They say that confusion begets confusion. And now, on the ninth anniversary of the momentous events of 9/11, we can clearly see that America (and indeed Western society) is more confused than ever.
An anniversary like this should be an occasion for good people to take stock of a tragic event that continues to influence their lives. It should be a day of remembrance, when communities reflect on what was lost, tell stories about individual tragedies, and come together to gain strength from a feeling of common purpose. Instead, 9/11 has become a story without meaning. We see this on every anniversary, when conspiracy theorists, publicity-hungry moral entrepreneurs and professional victim lobbyists come into their own, forming an unholy alliance crusading to empty the anniversaries of their profound moral content.
These days it only takes one eccentric non-entity – like Pastor Terry Jones – to unleash a veritable panic about how the US will be seen by the rest of the world. The pastor, author of the soon-to-be bestseller Islam of the Devil, has warned that he and his evangelical church are organising an International Burn a Koran day to coincide with the ninth anniversary of 9/11. In a confident society which still had hold of its bearings, this promised publicity stunt by a tiny, Florida-based Christian group called the Dove World Outreach Center would be seen for what it is: an insignificant gesture by an inconsequential band of attention-seekers. However, today, the pastor and his followers’ infantile behaviour is being treated as a threat to global harmony and peace.
Numerous media outlets have warned about the ‘grave threat’ that the burning of the Korans poses to America’s security. ‘It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall [war] effort’, said General David Petraeus, the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Former British PM Tony Blair couldn’t resist getting in on the act, issuing a ‘plea’ to the pastor not to go ahead with his plan to burn the Korans. Even UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon has publicly stated that he is ‘deeply disturbed’ by the pastor’s plans.
It is even more dispiriting to read accounts of the coming remembrance of 9/11 as if it represents a prelude to a twenty-first-century version of Kristallnacht, only this time against Muslims. Isolated stunts like those promised by Terry Jones are depicted as being symptomatic of a powerful mood of xenophobia. Muslims in America are discussed as if they were a beleaguered community, possibly facing a future pogrom. Newspapers carefully report that American Muslims have been forced to increase security at mosques. ‘We can expect crazy people out there will do things, but we don’t want to create a hysteria [among Muslims]’, said Victor Begg of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan. Unfortunately, the numerous ominous stories about a growing tide of Islamophobia can only amplify anxieties and turn confused fantasies into some kind of reality.
Whatever happens in the next few days (the ninth anniversary falls on Saturday), it is clear that the story of 9/11 is less and less about any external threat to America. Instead, it has become a story about America’s own internal tensions and its inability to give meaning to its own way of life. Back in September 2001, the American public was not aware of the idea of a ‘homegrown terrorist’. Yet today, it is the Muslim-American Faisal Shahzad – the so-called Times Square bomber – who personifies the threat of terrorism. This is a man described by his former next-door neighbour, a schoolteacher, as ‘normal’. When the boy next door can turn to terror, the question that arises is: ‘What if they – the terrorists – are actually us?’
What if they are us?
The problem of the homegrown threat endows that old question – ‘Why do they hate us?’ – with a powerful new meaning. Back in 2001, when then US president George W Bush first posed that question, he was being far from rhetorical. He could not help but acknowledge, publicly, a sense of genuine surprise and bewilderment. These are not sentiments that one normally expresses towards clearly acknowledged enemies. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill needed to ask why the Nazis hated us, nor did Western leaders ask that question of the Kremlin. The anxiety expressed by this question semi-consciously reveals the concern that ‘they’ might be uncomfortably close to us. Worse still, since the apparent emergence of homegrown terrorism, there is great concern that ‘they’ might actually be ‘us’.
When this question was first formulated by Bush, it was premised on the idea that the enemy came from some faraway place. The problem and the source of terrorism were seen as being external to Western societies. Many of the theories about Muslim rage or a clash of civilisations focus on distant, exotic places, such as Afghanistan or Iran. Ironically, many of the critics of American and European foreign policy also put forward an externalist perspective, arguing that what really provokes terrorism is the oppression of Palestine and Western domination in the Middle East. So radical critics of the West, like Gary Younge, also locate the problem of terrorism as being somewhere ‘over there’. In Britain, the Oxford Research Group regularly publishes reports condemning the war in Iraq for encouraging global terrorism.
Since 9/11, however, it has become more and more difficult to ignore the fact that terrorism is not simply an external problem, but a domestic one, too. With the rise of so-called homegrown terrorism, the question of why they hate us has become bound up with a great deal of handwringing about why they are repelled by us and why they don’t want to be like us. British officials and analysts are continually shocked by revelations that a significant section of Britain’s Muslim youth has become sympathetic to a radical Islamic outlook. The British media tell stories of young people who apparently lived the lives of English-born, Westernised teenagers before suddenly becoming radicalised and turning into bitter enemies of their country of birth.
The realisation that these people who were born here are not like us, do not want to be like us and actually even hate us gives the threat of terrorism a very intimate status. And it is not only in Britain that people have discovered that their next-door neighbours are not who they thought they were. In Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Canada and the US, it is now recognised that some young people have developed an extreme hatred for the Western way of life.
The discovery of homegrown radicalisation calls into question the conventional portrayal of the ‘war on terror’. Not only has the distinction between them and us become more confused – the conflict also increasingly points to tensions within Western society itself. It has been recognised that, in recent years, a significant proportion of terrorist activity in the West has been carried out by independent, homogeneous networks. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, to some people living in the West, their society’s way of life appears repulsive. This development poses the question of ‘who is next’? The problem posed by the ascendancy of the homegrown radical is that the terrorist could be almost anybody. In Europe, security analysts concede that it is becoming impossible to make a profile of the terrorist.