9/11 commission: ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’

Futile speculations on what might have been.

Alan Miller

Topics Politics

Nobody can stand those party bores who harp on endlessly about how they ‘could have done such and such’. Yet in the farce that is the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, it seems that far too much emphasis is being put on the spurious claim that somehow the attacks of 9/11 could have been prevented.

Ray Shell, in the novel Iced, illustrates the delusion of the junkie Cornelius Washington Junior with his descent into madness. This character understood the irony of his own decline, and would reminisce how he ‘coulda’ done this, ‘woulda’ done that and ‘shoulda’ done the other (1). While one may expect such a view from a desperate soul, we should demand more from the leaders of society. And while we all heard the conspiracy theories, such as that Jews were pre-warned about the 9/11 attack, or that political leaders allowed it to happen, it is a sad moment indeed when the whole political culture is engulfed in such a misplaced debate.

Originating from the desires of relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks (2), the inquiry is a grander version of what we have come to expect in an age where no random attack or accident can be understood for what it is. The open letter in which the chair of the commission Thomas Kean addresses ‘Families of 9-11 Victims’, outlines the aim of the commission to ‘report on its findings, conclusions and recommendations for corrective measures that can be taken to prevent acts of terrorism’.

It hardly needs saying that it is highly unlikely that any president would allow an attack to occur had he (or his advisers) known about it. However, in today’s climate of suspicion and hostility towards politicians, events are presented in increasingly conspiratorial terms. One minute the accusation is that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice is too scared to testify publicly, the next minute her testimony becomes rewritten as a stunt to promote President George W Bush. This schoolyard behaviour is tiresome – but worse, it actually fails to hold politicians to account for the problems we are facing in political life.

Journalists happily engage in this type of discussion. On CBS’ Face the Nation, reporter Bob Schieffer taunted Condoleezza Rice, referring to journalist Bob Woodward’s claim in his latest book, Plan of Attack, that secretary of state Colin Powell was kept out of the loop on plans to strike Iraq (3). We know that Powell is not war-shy – but rather than asking tough questions about the rights and wrongs of the war, the debate becomes a degraded one about who told who what and when.

In his book Therapy Culture, UK sociologist Frank Furedi discussed the newly emerging trend of people trying to blame others for their accidents and losses. In previous times, a strong sense of community, ideals and principles would tend to act as a gelling agent, and buffer the setbacks individuals experienced (4). Today, at a time when individuals are more isolated and insecure, the idea has grown that ‘someone’ (or more often, some company or public entity) should be held accountable for events and accidents, which were previously seen as part of the risks of life and the world in which we live.

Of course, the current US administration has been plugging the line about the terrible dangers and threats of international terrorism, so one may see it as the proverbial chickens coming home to roost for Condoleezza Rice and co. However, it is a mistake to think that the 9/11 inquiry is anything but a continuation and deepening of a dangerous dynamic, where individuals are seen as increasingly vulnerable to outside threats.

Any attempt to legislate against the threat of terrorism is bound only to increase irrational fear and a climate of anxiety. It will also help to create the very conditions it is attempting to prevent – the more hysterical discussion there is about the dangers of terrorism, the more likely that now and again a few isolated crackpots will use this self-promoted Achilles heel to attack. Alongside this, further erosion of civil liberties will ensue in the name of tighter controls against attacks (5).

It is testimony to our fearful times that the ‘big’ debate in the run-up to the US presidential election is dominated by wrangling about what officials did or didn’t know about the 9/11 attacks. The New York Times reported on 18 April: ‘The new information produced by the commission so far has led six of its 10 members to say or suggest that the attacks could have been prevented, though there is no consensus on when, how or by whom.’ (6) The 9/11 inquiry is in many ways the worst of all current thinking rolled into one – it was set up to honour victims, is shrouded in risk-aversion, and is underpinned by the mindset of litigation.

This climate clearly needs to be challenged. It seems that what is needed is a dose of old-fashioned common sense and a brave heart, to cry out against the accepted wisdom. Or else we could find ourselves lamenting through the lame and dead-end reflection of ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’. We should demand more from ourselves than that.

Read on:

spiked-issue: After 11 September

spiked-issue: The war on terror

(1) Iced, Ray Shell, 1995

(2) 9-11 Commission’s Family Liaison Page

(3) Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA)

(4) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, Frank Furedi, Routledge, 2003 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(5) Train Station set as test site for screening of passengers, New York Times, 16 April 2004

(6) ‘Pre-9/11 Files Show Warnings Were More Dire and Persistent’, New York Times, 18 April 2004

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Topics Politics


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