9/11 did not start or end at midnight

All too often we view 9/11 from the perspective of the nation-state rather than from a global standpoint.

Anti-American sentiment has grown steadily in the years since 9/11 and the deaths of countless civilians in the conflicts associated with the ‘war on terror’ [EPA]

There is unacknowledged freedom associated with whatever becomes inscribed in our individual and collective experience of transformative events. For many older Americans the events most vividly remembered are likely to be Pearl Harbour, the assassination of JFK, and the 9/11 attacks, each coming as a shock to societal expectations.

I doubt that other societies would have a comparable hierarchy of recollections about these three days that are so significant for an understanding of American political identity over the course of the last seventy years.

To make my point clearer, most Japanese would almost certainly single out Hiroshima, and possibly the more recent disaster that followed the 3/11/11 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima meltdown. Germans, and many Europeans, are likely to be inclined to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, while most citizens of former colonies are undoubtedly moved by the day on which their national independence was finally achieved.

Because American responses to such transformative events are likely to be global in their effect, there is a greater tendency to share American preoccupations, but this is misleading because interpretations diverge depending on place and time. This diversity amid universality is probably truer for 9/11 than any other recent transformative event, not because of the drama of the attacks, but as a result of the connections with surges of violence unleashed both prior to the attacks and in their aftermath, what I would identify as the perspectives of 9/10 and 9/12.

Transforming perspectives

Shifting ever so slightly the perspective of the observer radically alters our sense of the event’s significance. Just as 9/12 places emphasis on the American response – the launching of “the global war on terror”, 9/10 calls our attention to the mood of imperial complacency that preceded the attacks.

This national mood was (and remains) completely oblivious to the legitimate grievances that pervaded the Arab world.

These grievances were associated with Western appropriations of the region’s resources, Western support lent to cruel and oppressive tyrants throughout the Middle East, lethal and indiscriminate sanctions imposed for an entire decade on the people of Iraq after the first Gulf War, deployment of massive numbers of American troops close to Muslim sacred sites in Saudi Arabia, and America’s role in Israel’s oppressive dispossession of Palestinians and subsequent occupation.

From these perspectives, the crimes of 9/11 were an outgrowth of the wrongs of 9/10 and unreflectively led to the crimes and strategic mistakes made since 9/12.

It is probably misleading to think of 9/11 as a coherent global historical event. Undoubtedly its varied interpretations is mainly a reflection of national experience that is more often shaped by 9/10 and 9/12 perspectives than by the attacks themselves. Such an observation reminds us that despite the hype about globalisation that was so prominent during the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the 1990s, what counts most is how our lives are experienced within particular sovereign states.

It is this national set of perceptions that continues to dominate our political consciousness, which is itself differentiated by class, religion, ethnicity, and ethical standpoint.

Surely most Palestinians see 9/11 through an optic reflecting their ordeal as it presented itself on 9/10, while Israelis are likely to see 9/11 mainly as enabling a transition to the 9/12 response that led Americans to share the Israeli preexisting national preoccupation with terrorism. It is worth recalling that at the time Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli prime minister, called Yasser Arafat “our Osama Bin Laden”, persuasively merging the enemies haunting the two countries into a single image of evil.  

Global citizenship or isolated nations?

A deeper encounter with 9/11 ten years later allows us to understand more clearly that most of us continue to live in a world of sovereign states rather than as inhabitants of the surrounding regional and global communities, although the sense of global citizenship is growing as some realise that without achieving human solidarity we will not likely survive as a species much longer.

But this realisation remains confined to the irrelevant margins of political activity. Even Europe that has seemed to go further in recent decades toward establishing a post-national identity required only the stress of an economic recession to reveal that what still mattered most in the political life of people was being Italian, Spanish, Greek, or French, and that being European was a faux identity imposed by fiat from above, and easily discarded under pressure.

Of course, for Americans these issues were and are posed differently.

The distinction between national and global has long been obscured. The United States is truly a global state, perhaps the first in history, with the capabilities, interests, and resolve to act anywhere on the planet whenever its vital interests are at stake.

It will disregard the sovereign rights of others whenever it deems it desirable to do so, and will not feel seriously inhibited by international law or the duty to gain approval for controversial uses of force from the United Nations.

