10 years on, what have we learned?
As time marches on and we edge ever closer to the fateful 10-year anniversary of the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, I am reminded of the act of witnessing it, as I am sure many other people are. Where and when I was, what I thought and felt, what I did.
Even without watching the nightly wall-to-wall programming of commemorative programmes (some of which I confess I find unpleasantly ghoulish) it is impossible to ignore how the event presses in on one’s consciousness. I have been tempted to try and glide past the memorialising because I have done all my thinking about that awful morning, I know what I think, and remembering the awful scenes and its aftermath often reduces me to great sadness. But then, as I do my best to ignore it, I feel guilty for not respecting the memory of those who died or were injured or bereaved, and also for avoiding active consideration of the geo-political implications of what happened, so I end up beating myself up.
In order to square this circle I do what any writer would do. I give up ignoring it, and write.
I recall I was watching TV in bed, resolutely awake as I often am, at around eleven or midnight (I forget the exact time difference). Newsflashes started breaking, and I found a news channel, woke my wife from her slumbers, and then, like so many millions of others, we watched with growing horror and realisation of the scale of the attack. I think I guessed immediately that the first plane to hit a tower was the work of terrorists. Something just twigged. Soon enough, of course, the second plane and subsequent news made it clear that this was an assault of unprecedented viciousness and effective co-ordination.
I turned to my wife and said “This means war.” I mused. And after a while I added: “But it won’t solve anything. Until we find out why these people hate us so much, this will just go on and on.”
She asked me who it meant war with. I answered: “We’ll find someone.”
Looking back, I think it is revealing that I instinctively used the word “We”.
It is easy to forget now, in the aftermath of the vitriolic debate about the wisdom of “what the West did next”, how much of the world felt at one with America at that moment. Whether or not we approved of America’s exercise of its diplomatic or military might, and Lord knows many of us had not, for a generation or more, there was a profound sense that this great wrong was simply that – unfathomably, appallingly, unutterably, cruelly wrong. And that therefore, and without equivocation or analysis, we stood united with the victims, and with those who would extract justice for their deaths.
The subsequent squandering of that goodwill by America may, in fact, be the ultimate tragedy of what has happened since.
America had certainly been lumbering around the world stage since World War II with all the subtlety of an overweight and rather unintelligent schoolyard bully. Overthrowing and murdering democratically-elected leaders either directly or by proxy – Allende in Chile, Lumumba in the Congo – tacitly or actively supporting brutal regimes or wars – 200,000 dead in Guatemala, 3 million dead in Pakistan’s attempted suppression of Bangladesh,75,000 dead in El Salvador – and, of course, its highly questionable involvement in Vietnam. Amongst others. And in the Middle East, America was implicated in various coups d’etat, police actions, aggressive growing of its military presence, and so on. The list of clumsy and often murderous American actions is tragically long, and if I fleshed it out here this article would be about little else.
And yet, for many, even those who had felt the heavy-handed might of American influence and not always benignly, there was an abiding opinion that, for all its faults, America was basically on the side of the good guys. For example, it almost single-handledly paid for the United Nations infrastructure, and its aid programmes, year after year. Its people donated more to overseas charity, per head of population, and in gross terms, than any other nation on earth. Its own overseas aid programmes were mammoth. Many of us were old enough to recall (or to have been told, first hand) how American money had essentially re-built Europe after World War II. And Japan. And Americans themselves – while they might occasionally have been a little brash or unsubtle for countries lucky enough to host their holiday-makers – were recognisably good natured, polite, free-spending, and generous with their praise, too.
America was looked on as a child which was occasionally naughty or untutored, but which was always striving to do better, and as such, should be encouraged. A great and glorious and ever-evolving experiment in free-market economics tied to a healthy, forceful democracy, never likely to be perfect, but my goodness it was prepared to give it a go.
In the years since 9-11, the general opinion of America has changed out of all recognition. And Americans are to blame.
There are many reasons why the stock of the good old USA has fallen so far and so fast, not least the way the rest of the world is appalled at the current American inability to find a way out of an economic mess which is largely of its own making, and the refusal of its political class to sit down and nut out a bi-partisan approach to problem solving. Both the White House and those on the Hill (and don’t get me started on the state of the GOP generally) look and sound like they are in the grip of a bunch of egotistical village idiots high on crack cocaine … talking aggressively and confidently about nothing that has any passing contact with the reality of the world.
But most of all, the current mistrust and downright dislike of America is down to one thing.
