Why 9-11 and Why Now?

If the attacks of September 11, 2001 are indeed ‘unique,’ without precedent in the long history of Western contacts with the ‘lesser breeds’, it is important that we make an effort to understand why they happened, why now, and what they say about our world?

There are several claims to ‘uniqueness’ that a historian might advance when discussing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. If we accept the officially sanctioned definition of terrorism, which restricts the term to violence directed against civilians by non-state actors, the attacks of September 11 gain a unique place in history by their deadly human toll, some three thousand lives. We do not know of another ‘terrorist’ act which even begins to approach the human toll of September 11, 2001. On the other hand, these attacks pales into insignificance when compared to the worst terrorist acts perpetrated by states, not excluding United States, over the past five hundred years.

A second claim to ‘uniqueness’ might rest on the methods employed by the perpetrators of these attacks. The terrorists of September 11 had not employed guns, explosives, bombs or missiles. Instead, they had flown four civilian jets into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The only weapons they wielded were box-cutters: this and their determination to die with their victims. One German composer, carried away by the power of the moment, described the self-immolation of these terrorists as “the greatest work of art ever.” Later, retracting, he described the destruction as “Lucifer’s greatest work of art.” [1]

The third claim of ‘uniqueness’ came from President Bush. In his first address after September 11 to the members of Congress, he pointed out that “Americans have known wars–but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war–but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning.” [2] The President was defining the horror of September 11 to Americans in terms of their history.

It was Noam Chomsky who dared to analyze September 11 dialectically. The attacks of September 11 were a “terrible terrorist atrocity,” but it is not their “scale” which made them unique. September 11 was “not unique in scale, by any means.” “What’s unique about it, is the victims. This is the first time in hundreds of years that what we call the West–Europe and its offshoots–have been subjected to the kinds of atrocities that they carry out all the time in other countries and that is unique. The guns are pointed in the other direction for the first time.” [3] Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer and activist, captured this dialectic in a striking metaphor. The attacks of September 11 “were a monstrous calling card from a world gone horribly wrong.” [4]

Starting in 1492, the guns of the West have been pointed incessantly outward. For more than five hundred years, the steel of the Western sword, lance, gun and bomb have been planted in the bones and flesh of Africans, Australians, Asians and native Americans. For more than five hundred years, Western power has divided the world into two unequal moieties, one planted on top of the other, one rising as the other sinks, one battening as the other sickens. Over five hundred years, entire continents were devastated, societies overthrown, their civilizations denigrated, their peoples decimated, herded into slavery and stranded without dignity. All this was the product of a new dynamic that welded power and capital, states and markets, in a cumulative dynamic that eventually brought the whole world within its grasp, giving birth to unequal development, the inequalities growing cumulatively. It was a process that could not be overthrown once it had been set in motion.

And so for five hundred years, European arms and capital advanced while the rest of the world retreated, vacating their political, economic and cultural space before the surge of Western power. It must be acknowledged, however, that they never retreated without a fight; they fought against constantly increasing odds; they hid in ambush after every defeat; they stole the weapons of their enemies; they plotted and mobilized for the next battle. Occasionally, they stalled the advance of Western arms; occasionally, they even won a few stunning victories. And, starting in the 1940s, they won back some breathing space.

But never in all these years did the victims succeed in attacking the aggressors on their home turf, in their fortified playgrounds, inside the lavish retreats where they enjoyed the spoils of their victories. Not once in all these years could the victims carry their resistance inside the citadel of the invaders. Though many peoples were crushed over these dim centuries, though many were driven into extinction, though many more were sold into slavery, though proud empires were laid waste, though ancient cultures were cast aside, not once could the victims breach the bastions, scale the citadels of Western power. Not once could the millions of Americans, Africans and Asians, whose lives were trapped in fear for centuries, bring fear to the homes of their tormentors. Inside their homes, the captains of plunder were safe, beyond the reach of the wrath and the retribution of their countless victims.

Never, that is, till September 11, 2001. On this fateful day, the ‘victims’ had scaled the citadel of Western power, they had breached the impenetrable defense shield of the world’s greatest power, they had cut through its security perimeter, and visited destruction inside its inner sanctum–they had desecrated the holy of holies. The terrorists had attacked two American icons–of financial and military power.

Do these attacks mark a turning of the tide? Do they mark the beginning of a new form of guerilla warfare, one that will be fought on the home turf of United States? Did these attacks result from some new vulnerability created by changing technologies, the new connectivity between continents, or the new globalization? Were these attacks allowed to happen? Are they a new ‘Operation Northwoods’ executed surreptitiously by some cabal in the centers of power? Or are they merely flukes, a one-time disaster, the result of a lapse in the defenses of the world’s greatest power?

There are questions too about the attackers, their identity and their motives. Did they, in some sense, represent America’s victims in the Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El-Salvador, Algeria, Afghanistan and Iraq? Had they acted out of sympathy for the victims of United States and Israel in Palestine? Are they announcing their revulsion against the immorality of a world grown so unequal it supports a rising trade in body parts? Are they Jehadists acting out of an atavistic faith which seeks to revive its glory by the force of arms? Or are they nihilists, rebels, madmen, deranged by the frenetic progress of modernity, by genetic modification, terminator seeds, surrogate motherhood, designer children, stem-cell research, and human cloning?

