In that late summer, my family and I had departed from Tokyo, Japan after working and living there for five years. We had arrived in Washington DC for visits with friends, the required office briefings and medical checks, as we were about to move to our next assignment in Johannesburg.
This is the regular way of things for diplomats. Every few years one says goodbye to one life and prepares to begin a new life in a new place. But for us, particularly, a return to South Africa was a kind of homecoming. My wife hails from South Africa, I had served here twice already, and our whole family was looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and extended family.
Thinking back to this time a decade ago, the world seemed a particularly calm place – especially compared with our present irritable, edgy circumstances. The Cold War was long over, the US was not involved in a shooting war anywhere – George Bush Snr’s Gulf War had happened a decade ago.
Some scholars and analysts had already started to describe the new 21th century world as one created in the image of Europe’s “Long Peace” from 1815 to 1914 guaranteed by the period’s superpower, Great Britain; or, perhaps, even a period that was along the lines of the ancient “Pax Romana”.
True, there was America’s increasingly important rivalry with China (perhaps analogous with the rise of 19th century Germany or classical Rome’s chief challenger, ancient Persia) and there remained that troubling, still-unsolved – perhaps even unsolvable – Middle Eastern dilemma. But from the Olympian heights inhabited by an American policy maker thinking about the world on the evening of 10 September 2001, the storyline had achieved a thoroughly triumphalist narrative.
Domestically, the US had ended up with a minority president in the person of George W Bush. This came after a political journey that had led some comics – and even a few more serious commentators – to insist that the US could benefit from international election observers by the time the country’s torturous electoral process finally ended after a decision by the Republican-dominated Supreme Court. Fortunately, many people thought, Bush’s main attention would be directed towards domestic issues, in the absence of major international challenges.
If Francis Fukuyama’s rosy, hyper-optimistic “The End of History” had been tempered by Samuel Huntington’s decidedly less sanguine “Clash of Civilisations”; nonetheless the fundamental question remained: where was that illusive something or somewhere that would offer a fundamental challenge to American power, ideas and ideals?
Yes, of course, there were some thoroughly unpleasant people about in the world. Some of them had detonated a truck bomb in the basement of one of New York City’s World Trade Center buildings some years earlier; others had attacked the USS Cole from a small boat packed with explosives. Yet others had blown up two American embassies in Africa, killing hundreds of Africans and Americans.
But in contrast to a band of fanatics attacking an embassy, using a fertilizer/diesel bomb a la Oklahoma City, or fanatics trying to sink a warship with a rubber raft are one thing – hijacking and then deliberating flying passenger-filled commercial airliners into the landmark, even iconic, structures of downtown Manhattan was a very different thing entirely: it was one of those so-called black swan events.
Of course there have always been fanatics who used the tools and weapons at hand to advance their social, economic or political goals. The end of the 19th century had especially been such a period in history. The assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, after all, had brought a conclusive end to the European “Long Peace” and the resulting decades killed tens of millions of people from 1914-1945, and then led into the Cold War and all those “smaller” wars like Korea and Vietnam, and a vast, sometimes violent, decolonisation across Africa and Asia.
Save for two dozen enormously dedicated, fanatical, thoroughly disaffected young men committed to carrying out acts that would make their political point with stunning and horrific sharpness, none of those more sombre thoughts were in my mind – or most other people’s – when I woke up early on 11 September. Instead, in the leafy green suburb where we were house-sitting while the owners of that house were on vacation in the Middle East, we woke up early and then headed off to the doctor’s rooms where we would pick up a last document to give us a medical clearance so that we could move on to Johannesburg in the next few days.
But when we were at the reception counter in the doctor’s office, signing for the receipt of those medical records, a total stranger came rushing into that office and screamed, “They’ve bombed the Pentagon!” Then she ran back out into the morning, leaving everyone in that waiting room stunned into silence and astonishment. Bombed? The Pentagon? How badly? With what? And what does this mean? There were no immediate answers for these questions, of course.
Who was the “they” that had done this? What “other” were they, as the late political philosopher of alienation and exile Edward Said would have asked? Why did they do this? What were they doing, whoever they were? What next?
So we did exactly what generations of people have done “in extremis” as when an invading army, a hurricane or blizzard barrels down upon a defenseless city. We rushed to the nearest grocery store to stock up on basic supplies before others stripped the store’s shelves bare in their own panic. Ours was a good plan, but less than perfect in execution.
My wife and I raced around the store, each of us with a separate shopping trolley. Clearly we were ahead of the general knowledge curve in the store and we filled our two food trolleys right to the brim as we wondered just how long we would be eating from this emergency stash.
But mixed amongst the logical, to-be-expected bags of potatoes, containers of long-life milk, toilet tissue, peanut butter and tinned fish and beans, we had also unconsciously added imported designer pasta, whole fresh jumbo prawns, containers of organic basil-pesto sauce, exotic fruit jellies, gourmet Italian sliced cold meats and cheeses and imported sweets. What, precisely, we were preparing for was obviously something of a mystery. We were ready for either a short siege or our last meal before Armageddon – but also for a lazy, al fresco brunch in a park as well.
