Why 9/11 gave rise to a carnival of confusion

The massive, unnecessary storm over the US pastor planning to burn some Korans speaks to the post-9/11 disarray of Western society.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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.

At a time when homegrown and external threats appear so confusing, elevating terrorism as ‘the enemy’ provides little obvious meaning to society. And in such circumstances, it can become difficult to know what to say and how to act. Should the commemoration of 9/11 be a celebration of the American way of life? Should it be about communicating a sense of patriotic defiance? An opportunity for overcoming profound cultural divisions? Is it a reminder of a nation’s capacity to come together, or does it expose a society deeply at unease with itself? That America is so easily distracted by the clownish antics of Pastor Terry Jones suggests that it would prefer not to face up to these kinds of questions.

For a brief moment, many observers believed that 9/11 would represent a rallying point and provide the West with a sense of mission. For a few months it did. However, in the absence of a coherent system of meaning, the West has struggled to promote its own values. Instead, it relies on tawdry advertising and marketing. In October 2001, advertising executive Charlotte Beers 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 in helping to rebrand and sell America to a hostile Muslim world. This focus on improving ‘the image’ indicated that American was not prepared to engage in a serious battle of ideas. That was then… and now, nine years later, Washington still hasn’t realised that the profound problem it faces is not one of branding. General Petraeus has warned that the image of Korans burning could be as bad for America as ‘the images from Abu Ghraib’, revealing that America’s military and political leaders still see their problems in terms of imagery alone.

Catastrophes, wars and major historical events have important material, geopolitical and economic consequences. They 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. Having avoided confronting this problem, the unity experienced in the aftermath of this event has given way to some very homegrown tensions and divisions. The best way to commemorate 9/11 would be to direct our intellectual and political energies towards working out some of the answers to the questions that our leaders don’t even want to ask.

Frank Furedi is author of a number of books including Invitation to Terror and Politics of Fear. Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics


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