Five-Year Commemoration of 9/11

The Primal Scene of a Global Confrontation

September 11 marks the start of a logic of escalation. Even those of our generation understand how such an escalation begins and how it continues to spiral upwards. What we still don't know is how it can be stopped, writes Robert Misik

Firefighters on Ground Zero on 9/11 (photo: AP)
Robert Misik: "The events of that day completely altered the political and intellectual landscape"

​​One sees images of people hastily fleeing downwards and firemen storming upwards, smoke, pools of water left from the fire-fighting operations, and bewildered, incredulous, and horrified faces. You hear noise, with no idea of where it is coming from.

What one doesn't see in Oliver Stone's new film World Trade Center are the well-known images that have been burnt into the world's collective memory. Then you realize that the only people on the planet unfamiliar with the canonized sequence of events, those who didn't see the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, were the people who happened to be in the two towers at the time.

9/11 of George Bush, and 9/11 of the victims

It comes across like an allegory of the dual existence of this eventful date. Here is September 11 as the primal scene of a new global confrontation, and there is September 11 of the "little people" caught in the collapsing skyscrapers, crushed like ants under the footstep of an elephant. Here is September 11 as the starting signal of the "War on Terror," the September 11 of George W. Bush, and there the September 11 of the victims.

"The attack was used to justify an unpopular war and as a weapon in election campaigns," wrote Bruce Kluger, commentator in USA Today, in an air disgust. "In this moment, downtown New York was turned into a utopia of grief," stated John Homans in the New Yorker. "The city seemed completely different." But the Bush government "simply seized upon September 11" and transformed a story of suffering into one of retribution.

What we observe in films like WTC and the choir of disjointed memories of this day is an attempt to cleanse September 11 from all that came afterwards – the war in Afghanistan, the "War on Terror," the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib. Yet, even this attempt shows the impossibility of the undertaking. September 11 is namely a break in world history – one that shapes our time, no less significant than the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is as if a kind of force field envelopes this date, sorting out the scenery.

9/11 naïveté

The current front line positions of intellectual discourse and the basis of new ideological alliances coalesce around the main issues of 9/11, the political stance in America, and the dynamics of the global cultural conflict. September 11 immerses everything in its own peculiar ether. It poses the crucial question of our time – a question that, in a certain sense, confronted us all at once on a single morning. The old maps guiding our theoretical bearings became useless rubbish. Since then, we have been busy drawing up a new intellectual cartography of the world.

Even now, the significance of this fact is probably more underrated than overrated.

Women fleeing Manhattan across Brooklyn Bridge on 9/11 (photo: AP)
9/11 has lead to five years of fighting. Will America finally be able to come to terms with her suffering and vulnerability?

​​Although it is right to insist that the "West" is not a monolithic block and that the "East" is more of a phantasmagoria than a clearly delineated category, history renders this position naïve. The confrontation between the West and the Islamic world resulting from September 11 and its aftermath is a fact. We are now faced with a constellation of "us" against "them," a perception in the West of being threatened, and a chronic sense of humiliation in those regions of the world not considered to belong to the West.

One side sees the need to protect itself against a new "totalitarian threat," using whatever means at its disposal, while the other side sees itself in a world where there is such a clear division of power and impotence that they need to turn to spectacular exploits in order to gain attention.

In the end, it is the radicals on both sides that set the agenda. The well-meaning intentions of rational individuals, who probably make up the majority, are of no help here. Who in the West, when all is said and done, determines the dynamics of the situation? Bush's entourage or those who plead for dialogue and equal rights? And who is it on the Muslim side? The hotheads or those who go about propagating the view of Islam as a peace-loving religion?

Anti-Western furor, anti-Islamic furor

These last five years have been typical of a time of upwardly spiraling escalations. Each side regularly provides the other with justifications for their actions – the invasion of Iraq and the train bombing in Madrid, Abu Ghraib and the grainy photos of the Islamic decapitators, Guantanamo Bay and the bombing of the London Underground, the building of the wall in Palestine and the Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon, the anti-Western furor in the Arab world and the corresponding anti-Islamic furor in the West.

There is a widespread sense of threat in large Western cities accompanied by a general suspicion of everyone who looks even the slightest bit foreign.

The WTC before 9/11 (photo: AP)
New York's World Trade Center before 9/11 - a symbol of economic and cultural might

​​The world has changed dramatically in five years. Despite the insane optimism of those apologists for America's attempt to export democracy, the world has not become a better place. Instead, we live in a world with more violence, more hate, and with a greater desire for vengeance. We now know how this can all start. We know how a logic of confrontation can lead to conflicts spiraling out of control with no discernable end in sight.

What we still don't know is how such a state of affairs can be brought to an end. In many respects, the confrontation is asymmetrical. This is because on an ideological level we are dealing with a general conflict, a division, that somehow tastes and smells like a world war, yet, from a military viewpoint, this is a low-intensity confrontation.

Terrorist attacks in the West remain the exception rather than the rule and actual military battles are confined to specific regions of the world. This is good, but there is a downside, namely, that this state of affairs can continue indefinitely. The usual option to exit a conflict – the warring parties being bled dry and losing their strength – is not a realistic prospect here. Thank God, one might say!

Radicalism – what's the price for the general public?

It is more realistic to assume that a strong desire for moderation will build up within the general population, as the price the majority has to pay for the adventurism of the radicals is just too high. Correspondingly, the radicals will gradually become more isolated. The preconditions for this scenario, however, do not look good. Although Muslim society has indeed suffered from the actions of the radicals, up until now, their support has tended to increase.

In the West, on the other hand, the price that normal people have to pay in their everyday lives for the confrontation remains relatively low. As a result, pressure for a political change of course is still very weak.

It is quite likely that this state of affairs will continue for another five to ten years. It is also possible that the waves will gradually subside. This will happen when the realists in the Islamic milieu drive back the radicals inch by inch and when the strong tradition of pacifying conflicts and an aversion to the militarization of politics once again becomes noticeable in the West.

A start will have been made in the USA when, on the anniversary of September 11, those wanting to tell a story of suffering instead of proclaiming the need for retribution finally manage to make themselves heard.

Robert Misik

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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