Five years after 9/11: the search for meaning goes on

More than anything, the attacks on New York and Washington exposed the moral disorientation and bewilderment of the West.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

The day after 9/11, a writer for the Los Angeles Times predicted that the ‘next big thing’ would not be ‘some new technological innovation or medical breakthrough’ but ‘is likely to be fear’ (1). Others said 9/11 marked the beginning of a New Age of Terror. Many insisted that 9/11 changed everything. ‘America will never be the same again’, observed Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on the floor of the Senate, adding that ‘the changes are visceral and they are real’ (2). There is a sense in Britain too that terrorism has changed people’s lives. A recent BBC poll found that one important reason why many people think Britain is a worse place to live now than it was 20 years ago is because of terrorism.

And yet, although something very important clearly happened on 11 September 2001, it is far from clear what has changed as a result. Most people in the West have not directly experienced the past five years as a New Age of Terror. In the US, for example, there have been many terror alerts but no one has died in a known terrorist incident since September 2001. Nor does anxiety about terrorism monopolise people’s fearful imaginations. As was the case before 9/11, we continue to live in a culture concerned with a multitude of fears. Anxiety about terror competes with fear of crime, incivility, global warming and various other routine, ambient worries. For most people, everyday routine has changed very little, if at all.

Nonetheless, the perception that 9/11 represented an historical turning point is significant. It is also striking that people find it difficult to give a coherent and plausible explanation for this watershed event. It is this inability to account for apparently historical changes that is the most noteworthy thing about our post-9/11 world. In fact, what really marks out the post-9/11 era is not so much that it represents a new phase of global violence, but rather the palpable sense of moral disorientation and bewilderment in the Western cultural imagination. This sense of confusion was strikingly expressed in US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s warning in 2002 about ‘unknown unknowns’: terrorist threats we don’t even know about. His speculation about the ones ‘we don’t know we don’t know’ represented a rarely expressed acknowledgement that Western leaders find it difficult to give a name to what we fear.

This idea that the world faces ‘unknown’ problems is not confined to Washington. The UK Intelligence and Security Committee’s Report into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005 contains a section titled ‘Reassessing “the unknown”’. It cites a leading British security official who notes that, ‘[As we] have said before July, there are probably groups out there that we do not know anything about, and because we do not know anything about them we do not know how many there are’ (3). Time and again, the report emphasises just how little is known about the threat to Britain. It openly admits that the security services lack the basic capacity to interpret or make sense of today’s terror threat.

Often, ‘unknown unknowns’ are said to be the outcome of a failure of intelligence or lack of information about global threats. ‘You can’t analyse intelligence that you don’t have – and our case studies resoundingly demonstrate how little we know about some of our highest priority intelligence targets’, concluded an official report into the intelligence capability of the US (4). However, the problem of ‘unknown unknowns’ is not so much a failure of intelligence as a profound inability to interpret or make sense of the problems facing society. Western societies do not know less than they knew before 9/11 – but knowledge, past and present, cannot be used effectively without a framework of meaning. That is why Western elites seem unconfident that the existing stock of human knowledge can help to interpret events and throw light on the problems we face.

Some of the questions raised in the post-9/11 era – such as ‘why do they hate us?’ or ‘what do they want?’ or ‘how can they be so evil?’ – expose a certain cultural naivety. But they also highlight the difficulty we have in endowing contemporary events with meaning. From the standpoint of the traditional vocabulary of public life, many events today do not make sense.

The real unknown

The most important unknown is what society stands for. Many have noted that Western governments are not very good at spelling out who is the enemy in the war on terror. But what is often overlooked is that public officials also seem at a loss to explain who we are. That is why the ‘unknown’ threats posed by an unimaginable enemy have not helped to forge a strong sense of common identity or resistance. Whatever US president George W Bush has done, he has not succeeded in mobilising a powerful base of support for the war on terror. His critics, who habitually accuse him of manipulating the politics of fear, often fail to realise that there is very little substance behind his periodic outbursts of flag-waving.

The absence of any genuine enthusiasm for the war on terror in the US is not simply symptomatic of war weariness; it also shows up the lack of meaning the conflict has for the general public. In such circumstances, it’s not surprising that there is not even any consensus on the facts about what happened on 9/11. A significant section of the American public even questions who bears responsibility for the atrocity. In August 2006, a survey of 1,010 adults found that 36 per cent of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted the 9/11 attacks, or took no action to stop them, so that the US could justify going to war in the Middle East. According to this Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, a significant number of respondents refuse to believe the official version of events (5).

That more than a third of the American public buys into various conspiracy theories about 9/11 illustrates the crisis of meaning afflicting the West in the post-9/11 world. Today, as in the past, the embrace of conspiracy theories is motivated by a sense of incomprehension towards the workings of the world. Typically, the rise of conspiracy theories mirrors the decline of any sense of causality regarding who is responsible for what; it also signifies the erosion of official authority.

This lack of clarity about what the West stands for also influences events in Iraq and Afghanistan. If soldiers are successfully to pursue their campaign they need to know what they are fighting for and against. If this is ‘unknown’, a military campaign can become fatally flawed. So it isn’t surprising to discover that coalition troops in Iraq will now get ‘values training’ in ‘core warrior’ values. Peter Chiarelli, the No2 US general in Iraq, argued that troops must take ‘time to reflect on the values that separate us from our enemies’ (6).