But was going on in the larger world? The usual communication channels we all depend upon were not much help, initially. And there was no one in any government office who could offer any guidance either. The reports coming from our car radio were confusing and contradictory as we raced from the doctor’s office to the grocery store and back to our temporary home. We later learned that the nation’s cell phone networks had become virtually useless as everybody was trying to call everyone else to find out what they knew, were they and their families safe, and where were they now? Busy signals all the time – for everyone.
Like everyone else, we tried to find our own children. Our older daughter had quickly fled her university classes to get out of the downtown area of Washington before the city went to lock-down – or worse. And our other daughter, staying with a family friend, had headed the opposite way – down to the Washington Mall to join a spontaneous candle lighting event for the souls of what were clearly going to be many victims from these events.
Then it was to the television screen to follow the all-news channels for days on end. The nameless, indescribable horror was becoming tangible. There was first footage of the Twin Towers on fire, then collapsing. In real time, we watched the second strike, the collapse, and further chaos and confusion. Friends working in New York City said later they had walked home for miles through streets of panicky people, the ever-blaring sirens, the billowing clouds of a billion pieces of paper; the ash, smoke and the terror. Exactly what a terrorist hopes to achieve.
I was left with more quotidian bureaucratic problems – small by contrast to many other people’s personal circumstances, but filling up entire days in pursuit of elusive bureaucratic success. The export permits for two pet cats had to be renewed repeatedly even though we were not sure when – or if – we would depart. And then, of course, there were our airplane tickets and now impossible-to-come-by international reservations. Who knew when or to where we would actually travel.
We spent days waiting on the phone, hearing “Your call is important to us, please stay on the line, you are now number 699 in line…” – more often even than Joburg Connect’s “We are experiencing unusual call volumes…” With airplanes all over the world grounded for days, the huge ripple effect of more than a million people around the world, trying to travel all at once, the initial results were chaotic.
Then we were finally in Frankfurt Airport. There were police with their submachine guns at port-arms at every corner. But what if they saw something and decided to shoot? Who would they decide was the enemy? The great shoes and belt off, no liquid containers and the full body-scanning regimen were still to come, but the security gate queues already moved very slowly.
Amidst all of this, on the television were the scenes from the Washington National Cathedral ceremony acknowledging grief and loss – and George W Bush’s pronouncement of a great crusade against the malefactors. I remember a sudden premonition that in this promise there was the first whiff of trouble. Who, exactly, was the enemy in Bush’s thoughts? Did he not know, as British historian Norman Davies has written, that “One may assume that in the Islamic world ‘Crusader’ is a term of abuse for any Westerner who interferes unnecessarily”?
For Bush, the enemy was the people who did these things or the entire societies they had come from? My wife told me later that almost immediately after the day of the actual attacks, she had spoken with petrol station operators in Washington – Somali immigrants, it should be noted – who had told her they were already sensing a chill as Moslems among “us”.
By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, we met a shaken staff and colleagues – anxious about what was going to be the next hammer blow. On the talk radio stations, the inevitable conspiracy theorists filling up the air waves with their collective dementias: the whole thing was a plot by MI6, Mossad – or the FBI, the CIA, Opus Dei, or even deeper, darker, unnamable forces. How could a handful of young Moroccan/Saudi/Egyptian/Yemeni university students actually do something like this?
Hadn’t the Israeli Embassy called every Jew in the greater New York City area to warn them to stay out of the Twin Towers that fateful morning? How could a plane (even one filled with highly flammable aviation fuel) crash into the Pentagon and not leave behind a huge rubble field? Isn’t it suspicious New York authorities were taking all the rubble to a distant landfill rather than sort it right there at Ground Zero? “Show us the bodies!” they cried on their broadcast comments. There were so many stories to deal with, and so much of it was filled with either hatred or envy of America. Even so, in those early days, Americans found they had many friends around the world. Many more nations offered support and sustenance than cheerled the hard men who had carried out these deeds.
For almost all Americans, these 9/11 attacks – for that is what they were immediately – and forever – named – become the 21st century’s version of Pearl Harbor, the archetypal “sneak attack” that awakened the American giant and sent it off in search of vengeance in World War II. Typical of the times was how the then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Texas senator Tom Connally, spoke to the press in the immediate wake of the Pearl Harbor attack: “We shall wreak the vengeance of justice on these violators of peace, these assassins who attack without warning and these betrayers of treaty obligations and responsibilities of international law… We shall repay this dastardly treachery with multiplied bombs from the air and heaviest and accurate shells from the sea.”
And George W Bush would tell the same country sixty years later: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts… These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time….”
