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.