Wishful thinking

Why are there so many versions of How 11 September Changed the World?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Everybody seems to agree that 11 September was the day that changed the world. What they disagree about is how.

Ater 11 September we were told: the world will be more united/the world will be more divided; nationalism will re-emerge/nationalism will die; religion will revive; politics will be serious again; America will be more confident/America will be more humble.

A number of people have suggested – somewhat perversely, perhaps – that the attacks of 11 September could help solve the problems of Western society. But rather than telling us about how the world is actually changing, these views seem to be based on little more than wishful thinking.

Before 11 September, many Western commentators were worried about the death of politics – that the populace wasn’t engaged, and that political debate was frivolous. After 11 September, commentators began to predict that politics would become serious again. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr argued that ‘Americans are more likely to take politics more seriously than they have done for a long while…. Voters will demand that their leaders take politics seriously, too – which may well mean a turning away from cynically negative campaigns toward a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’ (1).

In a similar vein, commentator Andrew Sullivan predicts that 11 September has caused a return to substantial debate: ‘That day reminded us that old virtues still matter, that substance counts, and that the opposite of “hot” is sometimes worth it.’ (2) What’s more, he thinks that ‘this culture is here to stay’.

Another pre-11 September worry was that nobody trusted government. In his essay on politics and culture after 11 September, Weekly Standard editor David Brooks predicted that this will now change: ‘the greatest political effect…will probably be to relegitimise central institutions. Since we can’t defend ourselves as individuals against terrorism, we have to rely on the institutions of government.’ (3) US vice-president Dick Cheney suggested in late October 2001 that 11 September ‘has altered the way the American people think about their government, and the role we have in society and overseas’ (4).

The concerns about the lack of civic engagement prior to 11 September have translated into hopes that the attacks would stimulate a civic revival, as people pulled together in the face of adversity. There have been reports of Americans queuing up to volunteer or to give blood. President George W Bush predicted that Americans would now be attracted to public service: ‘Many Americans, especially young Americans, are rethinking their career choices. They are being drawn to careers of service as police or firemen, emergency health workers, teachers, counsellors or in the military. And this is good for America.’ (5)

Those worried about the decline of religion also predicted an 11 September turnaround. One American Catholic priest says the ‘silver lining’ to 11 September is that ‘God is back!’ (6) In November 2001, Christian evangelist Pat Robertson hailed the terrorist attacks for ‘bringing about one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of America’ (7).

But these hoped-for changes have as of yet failed to materialise. As The Economist put it on 12 January 2002, in a balanced overview of ‘What September 11 really wrought’: ‘If you compare domestic politics, the economy and foreign policy now with what they were like on September 10th, the striking thing is how little has changed, not how much.’ (8)

While 11 September seemed to give political commentary a new urgency for a while, evidence for a rediscovery of substance and seriousness is thin on the ground. On 5 November 2001, David Brooks predicted an ‘era in which politics really matters’, and asked rhetorically, ‘Can anybody remember what was so buzz-worthy about [editor of Talk magazine] Tina Brown?’ (9). Two months later, when Talk magazine collapsed, the US papers were full of buzz about Brown.

The UK Mirror claimed to be rediscovering serious journalism after 11 September, and commissioned left-wing journalist John Pilger to write about the war in Afghanistan – but saw its sales drop in November 2001 (10). One recent issue of the Mirror included features on whether German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder dyes his hair, and children’s TV presenter Jamie Theakston’s ‘sex romp in a vice den’ (11).

Meanwhile, the serious issue of the war on terrorism has barely been discussed in the UK parliament. Most recently we have seen politicians of the two main parties engaging in a tit for tat argument about the reasons why a hospital failed to change the blood-stained socks of a 94-year-old woman admitted after a fall (see The War of Rose’s Socks, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick).

And as for increased trust in government: at a conference on US politics after 11 September, pollster Peter Hart judged that, despite the sharp rise in approval ratings for Congress, underlying ‘cynicism and frustration’ towards government had not disappeared. Hart also noticed that voter turnout in major US cities for the 6 November elections had actually declined from four years previously (12).

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, a book that charts the fragmentation of American civic life over the past few decades, went back to his original 500 interviewees in October and November 2001. He failed to find evidence for a new civic engagement: despite much talk about a new public spirit, regular volunteering (at least twice a month) had not increased, nor had religiosity or church attendance, and people were not more likely to join groups or to attend public meetings (13). In the UK, although there were anecdotal reports of an increase in church-going, there was no evidence for a long-term shift (see Blind faith, by Brendan O’Neill).

Others have argued that 11 September made new strategies for political engagement necessary. As journalist Alexander Stille summarised in the New York Times, ‘Ask the most prominent strategic thinkers around, and they will all agree that pretty much every cherished notion about America’s role in the world must be revised – except, of course, their own’ (14).