The answers to these questions-and many more like these-could have filled the pages of the America’s storied newspapers and magazines for many months. But the writers on these pages serve corporate masters; they find thrill and see glory in America’s overseas conquests; they think no sacrifice of foreign lives too high for the preservation of America’s most paltry interests; they sanctify the crimes of an apartheid, expansionist, colonial-settler state; they can discover few virtues, little worth preserving outside the borders of their own great country. America’s mass media ensure that no thought ever enters the minds of Americans which can compromise the interests of corporate America. This great enterprise-the manufacturing of lies-is led by the likes of Thomas Friedman, William Saffire, Marvin Kalb, Charles Krauthammer, Daniel Pipes and Billy Kristol. America’s mass media are strictly off limits for independent spirits like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Alexander Cockburn, Jeff St. Clair, Cornel West, Norman Solomon and Salim Muwakkil.

Is September 11 then a fluke, a contrived event, a shard from the past, history catching up with the amorality of power, the result of a new dynamic created by globalization and a new connectivity? Or should we accept the official answer, and see the hijackers of September 11 only as evil men, cold-blooded murderers, acting out of malicious spite, products of a failing civilization? Do we have the right to think, to evaluate, to empathize, to imagine, to choose? Do we dare to escape from the machinery that manufactures consent?

In the world of social dynamics, few events are so simple that they can be traced back definitively to a single cause, as if we were examining not a social phenomenon but a disease that is carried by a single vector, a single malevolent life form that could then be destroyed with antibiotics. Should we ignore the complexity of the real world, the layers of causation, the interconnections amongst humans–even between tormentors and their victims–and reach for convenient answers, answers that exonerate us, answers that invert reality, even transforming villains into heroes, tormentors into victims? Sadly, that is what our media and academia do, because they are beholden to money and power.

We might assert, quite accurately, that September 11 happened because of skyscrapers: the attacks would never have occurred if the ‘monstrous’ Twin Towers did not exist. If our media were dominated by interests inimical to tall buildings–for reasons of aesthetics, economics, or politics–this is the explanation that would have prevailed. The solution too would have been simple: level America’s skyline. We would have created a wrecker’s paradise, a boom for demolition companies.

Alternatively, we might claim that the culprits were the passenger jets. Who could deny that these objects were the implements of war chosen by the hijackers? The hijackers had used no cluster bombs, no cruise missiles, no daisy-cutters; they had simply turned these behemoths into massive weapons. “Ban commercial air travel,” the cry could have gone up. In fact, this solution did make sense in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when we grounded all commercial flights for a few days. It was a sensible thing to do. But if the anti-airline lobbies had been powerful we would have grounded them permanently, and gone back to traveling the old-fashioned way–by ships and trains.

It is appropriate, however, that the search into the causes of September 11 began with the perpetrators of these attacks. Very quickly the nineteen dead hijackers were identified: we learned they were young, male, Arab and Islamic. Once this identification had been made, a great deal of the surmise, analysis, investigation and response turned on the Arab-Islamic ethnicity of the hijackers. For many commentators, especially those with Zionist proclivities or evangelical vocations, this singular fact contained all the answers. They trotted out their ready-made answers. The hijackers were messengers of death from the Arab-Islamic hell. For years, these fiends had brought death to innocent Israelis. And now they have directed their terror against the free, democratic and Christian West itself. Their hatred of the West has no political causes, no political grievances, no history: it springs from their race, their ethos, and their devilish, war-mongering creed.

This line of thinking led to some quick solutions. Ann Coulter, contributing editor of National Review Online, proposed that “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” [5] The solution appeared eminently logical. Since Islam is the source of terrorism, exorcise Islam-exterminate the Muslims or convert them to Christianity. That done, we can have peace and goodwill on earth. As outlandish as this sounds, it would appear that the United States has been moving in this general direction since September 11. We did invade Afghanistan though, despite our best efforts, failed to kill their leaders. We are getting ready to repeat this in Iraq and, depending on how things go there, we are planning to send our conquering armies into Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. After that, the sky is the limit.

There was another solution that we began implementing right after September 11. It is a solution in which we have long experience: racial profiling. Once again, the solution appeared logical. All nineteen hijackers were young Arab men. If we could get tough on them, keep tabs on them, track them, screen them at the border, arrest them on suspicion, abridge their civil rights, we could sleep in peace. This might just work if the terrorists are only capable of repeating September 11. What if the team Al-Qaida is recruiting even now includes Italian, Greek, Hispanic or Chinese Muslims? Should we extend racial profiling to these new groups? How will this affect our project of globalization?

Why did corporate and official America-the America projected by our mass media-respond to September 11 by reverting to old stereotypes? We are the Christian knights in shining armor, once again slaying the dragons that had dared to breathe fire over our cities. Once again, we are battling the slovenly Arabs, the violent Muslims, the fanatic Orientals. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the world’s most advanced country is mobilizing for the modern world’s first civilizational war. If this war unfolds according to plans–and when the plans begin to unravel–the memory of the Crusades might pale in comparison. That was a local war fought in a tiny corner of the Islamic world. Already this new war is being fought on a broader front that includes Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and Philippines. And it threatens to be a great deal more deadly.

