9/11 Five Years On: Terence O'Brien Reviews the Impact of the 2001 Attacks on the United States

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

9/11 Five Years On: Terence O'Brien Reviews the Impact of the 2001 Attacks on the United States


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


It is five years since the world watched with incredulity the gruesome images of the terrorist assault on the World Trade Centre in New York. The shock defined a moment in modern world history. The fearsome scenes were transmitted on the instant around the globe, but it is too easy to proclaim that everything was changed forever by the hideous spectacle. That is a claim that is probably as hard to prove as it is to disprove. (1) But it is true nonetheless that the sense of security in much of modern life, particularly in more advanced societies like New Zealand, was diminished and optimism about the new century, indeed the new millennium, punctured. The events had a profound influence upon American policies and behaviour.

Even so, five years is probably not long enough to form conclusive judgments about the ultimate implications of the 11 September attacks, particularly since the consequences are still being played out, and the actual cause remains subject to differing interpretations, including within New Zealand. Osama bin Laden himself asserted that the hideous strikes were prompted by deep resentment over the American military presence in the Gulf region (particularly around the holy sites), together with Washington's steadfast support for Israel over the Palestine issue. They were the most spectacular in a series of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks that had, until then, been confined more or less to the Middle East region. (2)

Different explanation

A different and more expansive explanation was that the strike was an act of irrational violence driven by disillusionment, weakness and ignorance inside a fomenting Islamic world that deeply resents the modernity and progress of the successful industrialised West (led by the United States). (3) Such interpretation did not normally, however, extend to acknowledging that a coincidental cause might lie in the way that a succession of imperial powers (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Germany) had striven over the 19th and 20th centuries to impose their versions of order on the Middle East through invasion, coercion and manipulation of surrogate rulers, as well as redrawing of national boundaries, all for outside benefit.

This record of undue encroachment was singular and indeed incited insurgency and terrorism designed to break the will of the interfering powers. The spectacularly gruesome methods of 11 September were, in some essential respects, a globalised version of such cumulative resistance inside the Arab world to the imposition of outside order on the Middle East--this time by the United States. The scale, ingenuity and consequences were, of course, vastly more significant than anything which had gone before.

The explanation that the causes for 11 September lay entirely with an irrational violent strain of Islam was seized upon by some politicians outside America, in particular Tony Blair in Britain, to depict a radical Islam determined upon the overthrow of the West and all it stands for. This decidedly more messianic version was certainly fuelled by rhetoric from al-Qaeda and others. But it served to deflect rational analysis about the actual causes. Yet British experience in Northern Ireland had proven the vital need both to address underlying causes and to confront the terrorists. The sober truth was that the policies not the values of the United States had provoked the grim violence against New York and other places. Blair's lofty appeal for a comprehensive strategy for the entire Middle East significantly omits any sense of the need for outside powers to foreclose, even temper, their roles and place in the affairs of the Middle East. (4) The perceived need to impose continuing supervision over the international oil trade, even in a globalised world, presumably explains the omission.

Key lessons

Among the key lessons, I 1 September dramatically demonstrated just how important religion and culture have become to a full understanding of modern international relations. …

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