So those who were worried that the USA had become too weak, argued that after 11 September America would become strong again. David Brooks writes that ‘the 1990s zeitgeist was the presumption of harmony’ – with no challenge to face, America had become soft and decadent. Literary and academic liberals had ‘built a whole moral system around powerlessness’. Now, argues Brooks, ‘violence has come calling’ – ‘it’s no longer sufficient to deconstruct ideas and texts and signifiers’. America must again exercise its power: ‘America will have to articulate a defence of our national principles and practices.’ (15)

In a similar vein, UK journalist Sebastian Mallaby suggests that ‘a new imperial moment has arrived’, and that the West must again control the world: ‘The chaos out there in the world is too threatening to ignore, and the existing tools for dealing with chaos have been tried and found wanting.’ (16) US historian Victor Davis Hanson claims that ‘Despite the energy of the contemporary race industry and the efforts at disunity by multiculturalists and separatists, America is emerging more united than ever….September 11 has supercharged rather than short-circuited [the] multifaceted engine of America’ (17).

Others, meanwhile, have argued that after 11 September America would become more humble, and more prepared to cooperate internationally. In the UK Independent on Sunday only a few days after the attacks, journalist Yvonne Roberts raised the prospect of an alternative America emerging in the aftermath: rather than the ‘mentality of the Old Wild West’, after 11 September there is a sign of an America that is ‘modern, less macho…. ethical, secular, less bellicose, even female’ (18).

Left-wing political theorist Benjamin R Barber argues in The Nation that ‘following September 11…”idealist” internationalism has become the new realism’, and the ’embrace of markets…looks increasingly like a dangerous and unrealistic dogma opaque to our new realities as brutally inscribed on the national consciousness by the demonic architects of September 11′. America should now recognise the need to cooperate with other nations: ‘We need to understand how September 11 put a period once and for all at the end of the old story of American independence.’ (19)

Professor Steve Smith of the University of Aberystwyth (Wales) claims that 11 September will ‘usher in an era where US foreign policy is more multilateral than before, an era that indicates both the essential interconnectedness of world politics and the fact that the US can neither act as world policeman nor retreat into isolationism’ (20).

Others have suggested the opposite – that America needs to reject new notions of international humanitarian responsibility, and simply lay off the rest of the world. Benjamin Schwartz and Christopher Layne have argued that ‘the less America does, and the less others expect it to do, the more other states will do to help themselves’ (21). John O’Sullivan comes to a similar conclusion, arguing that ‘September 11 opened up the possibility of restoring many traditional notions of international relations’, based on the actions of sovereign nation states rather than international bodies (22).

These hopes about new patterns of political engagement, however, have also failed to materialise. America has become neither strong and confident, nor humble and cooperative. There has not been an assertive and purposeful unilateralism. Despite Bush’s ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’ line, most ‘coalition supporters’ have been pretty ambivalent, giving only conditional support (for example, Pakistan allowed the use of its airbases for logistical support, but not for bombing raids). But nor has America been particularly willing to cooperate and take advice from other nations – UK prime minister Tony Blair, trying to make a bit of a name for himself as a New World Order warrior, has been repeatedly snubbed by US policymakers.

Theories about a post-11 September epoch, then, tell us little about how the world is actually changing. Instead, they raise interesting questions about the contemporary mindset.

Why, for example, are there so many versions of How 11 September Changed The World?

The attack on the World Trade Centre had no political content itself – the hijackers issued no demands, no manifesto. It was a moment of nihilistic terror. Unlike previous turning points in history, such as the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution or the Second World War, the attack on the World Trade Centre did not in any way lay the basis for a new way of doing things.

Because the attack had no political content, everybody could read their own meaning into it. As Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland put it at a Labour Party conference fringe event, after the attacks commentators became ‘ventriloquists for the hijackers’. Ideas about what was wrong with the world were transposed into the minds of the hijackers; and views about how things should change were presented as an inevitable consequence of the attacks.

But this represents a reluctance to face up to our problems on their own terms. 11 September held a mirror up to Western society, and raised many deep and uncomfortable questions – but it will not automatically bring in a new era. Not will it solve the problems of Western society, or lay the basis for new patterns of engagement.

In his article on civic engagement after 11 September, Robert Putnam noted that the crisis had opened up a ‘window of opportunity’ to create new patterns of civic engagement, but that this opportunity had not yet been utilised. Although in America at present there is a rhetoric of togetherness, says Putnam, ‘images alone do not create turning points in a nation’s history. That requires institutionalised change’ (23). Setting aside the content of Putnam’s proposals, his point that Americans must choose to bring about change for themselves, and cannot expect it to result from the attacks of 11 September, is a strong one. In the end, wishful thinking that 11 September will change the world can only be a replacement for us doing so ourselves.

Indeed, arguably the most discernible change in the West post-11 September has not been new patterns of engagement with the world, but a retreat from engagement. This represents less a break with the pre-11 September past, than a speeding up and catalysing of the very problems that existed before.

