Fifteen Years Since 9/11

11 September 2016

Sunday


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It is now fifteen years since the coordinated terror attacks of 11 September 2001 on the US — specifically, on New York City and Washington, DC — and while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were the immediate consequence of these attacks are now receding into history like 9/11 itself, we continue to live with the legacy of the altered geopolitical conditions of that day.

The ongoing turmoil in Syria, which began as an uprising against Assad and developed into a civil war, is one of the geopolitical consequences of 9/11. It is unlikely that the uprising against Assad would have occurred without the Arab Spring, and it is unlikely the Arab Spring would have occurred if the US had not toppled Saddam Hussein from power. I am not suggesting a direct chain of causality here — many other events were implicated as well — but only that one set of events is the background to another set of events, and 9/11 was the pivotal geopolitical event of the beginning of the 21st century. As such, the post-Cold War order grows out of the series of events set in motion by 9/11 (counting the last decade of the 20th century as a “buffer” between the Cold War and the War on Terror).

The sluggish recovery of growth following the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession is probably a function of the ongoing geopolitical turmoil, and in this way we can also see that the populist reaction against globalization is also an indirect consequence of 9/11. When the “wealth effect” is contributing to a perception of a rising tide that raises all boats, there is little resentment against those at the top of the income pyramid, but when times are tough the wealth effect dissipates into thin air, and in the clarity of this thin air those who have not done well for themselves cast envious eyes on those who are living well despite tough times.

It would not be difficult to construct a counterfactual world in which 9/11 never happened, “irrational exuberance” continued apace (Keynes called this “animal spirits”), and the world was several percentage points per year wealthier than we are now from steadily growing global trade. We might compare ourselves to this world — not unlike the world of the late 19th and early 20th century, before the spell was broken by the First World War — as a kind of ongoing measure of what might have been.

Bertrand Russell wrote that no one could understand the assumptions of progress of the late Victorian, and then the Edwardian period, and how World War I ended all this, who was not there to experience it. But we have our own analogy, imperfect as it is. We remember the talk of what the post-Cold War world would be like, and how this dream evaporated with the attacks of 9/11. In one day, a world bright with promise for the 21st century simply vanished.

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Wednesday


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It has been a dozen years now since 11 September 2001. Like that day, today is a beautifully clear and pleasant September day. That such an event should be associated in my memory with nice weather is not unlike that memory almost a hundred years ago of the summer of 1914, just before the Guns of August, when Europeans reported one of their most pleasant summers ever, as though to drive home the stark horror of all that followed that beautiful summer.

I last wrote about September 11 two years ago, on the tenth anniversary, in Ephemera and Pseudo-Events, when I explored the nature of anniversaries as “pseudo-events” that are created by media participation. This year media participation seems pretty low key, making the anniversary perhaps less of a pseudo-event. Moreover, the anniversary of September 11 is also the anniversary of the coup that ousted Salvador Allende from power in Chile, and the news in the sources I read (I should mention that I don’t get my news from US sources) gave almost as much play to the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup as to the terrorist attacks on the US.

September 11 not only marked a turning point for US geopolitical involvement in the world in the post-Cold War era, it also marked a decisive turning point in the narrative by which we understand these events and their place in history. New terms and political catch-phrases entered our vocabulary and were relentlessly repeated by media outlets until they became meaningless almost as rapidly as they were introduced. A lot can happen in a dozen years — three or four presidents, for example, though in fact the post-9/11 political environment has yielded only two.

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As rapidly as events occurred in the wake of September 11, events have continued to succeed each other with astonishing rapidity, and for all the day-to-day continuity that one experiences when swimming in the ocean of history, we can already begin to see the dissolution of the political patterns of the first decade of the 21st century and the emergence of patterns that will define the second decade of the 21st century. The US has sought to execute a “strategic pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, even as the apparent clarity of purpose in Afghanistan and Iraq yield to the irremediable ambiguities of Libya and Syria.

It is a worthwhile thought experiment to attempt to see one’s own time in historical perspective, but this is admittedly very difficult. As I noted above, the onward rush of events in the present does not allow us to lose sight of the continuity of history, but we know that when we look back on previous centuries (which is itself an arbitrary historical periodization) we tend to break up the centuries into decades and make sweeping generalizations about each decade (perhaps an even more arbitrary historical periodization) as though each were lived separately, in isolation from the decade immediately preceding and immediately following.

What will be said, a hundred years from now (or five hundred years from now), about the first two decades of the twenty-first century? How will they be compared and contrasted in university examinations? What will our descendents say about how we lived, and how different it was to be alive in 2013 as compared to 2003? One obvious narrative structure would be to consign US political history to the presidents in office, so that the first decade of the twenty-first century will be thought of as the Bush years, defined by 9/11 and the response thereto, while the second decade of the twenty-first century will be thought of as the Obama years, when Americans wanted to distance themselves from the radical democratization initiatives of the Bush years and return to a more traditional isolationist stance in relation to the larger world.

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This is one particularly obvious narrative, but one of the things that makes it obvious is its traditionalist focus on political leaders and military engagements — the dreaded grammar-school triumvirate of “names, dates, places” — whereas historiography has turned decisively away from top-down narratives in favor of bottom-up narratives that focus on the ordinary lives of ordinary people. But who is ordinary? In the context of the succession of presidents, any one president is ordinary, so context must be taken into account.

How could we arrive at a bottom-up narrative structure for contemporary history since the end of the Cold War? Or must we change our perspective even more, acknowledging that on the micro-historical level things change little and slowly, so that periodizations must look to macro-historical forces and structures that are so much larger than the Cold War, and what preceded and followed it, that such events barely register in the lives of ordinary individuals? In this context, what would seem to matter is the slow erosion of the position of the middle class, widening income disparity (just yesterday it was reported that US income inequality at record high), and the large-scale change in the structure of the labor market influencing the kind of jobs that are available, how much they pay, and how long they last.

Of course, no one is going to be satisfied with any one narrative or another exclusively. Part of the complexity of history is the collision of competing narratives. While in the history text books one narrative may triumph to the exclusion of others, the conflict from which the triumph emerges inevitably alters the triumphant narrative so that it becomes a kind of synthesis of the trends of the age.

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