But eventually it became clear that while the Bush administration was clearly determined to prosecute what it had by then dubbed “The War on Terror” through a strike at al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, this also became an opportunity to prepare to attack Iraq in its status as avatar of all that was wrong in the Middle East – and on Saddam Hussein himself as the leader of that criminal nation. Or, to turn the famous line from “The Godfather” on its head: This wasn’t business, it was personal.
While it may be best to leave it to psychiatrists to determine if this second attack on Iraq was an effort “to finish up dad’s business” left over from the previous decade’s Gulf War, looking back upon this, it seems to it had elements of a Greek mythology and tragedy in it as well. Saddam Hussein’s regime was a thoroughly miserable, unpleasant, autocratic, authoritarian regime itching for some sort of military closure with the West – but just as clearly it also seems never to have actually possessed those “weapons of mass destruction” that were at the core of the second Bush administration’s indictment of Iraq – and served as George W Bush’s justification for an invasion.
Sometimes those Greek tragic archetypes have it right. Here the story of Daedalus and Icarus seems an explanation of the Bushes – father and son. Daedalus, of course, was the legendary inventor and engineer who, because King Minos of Crete was keeping him prisoner, had created giant wings from the feathers of sea birds and bees wax so that he and his son, Icarus, could escape their imprisonment. When father and son were equipped for flight, Daedalus had warned his son not to fly too high, because the heat of the sun would melt the wax of his wings, nor to fly too low, because the sea foam would soak the feathers, rendering them incapable of being used for flight.
They launched their flights successfully and were well on their way home, but, Icarus, forgetting his father’s sense of limits, and perhaps dazzled by hubris or ambition, flew closer and closer toward the Sun. The Sun’s heat softened the wax, his wings disintegrated and Icarus fell into the sea and perished.
But if Bush senior could resist the temptation to overthrow Saddam Hussein and settle for a limited victory and a return to the status quo ante, his son – eager to put an end to world terror, reshape the Middle East and achieve a fundamental realignment in world power – was unable to resist those interior siren calls to fly higher and still higher.
The resulting tragedy, of course, eventually reached well beyond the Bush administration itself. It has unleashed the violence that has included many thousands of casualties amongst the Iraqis – as well as many American troops – and it has consumed a vast horde of funds wasted on a flight that reached too close to a geopolitical Sun. Eventually, too, it led to a dissipation of the American moral high ground that had been much in evidence in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
This, in turn, has led to a cheapening and dilution of the language, ideas and even the ideals – of America’s place in the world. A phrase like extraordinary rendition, for example, became a way of smoothing out the rough texture of what it really was: international kidnapping for the purpose – defensible though it might well have been under the circumstances – of interrogating people with links to some really bad guys – by means of waterboarding – and what that has come to mean. And more.
George Orwell, that highly outraged, deeply moral man of action and disappointed socialist, had already thoroughly explored – and decried – this principle back in the 1940s after he had been increasingly appalled by the degradations of language used by Hitler’s genocidal reign as well as Stalin’s own horrific excesses. In his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell warned that:
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…”
“Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”
“Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.”
“People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”
In the end, of course, in “1984”, Orwell had offered a Ministry of Truth filled entirely with lies.
George W Bush’s administration eventually became so enmeshed in what it believed – or hoped – to be true that it found itself caught up in what its own spinmeisters had so famously draped across the USS Lincoln – the infamous “Mission Accomplished.”
In truth, though, the mission against fanaticism and the willingness to kill true innocents with industrial-strength explosives, or airplanes, or an available young teenager with that eschatological glow in his – or her – eyes remains one to be accomplished; but it is not just a task for George Bush – or Barack Obama and his successors for that matter.
It remains a task for the world as a whole to eliminate the conditions that give birth to, then nurture and sustain such fanaticism – the kind of fanaticism that imbues a 15-year-old boy with the belief that destroying his clan’s, his tribe’s, his religion’s, his nation’s or his own skin colour’s enemies will somehow smooth his pathway to heaven. Sadly, this remains firmly on the global “to do list”. DM
For more, read about 9/11 commemorations and contemplations in virtually every newspaper and broadcast outlet worldwide this week:
- It’s Still the 9/11 Era (Ross Douthat’s column) in the New York Times;
- Media Strive to Cover 9/11 Without Seeming to Exploit a Tragedy in the New York Times;
- Film Is Skeptical About Domestic Efforts on Terrorism in the New York Times;
- A decade after the 9/11 attacks, Americans live in an era of endless war in the Washington Post;
- The remains of that day in Simon Schama’s column in the Financial Times;
- How 9/11 changed fiction: After the unthinkable in the Economist;
- 9/11: Ten Years on (and many other hyperlinks) at the BBC;
- And of course, “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell’s famous essay in full.
An earlier version of this article was delivered as a speech on 28 August at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Origins Centre to introduce the National Geographic’s premiere of their exclusive interview with former president George W Bush about his recollections of 9/11.