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September 11, 2011

9/11 ten years on

It remains one of those events that we can all recall where we were and what we were doing the moment we learned of it. Ten years on from those tumultuous events known popularly as 9/11, it is hard to identify any winners: Osama bin Laden is dead, and the vulnerabilities of the United States have been exposed in surprising ways. But the ramifications have been much more widely felt than in some artificial divide between so-called Islamic extremism and the democratic West. We do well to revisit that dramatic day and analyse afresh the symbolism of the event - something which has so far been difficult to do because the political sensitivities attached. Whether the distance is enough to fully appreciate the events is still a matter of conjecture, but the symbolism is so powerful, and the ramifications felt across the symbols so profound that we dare not take the opportunity for some fresh reflection.

For good reasons, the focus of 9/11 has been firmly upon the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers which dominated the New York skyline, and which tumbled so dramatically before our eyes. It is too easily forgotten that there were two other targets on that day: the Pentagon and the White House, the former suffering severe damage, but in a limited part of the building, while the attack on the White House was averted by the actions of some brave passengers aboard Flight 93. Together, these three buildings stood as symbols - pillars - of American world domination at the turn of the millennium - the political (White House), economic (World Trade Centre) and military (Pentagon) - underpinned America's status as the sole superpower of the time. The attack on these three buildings was intended to send a strong message, distorted by the total destruction of the towers and the terrible loss of life. An important symbolism is to be found in the method of these attacks: using commercial aircraft - a symbol of American freedom and mobility, turned against its three pillars with catastrophic effect, and all taking place on the date which represents the number which Americans dial in case of emergency - 911. The method employed suggested that the greatest threats to the American way of life lay within - that decay lies within - rather than externally.

Reflecting upon the changes affecting those symbols of American supremacy provide some pause for thought. America's original response was swift, and somewhat perplexing, drawing on its military supremacy with telling effect. The USA plunged into two wars, taking along other nations with it - wars from which it is finding great difficulty defining victory and thereby extracting itself; wars which were widely regarded at the time as having been pursued on dubious grounds. The long-term effect has been to stretch American military capacities to the margins, limiting their ability to respond in other areas of need. And yet perhaps the greatest effect has been felt economically. The effect of the trillion-dollar plus cost of waging these two conflicts has been to stress American financial resources to the limit, leaving the nation with limited capacity to respond not only in the immediacy of the global economic crisis of 2009, but in seeking to rebuild itself in its wake. In ten years America has moved from a healthy position of a sustainable budget in surplus to a point where both its total debt and per-capita debt ranks amongst the world's highest, with little potential for finding agreement as to how to rectify the problem. One legacy of flexing of its military might in response to 9/11 has been a significant, though not fatal, erosion of its economic might.

If the military and economic capacities of the USA have been wounded, more profound has been the impact on politics. One consequence of 9/11 is that we have inherited the black-and-white view of the world which the West generally rejects in Islamic extremism, and by which the terrorists justified their actions: the death of "infidels" being morally justified in their binary view of the world. The rising and almost unshakeable suspicion of refugees and asylum seekers has only grown in the last ten years and become an almost unquestioned tenet in political thinking. We have effectively learned to demonise the "other." A second, perhaps more far-reaching consequence has been the elevation of fear as the primary informant in debate on matters of public policy. No longer does informed debate appear in the public arena as we face global challenges of asylum seekers, or climate change for example. We find ourselves informed by slogans and accusation - reflecting the black-and-white view of all policy matters.

As much as one might find the emergence of the Tea Party in the US and its approach to public policy to be disturbing, one can empathise with their lack of confidence in existing political processes, which feeds their suspicions and fears. No longer do we find reasoned debate and consideration of the best interests of a nation paraded in its public forums, but fear, innuendo and blind partisan politics determining outcomes, to the point where the world's most significant economy is brought to the brink of defaulting on its debts without consideration of the gravity and complexity of the situation or its consequences. The increased prevalence of minority governments in Australia and around the world reflects a deep disillusionment with the partisan approach to politics which has become more prevalent in a post-9/11 world.

There is no doubt that the 9/11 attacks have left enduring scars on the political, economic and military foundations not only of the USA, but on many Western nations. Unwittingly we have opted to fight the battle on the terms dictated by the terrorists, rather than calling to a higher ideal, and a higher principle. It makes for great headlines and sells more newspapers, but at what cost in the longer term? The challenges presented to us by the events of September 11 have not been overcome ten years on. It is hard to see where the catalyst to change the present tide will emerge from.

Posted by gary at September 11, 2011 09:28 PM

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