Everyone remembers where they were when the twin towers came down.
I was in my attic writing a column for The Herald about Tony Blair’s forthcoming confrontation with the Trades Union Congress in Brighton. I turned on the television to catch the live conference coverage and found that I was watching a Hollywood disaster movie. If only.
I recently dug out the articles I filed in the immediate aftermath of the greatest terrorist atrocity in history. “President Bush’s first instinct after yesterday’s attack”, I wrote on September 12, 2001, “will have been to launch massive and unpitying retaliation – except that he has no obvious target. Osama Bin Laden? The Taliban? Afghanistan? The West Bank? Iran? Iraq?”.
I went on: “An unbridled pursuit of revenge would turn the world into a vastly more dangerous place ... History will not excuse America if it now inflicts indiscriminate violence and terror against innocent peoples because they happen to live in the Middle East or Asia, have a brown skin or follow the Islamic faith”. America then proceeded to do precisely that.
I’m not congratulating myself here on my wisdom, perspicacity or foresight. Most sensible commentators, in Europe at least, could identify within hours of the planes hitting the World Trade Centre the risks to world peace, and they urged America to think before it acted. Even Tony Blair took this line, initially, and after scrapping his prepared speech to the TUC went on to call for the world to unite against injustice and oppression from the “heart of Africa to the West Bank of the Jordan”. Whatever happened to those noble sentiments?
In fact, it was clear to just about everyone outside the Bush White House that launching military retaliation would be to hand victory to the terrorists. Ham-fisted and illegal invasions of Muslim countries that had nothing to do with 9/11 – Iraq, for example – were precisely what Osama bin Laden wanted. It was to show that the Great Satan really was set on a Crusade against Islam. George W Bush stuck so closely to the script written for him by al Qaeda – even describing the invasion as a “crusade” – that you almost wonder if somehow they weren’t in collusion.
Of course, America had to do something after 9/11. A policing action to clear al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan was a legitimate and measured response to that terror organisation’s brutal and cowardly mass murder, as was pursuing its leader, Osama bin Laden, into the caves of desolate and inaccessible Tora Bora. These acts had the support of the world.
But what was unjustified beyond reason was to invade a Muslim country allegedly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. Saddam Hussein was a foul dictator, like Muammar Gaddafi – but it should have been left to the people of Iraq to dispose of him, not the 101st Airborne. George W Bush and Tony Blair shamefully suggested – against all evidence to the contrary – that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11, and an astonishing number of American citizens still believe this – 41% according to a 2007 Newsweek poll.
On this false prospectus, Tony Blair threw Britain into George W Bush’s disastrous war of retaliation for 9/11. The Prime Minister was, to borrow Lenin’s phrase, a “useful idiot”, there to give moral cover to, well, another idiot. We now know that Mr Blair had pledged Britain’s involvement in the Iraq invasion long before the Westminster parliament was informed. In addition, he set aside the initial advice of Britain’s senior legal advisers that an invasion would be unlawful. It was the greatest foreign policy error since Suez and rightly destroyed Tony Blair’s reputation.
Yet he should have known better than anyone from his experience of the Northern Ireland peace process that you don’t resolve these conflicts by force of arms and by military invasion, but by politics and policing. Had he not just felt “the hand of history on his shoulder” as he negotiated the Good Friday Agreement in 1999 that finally ended the Irish terror bombings? How, you wonder, after leading British soldiers out of the quagmire of Ireland, could he have led them straight into the quicksand of Iraq? It is almost as if a collective madness gripped the “Anglo-Saxon” world after 9/11. America, certainly, was deranged by grief and anger. Someone had to pay for this “Pearl Harbour” act of war. But what did it serve the dead of the World Trade Centre to cause more death and misery? Just examine the 9/11 inventory: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that cost the lives of nearly 6000 American servicemen – double the number who were killed in the Twin Towers. No one knows how many civilians have been killed in Iraq but it is certainly more than 100,000. Some 2,000,000 have been made refugees.
America’s post-9/11 wars have cost between three and four trillion dollars, more than the bill for the financial crisis of 2008-9. Not only did Iraq destroy the fearful image of the American war machine – which was halted by a few thousand Iraqi insurgents – it vastly contributed to America’s economic decline. China is now regarded as the world’s economic powerhouse and is challenging the right of the dollar to remain the world’s reserve currency. When historians come to analyse the decline and fall of the American empire, 9/11 will surely be seen as the tipping point.
In Britain we were told that concern for civil liberties should not “get in the way” of the prevention of terror. It was as if our freedoms were a luxury we couldn’t afford, rather than the basis of our very civilisation. We had Tony Blair’s control orders, attempts to introduce 90-day detention without trial and those unworkable laws against “glorifying terrorism”. Britain became obsessed with “security” after 9/11 as a new bureaucracy arose feeding off politicians’ fears, conducting ever greater surveillance of our lives, compiling vast databases of information. We nearly had to carry identity cards for the first time since World War II.
And then, of course, in 2005, the terrorists did finally strike, in the London bombings which killed some 55 civilians. A terrible act – but the irony was that the London suicide bombers were not agents of some foreign terror network; they were home-grown British citizens hailing from Leeds and Bradford – so-called clean skins.
The London bombers were young men who had been radicalised, not by 9/11, but by the aftermath – by British foreign policy in the Middle East. No less an authority than the former head of MI5, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, said in 2010 that the Iraq war “undoubtedly increased” the level of terrorist threat.
Of course, the Republican cheerleaders for the Iraq war saw it as part of their project for “A New American Century” in which, following 9/11, America would remake the world in its own image. It was to be the “End of History”. Or, as George W. Bush put it in one of his notoriously halting interviews: “We’re remaking the world”. It was as if he were some latter-day Napoleon. Erm, how does that look today?
It was bin Laden who remade the world. His lucky strike on the heartland of America will be remembered, not just as the most brutal act of terrorism in history, but also as the most successful ploy provoking military retaliation.
If only America had acted with the dignity and sense of Norway after the Utoya massacre, and used it as an opportunity to celebrate the values of freedom and civilised behaviour. Or with the phlegmatic resolve of London during the IRA’s bombing campaign in the 1970s. Democracies do not need to fear terrorism; only their own reaction to terrorism.
The events of 9/11 led to Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and “enhanced interrogation techniques” – torture, in other words. America is now regarded by the young idealists of the Arab Spring as little better, morally, than the dictators they have overthrown. Those pictures of American servicemen and women inflicting humiliation on suspected terrorists at Abu Ghraib prision will remain imprinted in the minds of the young Middle East democracies for decades.
In the hours after 9/11 the leaders of the world, from Russia to Pakistan, declared themselves to be “all Americans now” and called for the world to unite in defence of American values. You can’t imagine that happening today – or perhaps ever again.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.