But this globalism is now in partial eclipse: the global orientation remains but the will and ability have diminished. As the American fiscal and geopolitical situation worsens, there is a noticeable return to a political agenda dominated by national priorities, and this tendency is reinforced by recent failures to turn American military superiority into political victories in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

“9/11” didn’t stop at midnight

The US war on terror has taken a heavy toll on Afghan civilians since 9/11 [EPA]

Ten years ago 9/11 was the occasion of an “evil” threat to the American way of life that could be addressed neither territorially nor by way of a simple retaliatory attack on an enemy state. It disclosed both the vulnerability of a modern superpower and the potency of an extremist non-state actor, thereby challenging embedded realist understandings of power and security that had guided foreign policy throughout the modern period of statist diplomacy. 

American leaders at the time, with ardent and unified national backing, insisted that future domestic security required limiting freedom at home, especially for the Muslim minority, while waging a series of wars abroad, partly to destroy Al Qaeda but also as a convenient pretext to pursue an earlier goal of grand strategy to achieve dominance over the Middle East.

It is this continuing global projection of American power that makes it natural for 9/12 to be the day that most stays in the mind of foreigners, probably not literally, but through feelings of victimisation resulting from the American response.

In essence, while Americans continue to associate their victimisation exclusively with 9/11, with the attacks themselves, much of the rest of the world associates their victimisation with either the world of 9/10 or that of 9/12.

It is this variability that makes this tenth anniversary so resistant to generalisations. These contradictory feelings of place and time being evoked suggests that “9/11” is a misleading reductive label that is deceptive to the extent that it treats the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as anything like the totality of “the event”. 

From such an angle of perception, globalisation seems real. When Barrack Obama was elected the American president in November 2008, it was a genuine global event, with many people the world over believing at the time that his election was more important for their future than the outcome of their own national elections.

9/11: A process rather than an event

A few years later, Lula was on his way to a meeting of the G20 in Europe while he was still president of Brazil, confided that he prayed for Obama more than for himself. The American role in the world economy and security system is truly global, but does that mean that 9/11 should be interpreted as a blow struck against the whole world?

In some respects, it was illustrative of the vulnerability of any modern state, even the most powerful, but for others it was a new phase in the ongoing struggle between West and non-West. For many societies around the world, 9/11 was less the tragedy than a prelude to their own less noticed tragedy – intensified violence and acute insecurity exported to their homelands: drone attacks, targeted assassinations, special forces operating covertly within national sovereign space, secret sites established within their nation where terrorist suspects were ‘rendered’ to be tortured for the sake of United States intelligence services.

Inevitably we remember certain things and forget others.

Such selectivity is normally not a conscious process, but its recognition helps explain the incredible diversity of how 9/11 will be interpreted on this tenth anniversary. It is unquestionably a milestone of contemporary history that fascinates us partly because there is no prospect of closure. We debate its meaning endlessly because its reality and effects remain as baffling as ever, fluid in our imaginations, and thus interpreted according to our particular desires, fears, and perceptions rather through an increasingly accurate reconstruction of a mere happening.

9/11 is especially elusive due to the continuing challenges directed at the official version of the events that make the mainstream narration a sacred text for some and a massive subversion of truth and political legitimacy for others. These doubts have not been put to rest, although whenever they rise to the surface, the enforcers of public truth respond with venomous denunciations of anyone who dares raise questions.

Against this background, even 9/11 as an event remains contested despite the passage of ten years. How we choose to observe 9/11 is thus unusually arbitrary, exhibiting our nature more than its actuality. Under these circumstances, it may be better to regard 9/11 as a process rather than an event.

Confining our understanding to a given day, that of the attacks, heightens the confusion surrounding the real meaning of 9/11 by pretending that we can present adequately the phenomenon as a physical occurrence consisting of planes flying into buildings that soon collapsed, to the debris that remained until cleared, the lives that were lost, and the many words spoken in lament, fear, fervor, and anger.

True, these were the realities of the day, but their truer nature and significance long preceded and continues to flow from the attacks themselves, and thus to avoid the traps of political provincialism, we must do our best to comprehend as much of this more extended portrayal of 9/11 as possible.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy. 

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