Comment: ‘Bumper sticker analysis’ characterised our response to September 11th

Our collective one-sided response to this great crime didn't help anyone.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

Chairman Mao was once asked what he thought the impact of the French Revolution had been. He replied that it was too early to tell, implying that we should take the long view of history. Much the same could be said of September 11th.

There are only a handful of events in recent history where almost everyone on the planet remembers where they were when it happened, for instance the death of Kennedy and the Berlin Wall coming down. September 11th has had a bigger impact than either, partly due to the shocking nature of the act itself, but also the fact that it occurred just at the time when satellite communication meant that the entire world could watch it in real time. This was reinforced by citizen journalism helped by the spread of cheap easily available technology. The vast majority of the footage of the day comes from ordinary bystanders filming and taking photos. A few years later YouTube launched allowing people to watch the footage again and again, not to mention making their own documentaries. As a result 9/11 is engrained in our collective consciousness like few other events before or since. It's difficult to think of any area of politics, economics or culture that hasn't been impacted in some way by that day, and the after-effects will probably be felt for decades to come.

Anniversaries are traditionally times for reflection, although in the case of 9/11 it's also about remembrance and hopefully looking to the future. As is always the case with events of this magnitude it's difficult to look back at it without taking into account what came after, the two are irreversibly interlinked. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy much was written and said; some unbelievably moving, some less so. I remember at the time watching endless discussions on news shows where political pundits came out with such pearls of wisdom as, 'this attack happened because they hate our freedoms' or 'the price of freedom is eternal vigilance'. This attempt to define September 11th in terms of simple one-sided causes and solutions didn't benefit anyone. Hopefully ten years on we can look beyond such bumper sticker analysis from both ends of the political spectrum. 

It's certainly much clearer now then it was then that September 11th was the result of dozens of complex intertwined factors and our response to it should have been exactly nuanced. Instead, to paraphrase Omar Bradley, we got ourselves involved with the wrong wars with the wrong people at the wrong time. Most obvious are the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The financial cost of the wars has been immense, the human cost incalculable. Regardless of whether you think the invasions were justified or not, I don't think anyone can dispute that the occupation and reconstruction was horrifically mishandled, turning both countries into chaotic messes where random acts of violence are still a daily occurrence.

These conflicts squandered much of the empathy and goodwill generated by 9/11 towards America and the west and irretrievably damaged everyone associated with them. Equally they helped to fatally undermine trust in government with the WMD fiasco. Tony Blair's reputation, for instance, will forever now be linked to the futures of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past few days he's been doing the rounds giving interviews trying to justify the decisions he made. On the Today show with John Humphreys he sounded increasingly out of touch with mainstream opinion, especially now that so many within the Labour party have repudiated his views. This is echoed by many of the leading neo-cons of the Bush administration who have either changed their minds on the wars or adopted a more measured tone.

September 11th showed humanity at its worst and best. The attacks themselves were a crime almost unparalleled in modern history, designed to send an unambiguous statement of intent from al-Qaida to the rest of the world. In terms of the best, I'm thinking of the brave passengers on board United 93 and those who risked their lives helping others to escape from the twin towers and the Pentagon, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who gave aid afterwards. As we fully enter the second decade of the 21st century we should rightly remember those who died in such a senseless manner ten years ago. But we also need to start to properly address the mistakes made in the aftermath of September 11th. We owe a debt to the living as well as to the dead.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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