If the experience of the past three decades is anything to go by, it is unlikely that training courses will do very much to enlighten coalition troops about their core values. Indeed, ‘diversity training’, ‘the citizenship curriculum’, ‘sensitivity courses’ and other values-oriented schemes that flourish in institutions across the West are entirely symbolic and ritualistic. They symbolise the absence of any common purpose or value, and advertise the fact that in Western societies people gain their values through training courses rather than through the experience of life.

Struggle for ideas

Probably the most significant and unexpected legacy of 9/11 is the decline of the moral authority of the West. Since 9/11, the West has felt self-consciously defensive and discredited. In contrast to the experience of the Cold War, it has not been able to establish itself on the moral high ground. Instead, it feels internally insecure and increasingly lacks domestic legitimacy for its action.

As one report on the state of British public diplomacy noted, ‘Effective policies for dealing with these new security challenges are quite different from those of the Cold War, and publics require much more active persuasion’. It added that ‘responses to the threat of nuclear war or Russian invasion had much broader and less questioning support than do responses to the threat of terrorist attack, which are coloured by deep popular scepticism about pre-emptive wars and about the principle of regime change for “terrorism-sponsoring” states’ (7). The relatively weak public support for the war on terror suggests that, for a variety of reasons, the short-term legacy of 9/11 is a decline in social capital. If Washington and London are indeed pursuing a self-conscious strategy of the ‘politics of fear’, it’s not working.

The inability of the Western elites to give meaning to their global policies means they are losing the battle of ideas with their own publics. This is most evident in Western governments’ estrangement from the Muslim populations in their societies. Surveys continually reveal that secular and liberal values have a feeble influence on Europe’s Muslim communities. Despite numerous initiatives built around ‘dialogue’ and ‘multiculturalism’, a recent survey suggested that Muslims in Britain are the most anti-Western in Europe (8). Blair’s critics claim that this is a result of Britain’s involvement in Iraq. However, such a criticism overlooks the wider mood of animosity towards the West that prevails throughout most of the Islamic world.

For a brief moment, many observers believed that 9/11 would represent a rallying point and provide the West with a sense of mission. However, in the absence of a coherent system of meaning, the West struggles to promote its own values; instead, it relies on tawdry advertising and marketing. In October 2001, advertising executive Charlotte Beer was appointed US secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Her mission was to gain the assistance of Madison Avenue public relations firms to help rebrand and sell the US to a hostile Muslim world. This focus on improving ‘the image’ indicated that the US was not prepared to engage in a serious battle of ideas.

In Britain, too, impression management is the order of the day. British public diplomacy relies on loyal moderate Muslim leaders to curb the extremists. According to one British foreign minister, Lord Triesman, ‘international Islamic scholars are undertaking a series of roadshows to towns and cities with important Muslim communities to counter the extremist message’ (9). This outsourcing of the fight against the extremists springs from the idea that there is little point in promoting a positive vision of Western society. In February 2003, Donald Rumsfeld asked ‘are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists everyday than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?’ (10) The evidence strongly suggests that the answer to this question is a resounding ‘No’. Experience shows that, without a clear message, the kind of advertising techniques currently being used by Western officials will prove ineffective.

Catastrophes, wars and major historical events have important material, geopolitical and economic consequences. They also challenge a society’s capacity to make sense of the unexpected, and its belief in its own way of life. In material terms, 9/11 was a minor incident: economic disruption soon gave way to an upturn, and in terms of daily routine people showed that they possessed the resilience to carry on. For most of us, it was business as usual. However, 9/11 exposed and brought to the surface the difficulty Western society has in giving meaning to its way of life. Ever since the end of the Cold War, this problem was bound to force the West to account for itself in positive terms; it took 9/11 to force Western elites to acknowledge that they regard their futures as an ‘unknown unknown’. As a result, little today can be taken for granted. That is probably what people really mean when they claim that 9/11 changed everything.

The debate continues:

Read Nadine Strossen on liberty after 9/11, Michael Fitzpatrick on why al-Qaeda are spoilt rich kids, Fasial Devji on how 9/11 came to us from the future and much more exclusively on spiked here.

Frank Furedi is the author of Politics of Fear. Visit his website here.

(1) David Rieff, ‘Fear and Fragility Sound a Wake-up Call’, Los Angeles Times, 12 September 2001

(2) A Speech Delivered by Senator Dianne Feinstein on the floor of the Senate, 11 September 2003

(3) HMSO (2006), Intelligence and Security Committee Report into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005, Cm 6785, HMSO: London

(4) ‘The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction’, Report to the President of the United States, 31 March 2005, Washington DC

(5) See ‘A third of US public believe 9/11 conspiracy theory’, Scripps Howard News Service, 2 August 2006

(6) ‘Troops will get “values training”’, USA Today, 2 June 2006

(7) Leonard, M and Small, A, with Rose, M (2005), British Public Diplomacy in the ‘Age of Schisms’, The Foreign Policy Centre: London, p11

(8) See ‘Poll shows Muslims in Britain are most anti-western in Europe’, Guardian, 23 June 2006

(9) See speech by British Foreign Minister Lord Triesman, ‘Britain’s New Approach to Public Diplomacy: Promoting a Vision’, FCO 7 June 2006-08-21

(10) Cited in Joseph S Nye, ‘The Decline of America’s Soft Power’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004, vol.83, issue 3, p17

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Topics Politics


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