THE WORLD changed on 9/11 — this sentiment was expressed again during the recent commemorations of the World Trade Center attacks. But the world did not change on Sept. 11, 2001. Nor did the mass-murderers of al-Qaeda ever possess the power to change the world.
This small band of fanatics certainly “hated our freedoms,” as President George W. Bush claimed in September 2001, “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” The most vicious assaults on these freedoms, however, were launched by their supposed defenders — politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and journalists — in the weeks, months, and years after 9/11.
That’s when the world truly changed, leading to the traumatic present where the Taliban are back in power and the rest of us, whether in India or the United States, are besieged by what Bush last weekend called the “violence that gathers within.”
In the US, racial injustice and white supremacism came to flourish on the scorched ground where a bonfire of laws was fed by successive administrations, pursuing an endless war on terror with the help of extrajudicial executions, torture, indefinite detentions, and intrusive surveillance.
Much of our bleak world today, where once-celebrated democracies such as the United Kingdom, India, and Israel are dominated by far-right personalities and movements, and Russia and China seem condemned to authoritarian rule, was also forged in the days after 9/11, when the global war on terror endowed violence and brutality with unprecedented global sanction.
A younger generation today probably doesn’t remember how quickly an insecure young Russian leader named Vladimir Putin moved in 2001 to link Russia’s long battle against separatists in Chechnya to Bush’s war on terror. The first foreign leader to call the White House after 9/11, Putin accelerated his brutal suppression of the Chechens with support from Bush, who claimed to have looked into the Russian leader’s “soul” and found him “very straightforward and trustworthy.” It was in the weeks and months after 9/11 that Putin’s autocracy was consolidated.
In Israel, right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had been complicit in the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Beirut in 1982 and had found his way back to power by undermining peace talks with the Palestinians, moved as fast as Putin to subsume decades-old Palestinian resistance to Israeli military occupation under the war on terror. Describing Yasser Arafat, leader of Palestinian Authority, as Israel’s Bin Laden, Sharon launched in March 2002, with the support of the Bush administration, Israel’s biggest military operation in Gaza and the West Bank since its original occupation of these territories in 1967 — an assault that irreparably damaged fledgling Palestinian institutions.
India’s Hindu nationalist leaders claimed that India had suffered its own 9/11 in December 2001, when militants driving a car with a sticker that proclaimed “India is a very bad country” opened fire at the Indian parliament building in New Delhi. Putting the Indian army on high alert on the border with Pakistan, they introduced anti-terrorist legislation which put the onus on the accused to prove his or her innocence, laws which were later disproportionately deployed against India’s Muslim minority.
It was in this toxic climate of jingoism and Islamophobia that more than 2,000 Muslims were massacred in Gujarat state, six months after 9/11, under the watch of Narendra Modi, now prime minister of India.
The most malign legacy of 9/11 was an extensive dissolution of norms and values as well as laws. It is hard to imagine China’s large-scale detention of Uyghur Muslims without the superpower culture of impunity defiantly proclaimed by the still-open prison in Guantanamo Bay.
The ongoing descent of Britain, the original home of liberty, into a libertarian’s nightmare can be dated back to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s involvement in the US-led invasion and occupation of Muslim countries — what brought, as widely predicted, terrorism to the streets of London, a state crackdown on civil liberties, and a virulent media culture of Muslim-baiting and xenophobia in general.
More damagingly, the mainstream intelligentsia in advanced democracies chose to participate in their self-mutilation. Those marveling today at how once-respectable media organizations, from the UK’s Spectator to the Times of India, became eager hosts to far-right trolls and culture warriors must examine their post-9/11 record of warmongering and Islamophobia, of marginalizing and stigmatizing dissent.
No wonder the violence that gathers within today is fueled by a profound and universal collapse of public confidence in political elites and the media.
“Never forget” — the imperative resonates 20 years after the unconscionable attacks that killed thousands of men, women and children. But nor should we forget that, though terrorists brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11, the older and sturdier edifices of democratic institutions were devastated by those sworn to protect them.