Ultimately, the Bush administration’s expeditionary responses to 9/11, their attempts to import democracy to foreign lands down the barrel of an M16, failed miserably to produce robust civil societies in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Another September 11th anniversary has passed, this one without as much commentary and fanfare as the tenth anniversary last year. The common refrain heard in the wake of the attacks, and in the years since, was “9/11 changed everything”. As the years have passed, focus has understandably shifted to more immediate problems: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a multitude of controversial counterterrorism measures. In the maelstrom of events, the New York and Washington D.C. attacks took on a largely human-interest significance, with stories of bravery and resilience becoming the dominant narrative of the day itself. But this obscured more esoteric but still crucial questions that the attacks raised, questions that are worth revisiting eleven years later. Were the attacks an act of war, or were they just an immensely successful terrorist attack? And if they were a terrorist attack, as opposed to an act of war, was it an al Qaeda success or an al Qaeda failure?
In the simplest terms, a lot depends on whether or not you view 9/11 as a crime or an act of war: if it was simply a terrorist crime, even a particularly heinous one, then the recourse is law enforcement, tracking down those responsible and bringing them to justice through a court system. If it is an act of war, then tanks and troops are the answer.
For the Bush administration, as well as for al Qaeda, the answer to the first question was blindingly obvious – the attacks were an act of war: thus the American response – invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – and their war-infused rhetoric, mirrored in a way by the al Qaeda spin on the event, which held that the attacks were a bold and direct defense of innocent Muslims from Western “butchers” Both black-and-white, us-versus-them interpretations were considered by many observers at the time to be crude and dangerous.
Ultimately, the Bush administration’s expeditionary responses, their attempts to import democracy to foreign lands down the barrel of an M16, failed miserably to produce robust civil societies in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and as headlines continue to show, the use of terrorism as a tactic is still alive and well.
But was the Bush administration really that wrong in its assertions of war? Perhaps the botched response has clouded the fact that yes, the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were an act of war, but the answer should not have been a traditional military intervention – even one with a relatively light footprint. American boots on the ground in Muslim lands is exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted to happen, the next step in what he hoped would be the awakening of the global ummah.
“Perception is at the core of terrorism,” wrote Audrey Kruth Cronin. As a New Yorker who witnessed hundreds of fellow New Yorkers streaming onto a major highway, covered in dust and blood, a river of panicked people desperate to get away from Manhattan before more buildings fell on them, I certainly perceived it to be an act of war – at least in the first few hours. I clearly remember running across the Manhattan Bridge, scanning the skies for more planes, terrified for the first and really only time in my life, expecting an invasion to begin imminently, although even in my panic I couldn’t imagine who could possibly invade the US in 2001.
Eleven years and two wars later, the Obama administration’s policy of drone strikes causes nearly as much hand-wringing in some quarters as the invasion of Iraq, an altogether more bloody and destructive affair. Lost in these debates over the use of lethal force against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban militants, is the reality of 9/11. The message that al Qaeda sent that day absolutely had to be countered in a show of strength – a failure to do so would have been catastrophically demoralizing for all those who believe in the superiority of democratic society over purveyors of inchoate violence. Today’s programme of drone strikes did not come about in a vacuum – the Predators were armed and began flying in the skies of Central Asia before the smoke had cleared over Ground Zero. The policy gained further traction following the painful realization that the Gen. McChrystal school of counter insurgency had failed both in winning over ordinary Afghans and in defeating those who would do America harm. Drones are, as Peter Bergen put it recently, President Obama’s “weapon of choice” because they kill more militants than they do innocents, and spend much less blood and treasure than building wells while simultaneously cracking skulls.
In several recent arguments, my defense of the more robust aspects of American counterterrorism policy have been explained away with the sympathetic (if patronizing) comment that, as an American, I am simply having an emotional reaction to what I witnessed in on September 11. But these well-meaning comments fail to grasp a singular point about terrorist violence: emotion is the whole point. Emotion is the currency of terrorism, it is what terrorists and their adversaries in the security and military apparatus trade back and forth – sometimes in the form of fear, sometimes in the form of anger, sometimes in the form of intense bonds of loyalty and fraternity. In the moment of its commission, a terrorist attack has more in common with the pathos of Shakespeare than the dry detachment of political scientists.
Today, al Qaeda is not thoroughly defeated. But then again, how does a superpower defeat an idea? Especially when that idea is not the monolithic ideology of Communism, where the very state structures that embodied that idea were also the living proof of its failures. Universalist Islamism is not going to collapse under its own weight as Communism did – it is but a whisper.
Not being defeated is not the same as having won, however, and the evidence seems to indicate, post-Arab Spring, that while al Qaeda might not disappear entirely, it will not be gaining a foothold in any major Arab governments any time soon.
The first question, however, is more complex. Ultimately, even if the events of September 11 played out like the cataclysmic opening salvo of a major war, more Pearl Harbor than Oklahoma City, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are nonetheless firmly rooted in the terrorist strategic mindset. Lacking the popular support or the conditions capitalized upon by true revolutionaries who painstakingly build mass movements over many years, they followed instead the long tradition of Irish Fenians, Russian anarchists, and left-wing 1970’s radicals, who opted for the instant gratification of terrorism. As Jason Burke wrote, bin Laden and his associates rejected the kind of gradualism that the Muslim Brotherhood represented. Since the majority of Muslims do not agree with their methods, the goal of al Qaeda, Burke says, was to “mobilize and radicalize” through violence and retaliation. And while the group’s attacks certainly catapulted bin Laden and Zawahiri into global recognition and attention – loved by some, loathed by others – they failed to tap the vast wellspring of Arab frustration and activism that a humble Tunisian fruit vendor would almost a decade later. So, just like the left-wing and nationalist European radicals that came before them, bin Laden and Zawahiri’s vanguard failed to lead the masses to their personal version of utopia.
September 11 2001 still matters because these questions can still be endlessly debated. The attacks contain within them a multitude of truths, some of them contradictory, illuminating the nature not just of terrorism, or war, but the intimacy of violence and how it plays out on the global stage.
Photo credit: 9/11 photos