The 9/11 generation

A decade and a half on from the deadliest terrorist attack in history, its aftereffects are still being felt.

A man takes a photo at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum near the Tribute in Light in Lower Manhattan, New York (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man takes a photo at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum near the Tribute in Light in Lower Manhattan, New York
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The day after 9/11, the University of Arizona in Tucson put up “walls of expression” to enable students to share their feelings. The large white canvasses were soon covered with notes and graffiti, some of which expressed support for victims and sadness over the terrorist attacks. Other notes were more incendiary; students wrote racist and anti-Semitic notes on the walls. After a short time the university removed them.
I was 21 in Tucson at the time and never realized the abrupt life-changes about to occur.
Before 9/11 one of the students in my fraternity was from Pakistan and he used to boast about the close ties between Pakistan and the Taliban. The Taliban was the good guy, even as it dynamited the statues of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, he told us.
All that changed after September 11. He went from excusing the Taliban, which had harbored Osama bin Laden, to saying he was a victim of Islamophobia in the US.
One of the 9/11 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, had even stayed in Tucson in the 1990s. It seemed as though the attacks were not so far from home.
It is hard now to take stock of how much 9/11 changed the world. In many ways the mass attacks accelerated processes that were already under way. The immediate origins of the extremism that led to the attacks can be found in the Afghan war, Chechnya, the Bosnian war, Algeria and many other issues affecting the Middle East. The rise of Islamism had taken place decades before, as had the perfection of new types of suicide terrorism.
September 11 caused the US invasion of Afghanistan, which was aimed at uprooting the terrorist infrastructure there.
Fifteen years after the US moved into Kabul, the country is on the verge of civil war, writes Davood Moradian at Al Jazeera.
“For the first time since 2001, there are now political forces actively seeking to topple the Afghan government, in tandem with the Taliban’s decades-old ideological terror campaign.” In the last weeks a charity and the American University compound have been attacked, and Hazara Shi’a have been targeted.
The US has spent $68 billion to “rebuild” the Afghan army and police and $45b. on other Afghan projects since 2002. As in the case of Iraq, all that has emerged from that is entrenched extremism, sectarianism and further chaos.
After 9/11 my friends went to war. A relative joined the US Marines and was sent on several tours of Iraq, including centers of the Sunni insurgency like Ramadi and Falluja. He saw the Iraqis vote in the first post-invasion elections in 2005. Another friend joined the US Foreign Service.
It was Iraq that became the cornerstone of George W. Bush’s legacy. The Iraq War empowered Iran and terminally weakened the Iraqi state.
The US experiment with democracy in Iraq was part of a larger program to support democracy across the region, including in the Palestinian Authority. After Hamas won the Palestinian legislative election in 2006, that put the brakes on democracy support.
When democracy means bringing to power religious extremists, or sectarian extremists as it eventually did in Iraq, it doesn’t produce the desired result envisioned by the neoconservatives in Washington.
The Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian experiences provided the hope and fuel for the 2011 Arab Spring. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian leader, was a direct result of the post-French colonial experience in North Africa, an aging secular dictator in power since the 1980s. Along with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, he fell easily.
But the “spring” had more trouble in monarchist Bahrain, where the largely Shi’a protesters were put down by a Saudi-Gulf intervention. In Libya and Syria the fruits of the spring grew rotten as civil war developed.
Muammar Gaddafi was killed without ceremony.
From the chaos of the Arab Spring and the power vacuum in Syria and Iraq came Islamic State. In some ways Islamic State’s pedigree has much in common with al-Qaida, a global jihadi movement. Al-Qaida dabbled in the kind of targeting of minorities, beheadings and genocidal pretensions that Islamic State perfected in northern Iraq, but its cell-like terrorist structure never allowed it to get a sovereign foothold. In our lingo, Islamic State could be described as al-Qaida 2.0, and insofar as 9/11 helped create the conditions for Islamic State, that is a good way to explain its emergence.
While 9/11 had a huge impact on the US and its foreign policy, changing George W. Bush’s isolationist tendencies into a War on Terror, its deeper impact has been on Europe.
Before the attacks on America, Europe was slumbering and inwardly focused on knitting together the Schengen Area’s open borders. Perhaps some had read Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, or Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism’s Challenge to Democracy, but 9/11 sharpened the question of whether Europe is in a “civilizational” conflict with Islam, made more real due to large numbers of Muslim immigrants, refugees and local minorities.
In 2001 Oriana Fallaci published The Rage and the Pride, and in 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second in the French presidential election.
Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who said he was in favor of a “cold war with Islam... a hostile religion,” became a brief sensation, before his assassination in 2002. In 2003 Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali was elected a member of the Dutch parliament from the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.
Theo van Gogh, the filmmaker critical of Islam, was murdered in 2004 in Amsterdam.
Madrid and London suffered mass terrorist attacks in 2004 and 2005, and in 2005 France was rocked by massive riots in mostly immigrant banlieues or suburbs. 5,000 EU citizens are estimated to have joined Islamic State.
Those post-9/11 troubles in Europe created a narrative, a new type of media coverage, where almost every day the coverage in Europe is primarily about migration and Islam: burkini bans, minaret bans, burka bans.
But the real long-term issue is immigration – not merely the rise of anti-immigrant parties from Finland to Sweden and beyond, but the recent crisis caused by the Syrian conflict that has landed on Germany’s doorstep. The collapse of borders, the total chaos in Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, as more than 1.5 million migrants made their way north in the last year may destroy the Schengen Agreement and 20 years of open borders and the “new Europe.”
Numerous machete attacks in Germany, France and London have led to fears of lone-wolf attacks. That’s nothing compared to the mass killings in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016. Now Europe is festooned with armed police, hulking men in camouflage with machine guns, patrolling train stations and public areas.
Unprecedented anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews have returned to the continent.
Europe is “close to the limit” on refugees and migrants, said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council at the G20. But he has no plan to stop them, as thousands are rescued regularly in the Mediterranean, after they walked through the weakened states of North Africa, where people smugglers and local regimes pushed them on to the EU.
In the UK the Brexit vote may herald the eventual disintegration of the EU. A New York Times article on Denmark recently said the Danes may go the same way. And the French are barely maintaining control over the port city of Calais, where thousands of migrants have camped.
The low-level chaos in Europe, the racism, the terrorism, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, museums self-censoring for Iranian mullahs in Italy – all this paints a picture of a continent truly impacted by 9/11, more so than the US, because it is a struggle over internal values. This Kulturkampf will result in either a rise of more nationalism, an attempt at integration and keeping the EU open borders, or the slow breakdown of the state.
We who are members of the 9/11 generation, who lived through it in university, shoulder its burdens. Our way of life is changed completely. It can be the little things in the West – the way everyone has to be familiar with chadors, burkas, abayas, niqab, and hijab, jihad and hajj – or it can be the larger things, the shift from wasting time talking about Marxism in university to going off to war, either at home, dealing with Orwellian security and bombings, or abroad.
The post-Cold War world that ended on 9/11 had promised a generation, especially in Europe and America but also elsewhere, that it would relax in privilege. Today, from Asia to Africa, Europe and the US, the whole world is living under globalized terrorism, not globalized capitalism. Not McDonald’s, but terrorism. There is not an election today in the West not impacted by this issue and the ongoing side affects, from migration to the 60-nation coalition fighting Islamic State.