On a warm, sunny, late summer morning in Washington, DC, my wife and I were in a doctor’s office in one of the city’s suburbs, picking up the last bit of medical information that would – finally – certify that our family was now 100% fit to travel onward to our next assignment, after a difficult medical condition that had, for a while, threatened this next transfer on the grounds that my wife might still need further treatment in the US. State Department rules.
This time our new posting was to be Johannesburg, following five years in Tokyo. While we were doing the rounds to pick up such medical documents and finish the bureaucratic and administrative stuff that was always part of a new, onward assignment, we had been house-sitting for some friends while they were on a vacation in the Near East.
On that day, one of our daughters was in her classes in a local university in Washington. The younger one had just finished high school in Tokyo and she would be coming with us to South Africa. At that precise moment, she was with some old friends as they explored exhibits at the Smithsonian and other tourist spots downtown.
Literally, just as the medical receptionist was handing over that crucial report and as she informed us she had already forwarded the good news to the medical offices at the State Department in order to enable us to travel, a woman – a total stranger – burst into the offices and shouted, “They’ve bombed the Pentagon!” and then rushed right back out to carry on with her infernal messenger service.
We grabbed the crucial document, uncertain as to what was going on in the world. Was it a wave of all-encompassing global terror attacks? The outbreak of World War III? Who knew?
In response, we drove to the nearest supermarket across the street, took two shopping carts, and split up in that massive store where our ad hoc plan was to fill up the carts with whatever seemed reasonable and necessary for survival in the following days. The usual approach would have been hard rations and batteries. Bottled water, first aid supplies and the like.
Truth be told, we were so confused by this event (the car’s radio had not yet even broadcast this news), whatever was going on, the two of us came to the checkout lane with our carts laden with luxury goods, and virtually no survival staples. We were set for a fancy al fresco luncheon buffet with gourmet, handmade pasta, imported cold meats and cheeses, and the fixings for designer sauces like bottles of certified organic pesto, but less well prepared for hunkering down during the incoming apocalypse. Not much peanut butter, tinned milk, or toilet paper in our carts. Never mind. If it really was a false alarm, we’d be ready to host a heck of a farewell party for friends. But, if it was going to be the big one, we’d still be able to have one great, last, truly final supper.
As soon as we returned to our temporary home, the television went on – and stayed on for days and days. We saw the Twin Towers fall, live on television, and then the hordes of people on foot, struggling to make their way to safety. Somewhere. Anywhere. We saw desperate attempts to put out the raging fire at the Pentagon. Then there were the confused hours as all air flights were grounded, the unspoken but felt panic in newscasters’ voices as they tried to make sense of the events for the world. Meanwhile, we had to find out where our children were. Not an easy task given that the phone lines were jammed and cellphone reception had broken down for many. Fortunately, our older one had quietly slipped away from her classes and gotten on the last subway train running in Washington that day to get to her apartment. The younger one had also made it out of the city to a friend’s house.
The parents of the owners of the house we were staying in were now equally frantic, especially since the travellers were in Morocco and they couldn’t be reached by phone. No one knew anything about their whereabouts or how they would be able to return to the US, and none of my friends in government could give us any information either about when air travel might resume.
As a result, our next task was to unscramble our flight arrangements since we were due to depart that week. With all planes grounded for who knew how long, I spent hours on the phone with airline agents trying to identify a flight out of the US and on to South Africa by way of Europe – where we had been scheduled to meet with friends in Frankfurt, Germany, for a few days. For the first several days, all we could find out was that all flights were grounded, then suddenly overbooked, and that our call was important to the airline and we should be patient. For hours and hours. For days.
Finally we locked onto seats and then we had to unscramble the shipment of our two pet cats. The pedestrian was suddenly a complex problem. We had an entire binder of documents for their travel from Tokyo to the US to Germany to South Africa, but the crucial document to support the rest could only be obtained from the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Station, located a 50km drive away in Annapolis, Maryland. We had obtained that permit from them just before everything changed, but the permit was only valid for a few days. By the time we could travel, we had had to go there twice more to get new permits. The people in the inspection station were so amused by our repeated visits, they actually gave us the final set for those cats for free as we’d earned this favour from them, they told us, given that we were travelling off into who knew what circumstances in Africa.
We made it on to the plane out of the US via an airport bristling with guards with guns and an extremely serious attitude about checking everyone and everything. By the time we left Frankfurt a few days later, we left through an airport where there were even more gendarmes carrying even more automatic weapons in every corridor. The irony was that throughout the whole trip, no one ever bothered to check all those precious documents for those cats – or the cats themselves. Too busy looking for many other things, obviously.
While we were not personally harmed by the events of 9/11, we did know people working in New York City who had had to walk for miles through a ghastly blizzard of airborne detritus from the burning, collapsing buildings. By the time they had reached their respective destinations, they looked like actors in some extraordinary piece of avant-garde performance art, covered head to toe in fine, grey, powdery ash.