Conflating the search for Al Qaeda and the assassins of 9-11 into an excuse to finally get rid of Sadaam Hussein and his ugly regime in Iraq and to secure America’s strategic access to the region’s oil was a terrible, perhaps unforgivable mistake. Blind Freddie can see that it has left a legacy of bitterness and instability in the area that will not be overcome in my lifetime, and not, I fear in the lifetime of my precious daughter, nor even her children if they arrive.
There are many, and they are by no means all Middle Eastern, Muslim, or liberal politically, who can simply never forgive Bush and Cheney – especially – but also Tony Blair, John Howard and others – for a conflict that rapidly and predictably led to umpteen entirely avoidable civilian casualties. 100,000? 200,000? Half a million? More? No one will ever be entirely sure. It seems like the upper estimates are the more accurate. (If you doubt my assertion that the bloody, never-ending quagmire in Iraq was predictable, just “google” Dick Cheney’s remarks on why Bush Snr didn’t continue on and depose Hussein when he had the chance. They are instructive.)
And yet, faced with ample evidence and growing certainty that a terrible error had been made, the American political establishment steadfastly refused, year after year, (and still refuses), to allow any official suggestion that the war was ill-advised, ill-planned, badly prosecuted and very possibly illegal. No mea culpa was allowed to pass its lips.
It gave every impression that the on-going civilian disaster in Iraq was just a mild disappointment on the road to a greater good, despite mounting evidence that Iraq was not (and won’t be) pacified, that the chaos would spread to neighbouring nations (as it has, and will continue to do so), and that its new Government, despite democratic trappings, would likely end up just as corrupt, brutal and inefficient as the last.
The rest of the world could see this very well, (most saw it before the first shot was fired), and were appalled by America’s stupidity, cupidity, insensitivity and intransigence.
And blinded by that instinctive knee-jerk patriotism which can in some circumstances be so useful and laudable, but which when the American government is behaving badly is so unhelpful and damaging, and captured by the almost religious fervour and respect in which those who “serve” are held in the American consciousness, the American people seemed only mildly discomforted by what was going on in Iraq.
Yes, of course there were notable and honourable exceptions. And, of course, the intelligentsia and the chattering classes engaged with the debate.
But the vast mass of Americans seemed to care less that their military, (and it was, almost entirely, American troops), were slaughtering thousands, whether deliberately or accidentally, (as if it really matters), and were compounding the madness by foolishly creating a power vacuum into which assorted madmen rushed waving AK-47s, and football stadiums full of entirely innocent civilians were dying every year. In Vietnam, this produced a near revolution inside America. Nowadays, the wave of bloody death visited on families going about their ordinary lives seems to have become so commonplace – or so well hidden – that it creates barely a ripple on the body politic. Until one starts discussing the cost, in dollar terms, of the military adventure, or the body bags of American casualties coming home with such tragic regularity, and then people really do seem to get riled up.
I do not propose to discuss Afghanistan as well here because I believe the conflict in that sad and much-battered country is entirely different in nature, although it can appear similar if one only looks at the surface detail. The war in Afghanistan was a genuine international effort, welcomed by many of its people, with specific aims (even if they have since proven intractably difficult to achieve), and morally supportable. The Taliban were and are the latest manifestation of brutal fascism on our planet, and their influence would undoubtedly have spread (into the former Soviet Union, and into Pakistan and Iran) if they had not been displaced, along with their medieval rejection of learning, medicine, individual rights, and hatred of women. Because they have not essentially changed their nature, or their agenda, the war to sustain quasi-freedom in some parts of Afghanistan is still, in my opinion, justified. (Although we need to start working out with much greater urgency how the hell to end it.)
So what do I think, ten years on from 9-11? I think, if America is to somehow regain its international standing, at least with its friends, if not its enemies, then sooner or later someone with great leadership qualities and backed by a surge of public moral support is going to have to stand up and say, without prevarication, “We acknowledge that – despite the courage of our troops, despite the fact that many of us thought we were doing the right thing – Iraq was not only not our finest hour, it may have been our ugliest. We fatally miscalculated: we over-reached ourselves. We didn’t care enough about the people of Iraq. We were misled by those who should have known better, and we failed to think hard enough. Never again – never again – will we behave in such a cavalier and dangerous manner. Forgive us, world. We know we messed up, big time, and we have learned. Just watch us, we won’t do it again.”
Because that’s why some people hate America, and why so many people who love America nevertheless despair of its future, despite their love.
You just never seem to say sorry.
And remember: until we work out while these people hate us so much, this will just go on and on.
God bless America.