First anniversary

A year of the global culture of fear.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Alongside the supplements and the ceremonies, one particular discussion marks the first anniversary of 11 September. How much did these calamitous events really change things?

On 10 September one year ago, the USA and its allies had not just come out of a war with Afghanistan preparing to wage another one in Iraq. The Manhattan skyline had not been irrevocably transformed. There were fewer heroes, fewer security measures, and fewer American flags flying in residential US streets. The outward appearance of the world after 11 September was certainly one of everything changing.

But now a shattered New York has started to rebuild itself, and a stricken US state has become accustomed to organising itself around a response to 11 September, it is clearer than ever that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington did not fundamentally change the world. Rather, they provided a catalyst for a host of pre-existing political and cultural trends to become rapidly, and firmly, entrenched.

The dominant response to 11 September in the USA and Europe was the globalisation of the culture of fear. For some years, Western society has exhibited a propensity for irrational panic around particular – although often unconnected – issues, from child safety to environmental degradation to human health. After 11 September, the culture of fear became a driving force in discussions about everything.

It was predictable that certain aspects of everyday life, from flying to working in tall buildings, would be seen to gain a scary dimension in the immediate aftermath of 11 September. But it is proof of the culture of fear’s tenacity that, a year on, many are seriously considering low-level building to be an architectural priority. And as the UK Guardian reports, one year on and air travel shows little sign of recovery – the world’s airlines made a total loss of $12billion (£7.7billion) on international flights in 2001, and passenger numbers, which fell by four percent in 2001, are expected to fall a further three percent this year (1).

The anthrax panic that immediately followed the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington was a perfect metaphor for a society that could quickly come to view the most mundane activity, such as opening the mail, as a potential danger – though the scare was completely out of proportion to the handful of fatalities caused by actual anthrax attacks. The speed at which this panic spread throughout Europe – despite the lack of anthrax at all – testified to the receptivity of such fears (2).

Subsequent sci-fi-style stories about the potential for smallpox epidemics spread by biochemical warfare found fertile ground (and willing vaccine manufacturers); and while this particular doomsday scenario is currently not headline news, we should not kid ourselves that the scare has been cured. For since 11 September, the culture of fear has shaped both domestic and international policy.

The USA’s international policy since 11 September provides a stark reminder that we live in a unipolar world, in which America holds the power to strike out at its enemies regardless of what any other one-time ally might think. But Bush’s ‘war on terror’ has not been, as many feared a year ago, a straightforward revenge attack designed as a display of US might.

The incoherent Afghanistan campaign was justified in the language of deliberation and humanitarianism. It ended with few tangible results, and we are still unclear as to how many of America’s many supposed war aims were achieved. Chasing a shadowy figure over the Afghan hills might have been presented as a way of delivering a safer world, but it succeeded only in raising new questions about the USA’s intelligence capabilities and the efficacy of its military campaign (3).

The current pursuit of Iraq takes the concept of a war for safety even further, with the USA and Britain talking themselves into a battle based self-consciously not upon an actual threat, but on a potential danger. The keyword of this impending military action is ‘pre-emption’ – going to war just in case. As Mick Hume explains elsewhere on spiked, ‘ it now appears that the world is being run according to the grandmotherly maxim that it is better to be safe than sorry – even if the “safe” option is a war against Iraq or anybody else’. (See A panic attack over Iraq.)

On the home front, the culture of fear became the justification for new liberty-eroding security measures: specifically, the USA-PATRIOT Act in America and a new anti-terrorism law in Britain. Yet while the intention behind such pieces of legislation stressed the ‘safety-first’ consensus of our nervous times, their impact upon everyday lives and liberties has not been as great as many first predicted. The USA has not become a police state, and from the moment it was proposed, Britain’s anti-terrorism bill was mired in confusion and criticism (4).

In the post-11 September world, states may want to implement all kinds of repressive laws, but they often lack the authority and self-conviction to do so. This trend was evident well before last year (witness New Labour’s 1997 ‘Ban everything’ manifesto, or the USA’s strident anti-crime policies). But at the same time as the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington spurred this authoritarian dynamic on, it highlighted the problems that governments face in implementing such measures.

What about our spirit of community, our sense of self? In the immediate aftermath of 11 September, many argued that the attacks had fostered a new sense of community and caring, particularly in New York and Washington. But while the public response to these events did show genuine heroism and selflessness, it soon became clear that the community spirit that rose from the ashes of Ground Zero was a transient phenomenon.

The community of victims created by the terrorist attacks bore no relation to the robust, self-reliant local communities of the past. The much-vaunted revival of US patriotism was also very different to previous displays of flag-flying – people huddling together in grief and fear, not celebrating their national pride. As divisions have emerged over everything from who the heroes most worthy of celebration are, to the best way to commemorate the victims, to what best to build on the site of the World Trade Centre, the dust has settled on a society as fragmented and individuated as it was on 10 September 2001 (5).

The division that has deepened most since 11 September appears to be that between America and Europe. In discussions about everything from culture to the environment to foreign policy, the anti-Americanism that has been floating around for several years became more focused and shrill in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The suggestion that America deserved what it got, as a punishment for its rampant consumerism and aggressive foreign policy, was aired not only by the UK liberal press, but increasingly by opinion polls. A recent MORI poll, for example, found that 55 percent of Europeans believe that US foreign policy was partly to blame for the 11 September attacks (6).

Appearances are deceptive, however – and this anti-Americanism no more represents a distinct division between America and Europe than it indicates a useful critique of America’s genuine weaknesses. The arguments presented in terms of anti-Americanism tend to stem from a backward looking viewpoint that objects to any wielding of power, any notions of superiority, any emphasis on material wealth and any notion that a terrorist attack requires an aggressive response.

The popularity of the notion that America somehow got what it deserved is indicated by the fact that many Americans seem to share this view too – summed up in the ‘new humility’ that has been seen to infect the USA since 11 September. And the corrosive character of this response is indicated by the extent to which many now accept that our best vision of the future should be a piss-pot one – with smaller buildings, less wealth and power, and ambitions not to prosper and achieve, but to be nicer to one another.

This regressive view of our present and future was not caused by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But the attacks and their aftermath provided a catalyst for such views to entrench themselves in the mainstream, and present prejudice as criticism and analysis. Such a bleak view has obscured the more human reality of society post-11 September – the resilience of American citizens in dealing with the tragedy and getting on with their lives, the everyday acts of bravery and compassion, the way New York is managing to rebuild itself. It is as though we can, indeed, cope with such catastrophes as 11 September – but we have lost the will to appreciate our ability to do so.

11 September did not destroy Western society. But the reaction to 11 September pushed it further along the path of self-destruction. That’s what should concern us on this first anniversary, and beyond.

Read on:

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Billions lost as travellers stay at home and cut their spending, Guardian, September 10 2002

(2) See Anthraxiety, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick; and How anthraxiety infected Europe, by Thomas Deichmann

(3) See War against what?, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) See ‘We can never be safe – but at least we can be free’ and Anti-terrorism bill: MPs aren’t revolting, by Jennie Bristow

(5) See An Englishwoman in Washington, 18 January 2002 and Fear under the flag, by Helen Searls

(6) Europe’s View On 9/11, MORI, 4 September 2002

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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