Now, 16 years later, long after the initial shocks have worn off, we think of 11 September 2001 in far more than just personal terms, of course. Perhaps like anyone who was alive on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor’s naval facilities without warning, thereby bringing the US into World War II, 9/11 also divides time into a crisp, deadly duality – before and after. Before the December attack, Americans assumed their nation was safe. Before Pearl Harbor, the country was safe behind two oceans that kept America separated from the terrible fighting in East Asia and Europe. Afterwards, of course, the realisation had hit Americans hard that nothing was safe from aggressors like Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
This time around, 9/11 came just as the post-Cold War calm had settled in. Yes, there were intractable international issues, there were still border wars and civil wars here and there, but the Cold War (indeed, history itself if you believed Francis Fukuyama’s popular book) was over, the Soviet Union had vanished, the Chinese were buying into the global economic consensus, and it might even be true, soon enough, that institutions like Nato might become historical curiosities. The country had been at peace for a long stretch since the Vietnam War, and the economy was now in fine shape as well.
And then, suddenly, seemingly without warning, that illusion was abruptly shattered. Small irredentist and radical, religiously inspired groups eager to strike a blow for their causes and die for them had found the highly vulnerable chinks in the armour of the nation’s security. One of them had organised a stunningly low-tech plot (a handful of box cutters and the knowledge of flying a plane without needing to know how to land it) to kill thousands, destroy the most iconic buildings in the nation’s political and economic-financial capitals and collectively instil terror into the thoughts of millions. Collateral damage in this case was the collapse of any national sense of serenity, well-being, and safety that had come in with the collapse of communism and the Soviet “empire”.
Soon enough, President George W Bush, after being stunned into silence while reading a children’s book to a primary school class as the attacks happened, authorised efforts to track down and attack Osama bin Laden’s followers and fighters in the hills of Afghanistan – al-Qaeda. A nation’s white-hot fury and anger called for nothing less, of course. But, soon enough, that mission morphed into something much larger and more ambiguous, the pacifying of the entirety of that country and the defeat of groups like the Taliban whose presence had created shelter for al-Qaeda. And that mission – now 16 years later, and on into its third US president – remains unfinished, troubling and perhaps impossible to complete, given the realities of Afghanistan’s history and political and social world.
But much worse was to come. For the Bush administration, it was now time to settle things more permanently with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – the same dictator who had been defeated but not vanquished by his father’s UN-orchestrated campaign after Iraq had invaded and occupied Kuwait. For some in the new Bush administration, they willingly convinced themselves of nuclear and chemical warfare ambitions in Iraq, as well as that nation’s plan to impose power over the region as a whole. They convinced themselves that the evidence was there, they convinced the president they knew those things, and so he went to war, without real proof. The Iraqi regime was easily destroyed, but the apocalypse arrived instead of an easy win for democracy.
From our vantage point now, it is much easier to see that the nearly inevitable outcome from the still-incomplete Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns helped give oxygen and life to and then to unleash a whole panoply of groups eager to carry their own campaigns against the West, against the replacement governments in those two nations, and then, eventually, to give life to the even more dreadful ISIS.
From our vantage point now, we can that see 9/11 unleashed a feeling among many in the general population and among some who wished to be in government that these events and the ones that followed were the inevitable eschatological clash of civilisations Prof Samuel Huntington had warned us about nearly two generations ago. For some, that deep feeling became subtly married to the idea that these new battles were a contemporary continuation of the Crusades of the late Middle Ages against Muslim rule in the Holy Land, the struggle against the Turkish destruction of Byzantium in 1453, and the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors in 1492. Such feelings, married to an unease about the economy, the unending strife of the Middle East, and the flows of refugees from that unhappy region, have helped animate and energise the contemporary right wing political movements of many nations – not least in the US. In that sense, we can even blame 9/11 for a share of the rise and rise of one Donald J Trump.
How will this all end? Who really knows? Despite Fukuyama, history is not at an end. The issues in the Near East, such as the vast differences in wealth, political power and ethnic, religious and social fracture lines that stretch back through the centuries are nowhere close to disappearing. These fractures now help generate vast numbers of terrified people, wheeling about the region and beyond, desperate for some place to rest.
The continuing engagement of the West in many of those same problems seems similarly unending, whether it is a question of geopolitical circumstance or of economics and natural resources. Meanwhile, the very nature of the West’s open societies give space and access to those who would strike back at the presumed source of all their troubles – that is, of course, unless those western nations are prepared to embark on the militarisation of their societies well beyond anything countenanced so far. But the willingness of some politicians of the West (yes, you do know exactly who we’re talking about here) to blame these symptoms for most of the ills now afflicting western nations – and then to use the resulting fears of an increasingly nervous population in order to bolster their grip on their nations’ political life – seems to be gaining ground as well.
In fact, the long-term effects of 9/11 are only now beginning to play themselves out. As a result, all of us will be living through the evolution of this event and its ripples and eddies throughout our lifetimes, just as earlier generations had to work through the repercussions of Pearl Harbor – or the collapse of communism and the Berlin Wall 50 years after that momentous Pacific Ocean attack. DM
Photo: With One World Trade Center at left, a light tribute is seen from Jersey City, New Jersey, marking the 16th anniversary of the terror attacks on 9/11. Nearly 3,000 died when hijackers flew commercial airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Photo Porter Binks/(EPA)
"Those who will not reason are bigots; those who cannot are fools; and those who dare not are slaves." ~ George Gordon Byron