world itself. Saddam Hussein may not have been the Arab idol he was a decade earlier, but he was still a favored son of that Arab nation, its self-appointed defender. The toppling of his regime, some 18 months or so after 9/11, had brought the war closer to the Arabs. The spectacle of the Iraqi despot flushed out of his spider hole by American soldiers was a lesson to the Arabs as to the falseness and futility of radicalism.
It is said that “the east” is a land given to long memory, that there the past is never forgotten. But a decade on, the Arab world has little to say about 9/11—at least not directly. In the course of that Arab Spring, young people in Tunisia and Egypt brought down the dreaded dictators. And in Libya, there is the thrill of liberty, delivered, in part, by Western powers. In the slaughter-grounds of Syria, the rage is not directed against foreign demons, but against the cruel rulers who have robbed that population of a chance at a decent life.
America held the line in the aftermath of 9/11. It wasn’t brilliant at everything it attempted in Arab lands. But a chance was given the Arabs to come face to face, and truly for the first time, with the harvest of their own history. Now their world is what they make of it.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and co-chair of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.