In the 1990s, following the collapse of Soviet Union, two visions competed to shape America’s dominance in the world. The first was the project of globalization. It strove to open up world markets to American capital, every corner of the world, including the Third World and the former communist countries. In the past, Britain had achieved this through force of arms, but even so it was incomplete. Now United States could do a great deal more, without waging too many wars, without creating a formal empire. The power it wielded over its allies, over financial markets ­ exercised, in part, through the IMF and World Bank ­ its control over military hardware, its leadership in cutting-edge technologies, its power to set the rules ensured that it could open up virtually every corner of the world, as never before, to free entry and exit of American capital. This was the vision that dominated throughout the 1990s. The alternative vision, a hawkish vision, of an imperial America that would pursue American interests more aggressively, through the expansion of America’s military might, and through more frequent wars, had for the time been pushed aside.

But the hawks would not have to wait for long. They were aided by globalization itself, or rather its contradictions. As the new globalization deepened poverty in the Core and Periphery, as it threatened the environment, as it transferred jobs out of the Core countries, as it augmented the power of Corporations, it produced a new countervailing force: an anti-globalization movement. Driven by the same connectivity that was driving globalization, anti-globalization became global. By the late 1990s, it posed a serious challenge to the corporate elites and their globalization project. At its edges the movement contained radical tendencies. Anti-globalization had to be contained.

Another expansionist movement was running into trouble, at about the same time. In May 2000, the Israelis beat a hasty retreat from South Lebanon, changing the mood of the Palestinian resistance, and forcing Arafat to reject the Bantustans offered by Israelis in July 2000. Three months later, the second Intifada was born. Almost instantly, the Zionists switched to their second option that entailed massive ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and perhaps Israel itself. This called for a clash of civilizations. It would be safe to drive out the Palestinians only under the fog of a major war between United States and Islam.

A third force was also brewing in the United States. It was the force of the religious right, the Christian Coalition: they harked back to the letter of the Bible, they read the old prophecies into modern history, their world view was Manichean–all who opposed them were evil–they were mostly Southerners and racists, they wanted America to become a Crusading force, they were viciously opposed to Islam. Most significantly, they were plotting to take over the Republican Party. And in 2000, they were already a major force in the Presidential election.

In the meanwhile, the neoconservative hawks plotted. In a “Statement of Principles,” announced in June 1997, they laid out plans for an American Century, an imperial century that would “increase defense spending significantly,” “shape circumstances before crises emerge,” “meet threats before they become dire,” and “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values.” [6] In another document, published in September 2000, these neoconservatives worry that the “process of transformation” they wanted to effect “is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event–like a new Pearl Harbor.” [7]

Could September 11 have been that “catastrophic and catalyzing event ­ like a new Pearl Harbor” that the neoconservative hawks had almost wished for? Was it serendipity, conspiracy, kismet, the inevitable escalation in a clash of civilizations, the symptom of a crisis in the relations between the Core and Periphery ­ perhaps, all of the above–that threw this spanner in the wheels of the world?

Whatever the forces that engineered September 11, this much is clear. It was seized precipitately by the quartet of forces just described ­ the neoconservative hawks, Corporate America, the Zionists, and the Christian Coalition ­ to launch their project of a new American Century, to proclaim endless wars, to seize the profits from the Arab oil fields, to shrink and downsize Islam, to make the world safe for American interests, and to create a hegemony that would last forever. Do we indeed stand at the dawn of a new American Century, whose birth threatens the world with wars, blood, grime, but also promises to deliver profits never dreamed of before?

A hundred years from now, standing in front of the grand monuments raised to commemorate this grand American century, what will Americans think of Osama bin Laden? Will they remember this malevolent genius as the midwife, facilitating the birth of the new American Century? On the other hand, if this project runs into trouble, if it produces blood and grime but no profits, who shall we blame for the human toll of this terrible catastrophe? We can of course blame Osama. Or we can blame the cold hearts, minds cowed by fear, grasping cupidity and a terrible tribalism that delivered mankind, gagged and bound, into the power of the neoconservative Juggernaut.

M. SHAHID ALAM is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University. His recent book, Poverty From The Wealth Of Nations, was published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at m.alam@neu.edu.


[1] www.loper.org/~george/trends/2001/Sep/29.html and www. stockhausen.org/message_from_karlheinz.html.

[2] www.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4261868,00.html.

[3] www.vcn.bc.ca/redeye/interviews/chomsky.html.

[4] www.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4266289,00.html.

[5] www.nationalreview.com/coulter/coulter091301.shtml

[6] The words in quotes are from the “The Statement of Principles” singed by the major neoconservatives, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Elliot Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Norman Podhoretz, I. Lewis Libby and Eliot Cohen. See www. newamericancentury.org/statementofprinciples.htm

[7] http://www.fpif.org/papers/02men/box1_body.html

Copyright: M. SHAHID ALAM.


M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.