9/11 Ten years on: A decade of divisive debate

Looking back at the decade that has passed since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, it is perhaps easy to forget that in the immediate aftermath of this day of horror, Europe was swept by a wave of spontaneous solidarity that was most memorably expressed in Le Monde’s much-quoted headline “Nous sommes tous Américains” – “We are all Americans.” But while the headline became famous – and was soon marshaled to argue that America had only itself to blame for Europe’s quickly fading sympathy  –  few seemed to bother with the related article by Le Monde’s editor Jean-Marie Colombani, whose commentary provided a rather accurate preview of the controversies that would come to dominate the political discourse in the decade after 9/11.
Reflecting the wide-spread sense that the attacks marked an ominous turning point that ushered in a dangerous “new age”, Colombani contrasted the prevalent sense of gloom with “the promise of another historic day, Nov. 9, 1989, and a somewhat euphoric year, 2000, which we thought might conclude with peace in the Middle East.” However, Colombani regarded the promise associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as unfulfilled. The end of the Cold War had left America as the sole superpower, and in his view, the result was “a world with no counterbalance, physically destabilized, and thus more dangerous since there is no multipolar balance.”
Colombani suggested that America was by no means blameless, because as the sole superpower, the US had become an arrogant actor in global politics. Perhaps the hate that brought out “rejoicing crowds in Nablus and Cairo” was therefore not entirely undeserved? Colombani also reminded his readers that bin Laden had once been trained by the CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan – was he thus not just a creation of cynical American Cold War policies? And what about the Gulf War, or the use of American F-16s by the Israeli army against the Palestinians?
While the issues and questions raised by Colombani did not necessarily add up to a well-argued editorial, in retrospect, there is no denying that he anticipated some of the major debates that would soon come to divide the West, and particularly the left.
But Colombani cast his net wide and his article also included some intriguing speculations about the motives of the perpetrators that got very little attention in the subsequent debates. Particularly his suggestion that the terror attacks followed a “barbarous logic” whose ultimate “objective might well be to spread and deepen an unprecedented crisis in the Arab world” was widely ignored until it was echoed years later in Lee Smith’s provocative argument that “the clash that led to 9/11 was less the conflict between the West and Islam than the conflict between the Arabs themselves.” Smith contended that ultimately, “the attacks on New York and Washington were not really about us,” and he argued that this assertion only sounded implausible “because Americans are accustomed to thinking of themselves, in one way or another, as the source of the tumult in the Middle East.”
However, in the wake of 9/11, the notion that Americans, or rather “the West” should indeed be regarded as the ultimate “source of the tumult in the Middle East” arguably only gained in popularity – which also meant that it was firmly the West’s responsibility to avoid any “clash of civilizations.” Indeed, just a few days after the terrorist attacks, the French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine reportedly declared: “We have to avoid a clash of civilizations at all costs,” and in Vedrine’s view, such a clash was a “huge […] monstrous trap” that had been “conceived by the instigators of the assault.”
It should not be overlooked in this context that Le Monde’s headline “We are all Americans” implied identification with the victims of the 9/11 attacks that could of course easily be interpreted as a confirmation of Samuel Huntington’s thesis that global politics in the 21st century would be dominated by a “clash of civilizations”.  Although Huntington had attempted to provide a broad new paradigm to explain conflict in the post-Cold War world, he had highlighted conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims and even referred to the “bloody borders” between Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the question many Europeans may have pondered was whether they really wanted to get embroiled in a clash of civilizations, particularly if – as Le Monde had suggested – America was not such an innocent victim after all.
Indeed, Europe’s spontaneous solidarity soon began to give way to second thoughts, and it didn’t take long before criticizing America, its “war on terror”, its Middle East policy, and even “its” globalization, seemed to become one of the favorite pastimes of European media, not to mention the emerging blogosphere. Many embarked on a determined quest to understand why America would be considered the “Great Satan” in much of the Muslim world, and how America’s support for the “Little Satan” Israel was making things just so much worse. And it didn’t take long before European public opinion reflected views of the US that were not all that different from views held in Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, and Jordan. By early 2004, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center documented a remarkable convergence of anti-American attitudes in European and Muslim states.
