An Isolated Incident: Or, The Day Nothing Changed

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a horrific and yet isolated act of senseless violence. For those who lost loved ones on that day, it obviously marks a significant turning point for them as individuals. Yet the idea that they mark some kind of major world-historical turning point is absurd on every level.

First, they did not usher us into a new age of terrorism. They did not mark the beginning of a wave of similar attacks on the U.S. or on other Western powers. The follow-up attacks that did occur were destructive and despicable, and yet they were clearly at nowhere near the same scale. Clearly the jihadist terrorist movement was a profound failure, and in retrospect 9/11 marks its spectacular climax — yet the movement itself was so minor in historical terms that even its “spectacular climax” does not represent a major historical turning point, any more than the nihilistic acting-out of the U.S. militia movement in the Oklahoma City bombings represents a major historical turning point.

They did not mark a major shift in terms of executive power or the ideology of security. They may have accelerated certain changes, but those changes or something like them were on the way in any case — as one could perhaps infer from the fact that the Obama administration has not rolled back any significant aspect of the executive powers he inherited from Bush. Clinton was already carrying out extraordinary rendition and carrying out bombing attacks on countries with which we weren’t at war, and the police powers associated with the “war on drugs” have resulted in far more human rights violations than the new powers nominally tied to terrorism.

They did not in any meaningful sense “lead to” the Iraq War. Making a link to 9/11 proved to be a powerful rhetorical tool, but does anyone in the world seriously think that the Bush administration would have failed to invade Iraq had 9/11 not happened? The neoconservative foreign policy that the Bush administration implemented existed long before September 11, 2001, and was only slightly retooled in light of that event.

They did not even mark a significant event in media culture, as is sometimes claimed. The televised spectacle of the events may have been relatively unique in their global reach, but the JFK assassination was already mediated primarily through television and CNN’s coverage of the first Iraq War provided the paradigm for 24-hour full-spectrum media saturation.

The true scandal of the 9/11 attacks is that they were truly meaningless, a purely nihilistic acting out. The people who died on 9/11 died for no reason. They died because a group of delusional people got together to do something terrible, in the service of a goal that was ridiculous and impossible to achieve.

And even that kind of meaningless violence is far from new: American adolescent boys of all ages had been carrying it out themselves throughout the 1990s. The destructive impulses of adolescents, whether they are teenagers like the Columbine shooters or pathetically underdeveloped adults like Timothy McVeigh or the 9/11 hijackers, do not move history — they just burn themselves out and perhaps hurt someone along the way.

What the historical ruminations on 9/11 serve to obscure is the fact that it’s the Responsible Adults who are the real danger: the Wise Men with their Big Plans for American Hegemony and the Savvy Businessmen with their Exciting New Financial Structures. Even more, they obscure the real tragedy, which is that we haven’t had a genuine historical turning point in the last twenty years. Had Bush v. Gore gone the other way, we almost certainly would have gotten a different pointless war with a different misleading rationale, and we still would’ve had the financial crisis. The most terrifying disaster wasn’t the isolated violence of 9/11, but the everyday run of things that it briefly interrupted.

14 thoughts on “An Isolated Incident: Or, The Day Nothing Changed

  1. I was simply struck by the phrase “died for no reason” – surely people had all sorts of reasons for dying on 9/11. Terrorists died for whatever their reasons they had. Rescuers died for their own reason. People in the buildings/planes died for someone else’s reasons, but certainly not for “no reason” at all.

    I understand the general gist of the argument here and I sympathize with “nothing changed” approach, but I am not sure I get “they all died for no reason” part.

    I mean as much as I think that the narrative of “things will never be the same” is annoying, it is a sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Travel will never be the same, especially for foreigners. Anti-Muslim sentiment, very low or non-existent before 9/11 will never go down to that level. America’s treatment of terrorism as military action (and not criminal action) is not likely to change either. And so on.

    As for an “isolated incident”, I will have to respectfully disagree on that as well. Sure, it is an isolated incident of planes flying into buildings in New York, but otherwise anti-American terrorism has a long history of which this is but one chapter. So most definitely not a “meaningless nihilistic acting-out” of some infantile non-adults – reducing terrorist violence to some irrational acting-out, I think, does not help at all.

    I mean I get your overall rhetorical point, but it is a bit thin on supporting evidence.

  2. Evgeni, I know this might sound like a cop-out, but in this piece I was taking an extreme position for rhetorical purposes. While I do believe that “9/11 changed everything” style rhetoric is severely overblown and misleading, I won’t defend every statement in here to the death. Yet I will defend “died for no reason” to some extent — I really don’t think that al Qaeda’s ambitions were realistic enough to count as a “reason.” They died because the planners and participants in the plot were a weird combination of batshit insane, brave, and capable. To say that they died because of U.S. foreign policy or something seems too strong — billions of people worldwide hate U.S. foreign policy, but nothing even remotely like 9/11 has occurred before or since. And yes, the rescuers died because of their courage and selflessness, etc., but their meritorious actions were taking place in the framework of a broader event that was itself nonsensical.

  3. I really can’t agree that the invasion of Iraq would have happened without the close proximity (both rhetorical and otherwise) of the 9/11 attacks. The invasion depended heavily upon the Bush administration’s ability to “sell” both the American public and right-leaning Democrats on the matter, and the collective impact of 9/11 was a crucial piece of the marketing plan.

    I don’t disagree that “the neoconservative foreign policy” was in place well before the attacks, but the attacks provided the fuel that gave those policies a far freer reign than would have occurred otherwise. Without 9/11, there certainly would have been various strategies at play to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East, but nothing as brazen as the invasion.

    My opinion, anyhow.

  4. Given how brazen they were about forcing through tax cuts when everyone was expecting a humble presidency aware of its questionable mandate, etc., I honestly think Iraq would’ve been a main priority — and I doubt a Republican Congress would’ve stopped it. Bush Sr. was able to sell the first Iraq War as a humanitarian thing, and the whole enterprise was hugely popular as far as I can tell.

    In general, I wish we could put a moratorium on discussing “public opinion” in relation to what the government does. The second Iraq War prompted literally the biggest protests in history, and Bush clearly didn’t give a fuck. And why should he? Did the people have the power to actually stop him?

  5. While I agree that it’s tempting to make too-easy connections between public opinion and the actions of elected officials, I do think it’s significant that, large-scale protests notwithstanding, neither Bush nor Congress had to worry about the numbers of those opposed to the war eclipsing those who were either active supporters of the invasion or indifferent to it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the months running up to the invasion, and in the immediate aftermath, public opinion polls still tilted a). in favor of the invasion, and b). amenable to the idea that there were substantial connections between the Hussein regime and al-Queda. And it was clear that moderate Democrats in particular were looking closely at their constituencies with concern for re-election.

    If it’s too simple to assume that public opinion has an easily quantifiable impact upon the actions of politicians, it seems equally simplistic to posit that public opinion is irrelevant to the point of putting a moratorium on considering it as a factor (whatever decision is then made concerning how much of a factor it really is in a given instance). Bush clearly did not get to do “whatever he wanted” – look at his attempt to privatize social security.

  6. Domestic and foreign policy are qualitatively different in this context. The president has a lot of leeway to do things unilaterally in the foreign policy sphere and basically tell Congress to go fuck itself — look at Obama and Libya.

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