After the attack on America

As the dust clears over the scenes of carnage, it is worth asking what these events and the reaction to them can tell us about the world we live in now.

We all saw it, and it horrified us all. No more need be said here about the terrible suffering inflicted by the terrorist attacks in the USA.

As the dust clears over the scenes of carnage, however, it is worth asking what these events and the reaction to them can tell us about the world we live in now.

The sheer scale of the human tragedy aside, the big story we watched unfolding was the collapse of the American government. President Bush was sent around the country in search of a bolthole, Capitol Hill was closed down, the Pentagon military HQ was in flames and in chaos, nobody seemed sure of what was happening or what to do about it. In the heart of the only superpower on Earth, the traumatised authorities suddenly seemed bewildered and powerless.

Everybody declared that America was now ‘at war’, but nobody knew with whom. Many compared the attacks on New York and Washington to the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yet in the next breath most conceded that there can be no real comparison between an attack by unknown terrorists and a war with the Japanese Empire. ‘At least then’, they said, ’we knew who to hit back at’.

The instability unleashed across America by the explosions in Manhattan and at the Pentagon has revealed the shaky state, not just of the US government, but of the US-dominated world order. Since the Cold War ended over a decade ago, we have effectively lived in an unprecedented unipolar world, overseen by America. The rules of international affairs have been rewritten, and we have been told that the old, divisive politics of national sovereignty are being replaced by a new internationalism under American and Western supervision.

The response to this week’s attacks has exposed the fact that America’s new world order stands on rather fragile foundations. Underneath the rhetoric, it is a sham. The overwhelming sense in Washington is not of order, but of the world being out of control.

How else could a terrorist assault, even as audacious and awful as this one was, throw America and the West into such total panic and produce headlines like ‘The day that changed the world’? After all, America is not under attack from a rival empire seeking to defeat it on the global stage. The explosions that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Centre did not move the centre of world power one inch away from Washington. Yet the attack has made such an impact on the anxious and insecure Western elites that there is serious talk of it causing an economic recession.

It is in these circumstances of an out-of-control world order that a small handful of highly motivated individuals can apparently make history by hijacking four planes, at a time when mass popular movements appear to have run into a brick wall. It is not the act of terrorism itself that has changed the course of history, but the reaction to it may well do so.

Whoever the Bush administration does decide to retaliate against, we can be certain that it will cause more problems than it solves. Whether we are talking about the Balkans or the Middle East, the iron law of modern history appears to be that the more powerfully the USA and the West intervene, the worse matters become.

This week’s events also provide an insight into the fearful state of the contemporary Western mind. As we have often argued on spiked, ours is an age when many people continually worry about risks to their health and wellbeing, and have a propensity to panic about everything from their food to the alleged threat of asteroids. The shocking attacks on New York and Washington might be seen as confirmation that those obsessed with the risks of modern living are right. As the New York Times has commented, ‘If a flight full of commuters can be turned into a missile of war, everything is dangerous’. In which case, the only response is surely to fear everything and pull up the drawbridge.

Yet it is important to remember that the havoc in America was brought about not so much by modern developments as by old-fashioned fervour and zealotry. It was, as the UK Guardian points out, ‘a low-tech but devastating assault’. The harsh truth is that there is no way to guard absolutely against such an extraordinary event. Worse, by adopting a precautionary approach to modern life, and reorganising society on the basis of worst-case scenarios, we risk squandering opportunities to create a more progressive, civilised world.

We have already witnessed how, as well as evoking feelings of human solidarity, a tragedy like the massacres in America can prompt people to turn in on themselves. Thus America’s reaction was effectively to cut itself off from the rest of the world. And from New York to the City of London, the response of millions of people on hearing what had happened was to go home and take shelter, as if the explosions had blown a hole in all of our lives.

For a decade or more we have wasted far too much time and energy dwelling on relatively trivial fears, whether about the chemicals in our coffee or economy-class syndrome. Maybe now, in the face of adversity, people will rediscover the resilience and resourcefulness that made us capable of going out and building a modern wonder like Manhattan in the first place.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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