The sincerity of the war on terror that President Bush had declared in the wake of September 11 was doubted by around two thirds of respondents in France, Germany, Turkey, Morocco, and Pakistan; in these countries, around 60% of respondents also believed that the war on terror was just a pretext for the quest to control Middle Eastern oil supplies, and between 40 and 50% of respondents believed that the U.S. was conducting the war on terror to target unfriendly Muslim governments and groups. But the most dramatic results emerged in response to the question whether decision makers in the US and the UK had themselves been misinformed about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or whether they had made it all up and simply lied: a whopping 82% of French respondents had little doubt that it had just been lies, and in Germany, Jordan, Turkey, and Pakistan, this view was held by around two thirds of the respondents.
With the critical spotlight on American policies in the Middle East, Israel also became a target for massive European disapproval. In the fall of 2003, a EU poll revealed that 59% of Europeans considered Israel as the greatest threat to world peace; the US tied for the second place with Iran, which had announced earlier in 2003 that it was pursuing a nuclear program. When the Iranian president Ahmadinejad issued his call to wipe Israel off the map some two years later in October 2005, there was general dismay about such an apparently open call for genocide, but in the end the response remained muted, and neither the intellectual nor the political debate took much notice of the existential threat that a nuclear Iran poses for Israel. Indeed, quite the contrary: among Europe’s intellectual elites it was actually fashionable to argue that the international community should “Give Iranian Nukes a Chance”, because a nuclear Iran could provide a useful counterweight to US ambitions in the Middle East.
It has often been suggested that it was the Iraq war that fuelled Europe’s strong anti-American sentiment and that hostility towards Israel should also be seen in this context. There is indeed no doubt that the Iraq war sharply polarized European public opinion and triggered a tidal wave of criticism of America’s Mideast policies; Israel, as America’s staunchest ally in the region, was obviously affected by these developments. However, the notion that it all began with the Iraq war relies on an all too shortsighted historical perspective. While some of the resentment expressed against the US and Israel may well have been triggered by the latest news headlines, there is a solid case for the argument that the political discourse in the decade after 9/11 reflected the deeper historical roots of “the two greatest hatreds.” Indeed, the fundamental question that came to be asked in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 was after all whether America “deserved” to be hated and whether the obvious hate for America in the Middle East was not due to entirely legitimate resentment caused mainly by its support for Israel.
One of the most cynical answers to this question could be found in the lead editorial for the October 2001 issue of Le Monde diplomatique. Under the provocative title “An enemy. At last”, the magazine’s editor Ignacio Ramonet claimed: “Throughout the world, and particularly in the countries of the South, the most common public reaction to the attacks in New York and Washington has been: what happened in New York was sad, but the US deserved it.” Ramonet argued that this view was entirely justified considering American policies during the Cold War and the fact that, as the only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US “has remained scandalously partisan towards Israel, to the detriment of the rights of the Palestinians.” Taking his argument a step further, Ramonet suggested that the cold war veterans surrounding George W. Bush “may have reason to be pleased with the current events, in a sense a godsend. At a stroke the attacks of 11 September restored what had been missing since the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years ago — an enemy. At last. The enemy may be known officially as terrorism but everyone knows that the real name is radical Islam. And we can now expect alarming side-effects, including a modern McCarthyism directed at the opponents of globalisation. You enjoyed anti-communism? You’re going to love anti-Islamism.”
In a very different way than intended, Ramonet’s “analysis” revealed that it was actually the leftist elites that – disoriented by the end of the Cold War and the concomitant loss of purpose for their noble cause of anti-anti-communism – were desperate for a new ideological enemy and a new cause.  And, voilà, the terror attacks on the superpower that had so unfairly won the Cold War provided a new cause: anti-anti-Islamism; there was a new enemy: anti-Islamists; and, no less importantly, there was the immediate sense that the former anti-anti-communists would be able to once again claim the moral high-ground in their new incarnation as anti-anti-Islamists. Soon enough, the most determined in their ranks began to feel that there was no reason to be bashful about their pro-Islamist sympathies and they proudly marched under banners proclaiming “We are all Hizbullah now”.
A decade after 9/11, this ideologically charged stance still resonates in the political debate, because even in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks, views that were inspired by the outlook that shaped Ramonet’s editorial were also propagated by left-wing media outlets that reach an incomparably larger audience than the elitist Le Monde diplomatique.
