The day the world turned upside down

This newspaper’s headlines on this day 20 years ago spoke of a standard day in the news cycle for our journalists in Academy Street, Cork and Harcourt Street, Dublin. 

Billions had been wiped off the value of Irish pensions in one of the market’s periodic slumps; Tipperary was celebrating the homecoming of the Liam MacCarthy Cup after a barren decade; there was a two-year delay and a costs overshoot running into millions for an Iarnród Éireann signalling upgrade; Westport won the Tidy Towns competition for the first time in its history.

The opinion writer was concerned with problems of the Heuston kind and also called for improved building site safety after a horrible accident killed a young boy in Rochestown. But by 1.45pm on that day in Ireland, everything changed in the world, and would remain changed. And not for the better.

Firefighters walk through smoldering debris at the site of the World Trade Center in New York.
Firefighters walk through smoldering debris at the site of the World Trade Center in New York.

The events which scarred that terrible Tuesday are well-known. They became visible at 8.45am American time, on a clear blue sky day when a Boeing 767 operated by American Airlines out of Boston and carrying 20,000 gallons of jet fuel plunged into the north tower of New York City’s World Trade Center.

The next day the Irish Examiner declared “Armageddon” in 180pt san serif capitals on page one and recounted the main details across 18 pages of its two editions. Osama Bin Laden was named chief suspect; the initial estimates were of 10,000 dead.

“The attack on America was an attack on world order,” said this newspaper’s leader column. Veteran columnist Ryle Dwyer warned ominously that “American reaction is likely to be terrible”.

The aftermath of 9/11 commanded our front pages for a month until the first manifestation of “The Bush Doctrine”, which held that countries that provided safe haven for terrorists would be regarded as terrorist states, fell onto Afghanistan.

The opening blows of the “War on Terror” took place on the first Sunday in October. By December the Taliban was beaten, and Bin Laden had escaped from the Tora Bora caves and into Pakistan where he was shot down by US special forces more than a decade later.

Freedoms and intrusions

Whether the responses to 2001 and afterwards have rendered the world a safer place is scarcely even debatable. It is not. 

Personal freedoms continue to be extinguished and curtailed; official intrusion into our lives has accelerated and been enabled by the unrestrained rise of Big Tech. Powers have accreted to the surveillance society.

Precious liberties have been rolled back: free speech; freedom from invisible oversight; ease of movement; the privacy of untapped phone calls and email correspondence; suspension of habeas corpus; scrutiny over financial transactions under money-laundering legislation; mass transfer of personal information across borders; biometric passports; global positioning systems; face recognition technology; passenger locator forms. 

All such measures were stepped up after 2001 and many were given further momentum during pandemic controls of the past 20 months.

The prospects for a new and humane Age of Enlightenment, so bright at the Millennium, seem further away than ever, obliterated, paradoxically, by the actions of both neocons and jihadists. Trillions of dollars have been wasted and many lives lost in the quicksands of a conflict that had no quantifiable objectives. 

“How will we know when we have won?” asked the soldiers. There was no good answer.

In a round of 20th-anniversary interviews, George W Bush II said he was “comfortable with the decisions he made”, not least because there have been no other attacks on the American homeland.

He didn’t separate, as many others might, the legitimate right to respond to an outrage against the United States from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The casus belli for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was the existence of weapons of mass destruction. No convincing evidence was ever produced that they existed. 

Taliban fighters arrive inside the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the U.S. military's withdrawal, in Kabul.
Taliban fighters arrive inside the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the U.S. military’s withdrawal, in Kabul.

No flag of UN legality could be applied to military action, setting back the causes of legitimacy, justice, and honour. 

Last week’s retreat from Afghanistan and abandonment of many allies and friends reinforced the opinion of a substantial number of radical Islamists that, in the long run, history will favour them. And vindicate bin Laden.

In New York victims are still being identified through painstaking DNA sequencing. In Guantanamo Bay, the war crimes proceedings against the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators have, incredibly, not even gone through pre-trial hearings some 15 years after they were apprehended. 

As a contrast, the Nuremberg Trials were established within two months of the end of the Second World War and returned verdicts against 24 leading members of the Third Reich, 12 of whom were executed, within 11 months.

Lack of closure

This lack of closure is another open wound in the reputation of Western democracy. Since the televisual event of
9/11, a drama staged for a globally connected network, the odds have increased of citizens being killed in hyper-local actions. Commuters in Madrid or London, club-goers in Bali or Paris, sun worshippers in Sharm El Sheikh and Tunisia, youngsters watching Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena, have been the preferred targets of fundamentalists.

People observe a minute's silence in St Ann's Square, Manchester, to remember the victims of the terror attack in the city in 2017. 
People observe a minute’s silence in St Ann’s Square, Manchester, to remember the victims of the terror attack in the city in 2017. 

Cars, knives, and lorries are the workaday weapons rather than jumbo jets. At his trial this week, Salah Abdeslam, who prosecutors say is the sole surviving attacker of the grisly sequence which included the Bataclan nightclub, set a defiant tone when asked to describe his job. “I abandoned all professions to become a fighter for the Islamic State,” he said.

Most people have not observed or experienced death as it happens in front of us. It has been in private, and not a shared tragedy. That altered with 9/11. 

And something also changed later, after Iraq: the reputation and image of the United States as the shelter for immigrants, as a bulwark against totalitarianism, and as the saviour of old nations bent on mutual destruction. 

Abu Ghraib and its torture regimes, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite detention damaged the idealism and nobility which many ascribed to the New World.

There is no consensus over who said “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” be it Jefferson, or Thomas Paine, or Lincoln. What we can conclude 20 years on is that we have less of the former, and much more of the latter. 

Western democracy must put behind it two decades of delusion and defeat.

The faith in the future and in our broken political systems must be restored. Extremism of all kinds must be buried with the grey silt which turned one of the world’s greatest cities into a scene from Dante.

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