More than ever, our lives have been dominated by fear and anxiety – of flying, of white powder, of each other. These were trends that were well-established before 11 September. Here on spiked we have criticised panics that have continually emerged, around everything from foot-and-mouth disease to BSE. But since 11 September, the culture of fear has been universalised and moved more into the forefront of people’s lives.

In an article on ABC news online three months after the attacks, journalist Oliver Libaw interviewed a number of Americans about how their lives had changed since 11 September. ‘While my life has resumed – I go to work, to the store, walk my dog – I also carry this inherent fear inside of me’, said one. She continued: ‘Until 9/11, I felt safe and secure in my little world. Now I feel fear.’ Libaw summarised people’s post-11 September anxieties: ‘Besides airports, many people are more uncomfortable in large public settings, such as sporting events, and in tall buildings. Some take precautions opening their mail in the wake of the anthrax attacks.’ (24)

Meanwhile, in his recent research, Robert Putnam found that Americans were actually withdrawing from each other, not coming together. Compared to last year, Americans were less likely to have friends over to visit, and TV viewing had increased from 2.9 to 3.4 hours a day. He concluded that, in this sense, ‘Americans are cocooning more now than a year ago’ (25). And the latest State Department attempts to find the anthrax attacker by telling every American to look at their neighbours to see if they fit the description, is unlikely to help matters (26).

Far from re-engaging the electorate with the political system, fear only increases distrust and distance between the electorate and the government. US commentator Norman Ornstein noted how, some weeks after the anthrax scares, Congress was still virtually cut off from the public. Mail from citizens was waiting to be irradiated, rather than answered by members of Congress. High security measures meant that ‘the open house of the people seems more like an armed camp’. Visitors to Congress had fallen from 17,000 per day to 300 per day. All of this represented a ‘growing sense of physical remove between our representatives and those they represent’ (27).

So is this the new post-September era – an era of fear and anxiety, an era of withdrawal from the world? Just four days after the 11 September attacks, UK journalist Andrew Marshall proposed this as the future, in exceptionally bleak terms:

‘Fear is the dominant emotion, where hope – or greed – dominated most of the last decade. We will have to learn to live, once more, with that sense of insecurity: looking above us, not for missiles, but for….something…. We had the chance to make things better; we failed, and now our time is over. We are moving back from the light, into the darkness again.’ (28)

But this, too, is a possibility, not a certainty. Although 11 September was a terror attack, it is not inevitable that it will bring in a period defined by an even more heightened sense of fear. But it may well do, if we let it.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Epidemic of fear, by Frank Furedi

One thing that did not change in 2001, by Mick Hume

An Englishwoman in Washington, 18 January, by Helen Searls

‘New hedonism’: flipside to fear, by Brendan O’Neill

Blind faith, by Brendan O’Neill

Ireland after 11 September, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Symposium Consensus: The World Changed on September 11, But Politics Stayed the Same, The Political Standard, November/December 2001

(2) ‘Spinning out of circulation’, The Sunday Times, 27 January 2002

(3) The age of conflict, Weekly Standard, 5 November 2001

(4) Quoted in ‘What September 11th really wrought’, The Economist, 12 January 2002

(5) Presidential address to the nation on homeland security, 8 November 2001, Atlanta, Georgia

(6) The silver lining, by Father Ed Kaminski, Diocese of Monterey, Observer, October 2001

(7) Church attendance dips after post-11 September gain, American Atheists, 3 September 2001

(8) ‘What September 11th really wrought’, The Economist, 12 January 2002

(9) The age of conflict, Weekly Standard 5 November 2001

(10) The age of conflict, Weekly Standard 5 November 2001

(11) Mirror, 29 January 2002

(12) Symposium Consensus: The World Changed on September 11, But Politics Stayed the Same

(13) Bowling Together, American Prospect, 11 February 2002

(14) What Is America’s Place in the World Now?, New York Times 12 January 12 2002

(15) The age of conflict, Weekly Standard 5 November 2001

(16) Quoted in What Is America’s Place in the World Now?, New York Times 12 January 12 2002

(17) Glad We Are Not Fighting Us, National Review, 21 December 2001

(18) Independent on Sunday, 16 September 2001

(19) Beyond Jihad Vs. McWorld, The Nation, 21 January 2002

(20) The End of the Unipolar Moment: September 11 and the Future of World Order, SIRC website

(21) Quoted in What Is America’s Place in the World Now?, New York Times 12 January 12 2002

(22) ‘As the World Turns: The shape of things now’, National Review, 28 January 2002

(23) Bowling Together, American Prospect, 11 February 2002

(24) Returning to Normal?, ABC News , 11 December 2001

(25) Bowling Together, American Prospect, 11 February 2002

(26) Anthrax reward soars as FBI draws a blank, Guardian, 26 January 2002

(27) Can Congress recover from 9/11?, New Republic, 14 January 2002

(28) The end of innocence, Independent, 15 September 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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