The most deserving example that can be quoted is doubtlessly The Guardian; indeed, as it turns out, the paper chose to mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with an article by Seumas Milne, who claims a special place of honor for the Guardian’s own contribution to the controversies that developed in the aftermath of 9/11.
Milne, who was the Guardian’s comment editor at the time of 9/11, asserts in his celebratory column that the verdict of history clearly favors those who, like him, insisted even in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks that it was imperative for Americans to “make the connection between what has been visited upon them and what their government has visited upon large parts of the world.” Indeed, making the point even more succinctly, Milne’s column on September 13, 2001, was entitled: “They can’t see why they are hated.” In Milne’s view – which is clearly shared by many of his readers – his paper’s efforts to ensure that voices blaming American and Western policies for the attacks on 9/11 “would be unmistakably heard” merely amounted to a supremely commendable effort to provide “a full-spectrum debate about why the attacks had taken place and how the US and wider western world should respond.” With a sense of victorious vindication, Milne recalls the resulting “backlash” and dismisses it as a reaction that “verged on the deranged.”
However, what Milne describes as “a full-spectrum debate” largely excluded voices that sought to answer the question why Americans and the West “are hated” by exploring the societies of those who hated. Denying these voices a chance to be heard was obviously the right thing to do in terms of the ideology outlined by elite opinion-shapers like Ramonet. Yet, given the eagerness to avoid a “clash of civilizations” and the perception that this was the West’s responsibility, there was also a general sense that it would only be counter-productive to shine the spotlight on the pathologies that allowed Osama bin Laden to be regarded as someone who inspired considerable “confidence.”
A decade after 9/11, the guardians of this “political correctness” can arguably point to some “achievements” – how about the fact that the Bush administration’s “war on terror” has become nameless and unnamable in the Obama administration? As Walter Russell Mead has noted, America is now “fighting an anonymous war with unspecified goals against Those Who Cannot Be Named” – though, courtesy of Mead, we have at least a handy acronym: COFKATGWOT, which stands, obviously, for the Conflict Formerly Known As The Global War On Terror.
But whatever the war is called, the more salient fact is surely that Osama bin Laden was killed by US commandos. Another salient fact is that by the time he was killed, the number of Muslims who expressed “confidence” in him had shrunken dramatically.
So how do these facts square with Seumas Milne’s claim that the Guardian’s commentary after 9/11 has been vindicated by history’s judgment? Well, they don’t.
Even the examples Milne himself cites to support his claim don’t help his case. One of Milne’s references is to a particularly shrill and triumphalist piece by the London-based Syrian writer Rana Kabbani, which was published by the Guardian on September 13, 2001, under the title “Terror has come home.” Milne highlights that Kabbani “warned that only a change of policy towards the rest of the world would bring Americans security.” But there was no “change of policy” as advocated by Kabbani or Milne, and Americans nevertheless had security.
Moreover, well-respected US analysts from across the political spectrum have recently argued that President Obama’s Middle East and security policies have begun to gradually shift towards policies and measures implemented by the previous administration. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of recent articles arguing that George W. Bush might have reason to feel vindicated by history.
While this makes Milne’s claim that the Guardian’s commentary after 9/11 was vindicated even less convincing, there is one issue where he is clearly right: he notes that “the post-9/11 debate was ‘totally transformative’ for the Guardian, turning it into one of the two fastest growing news sites in the US.” That is to say: controversy sells. No doubt it does.
But should we equate controversy with healthy debate? Does it make sense to argue with views that are primarily informed by a rigid ideology, or by conspiracy theories, or simply by emotions like intense frustration and obsessive hate?
Given the divisive debates that were so characteristic of the past decade, it’s likely that many people have pondered these questions. Does it make sense, for example, to try to counter the preposterous notion advanced in the Le monde diplomatique editorial that suggested the Bush administration may have been “pleased” with the devastating terrorist attacks?
I think it is worth pointing out that the notion that the US administration was relieved to have “An Enemy. At Last” – as the headline put it – caricatured the “enemy” as much as the American government. Yet, while the hijackers of 9/11 arguably accomplished an unprecedented feat by attacking the superpower America on its homeland, all they had done in the world of Le monde diplomatique was to provide the US with another welcome opportunity to expand its power by taking on the Muslim world.
Is it possible to be more patronizing than that while pretending to care about the downtrodden of the earth? While this is admittedly an attitude that can’t be debated, it can at least be exposed for what it really is.