Two decades on from the attacks on the World Trade Center of September 11 2001, Becca Bor recounts memories from that day and assesses the despicable ‘War on Terror’ it spawned.
Twenty years ago, I sat in my first period class in Boston and my teacher – to the surprise of us all – answered her cell pone which had been ringing and ringing. Her face dropped, told us it was her son on the phone who lived in New York, and that there had been a terrorist attack.
In every class, we listened to radio reports, snippets of news coming through, and in one class, the teacher wheeled in the television so we could watch the live coverage.
A few things really stood out about that day – I remember the feelings of shock and confusion. I remember the long line outside the main office of students desperately trying to find out if their family members in NYC were okay, but no one could get through because the phone lines were jammed.
And I remember that it was a gorgeous autumn day, without a cloud in the sky – and, because planes were grounded, it was eerily quiet.
On September 11, 2001, four US passenger planes were hijacked by 19 members of al-Qaeda in the most deadly foreign attack on US soil in nearly 200 years. The two planes departing from Boston crashed into the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, demolishing the twin towers, the heart of US capitalism and global trade.
Another plane crashed into the west wing of the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US military. And the final plane was forced down by its own passengers in a field in Pennsylvania, reportedly en route to the Capitol Building or the White House in Washington DC.
All told, 2,977 people were killed, including the passengers and crew of the planes, the workers in the buildings and the first responders who were caught in the wreckage.
9/11 ushered in an era of US patriotism and sabre rattling that gave cover to massive US-led political interventions abroad, and a trampling of democracy and civil liberties within the US and other Western countries.
“Terrorist” became synonymous with “Muslim”, as much of the domestic policy in the US and Western Europe’s turned explicitly Islamophobic, thereby encouraging right-wing attacks of Muslim- and Arab-presenting people.
This attack gave President George W. Bush and the US government the political cover to advance its long-held imperial project across the Middle East. The War on Terror was born.
To chants of “U-S-A!” and “God Bless America”, the US quickly moved onto a war footing – launching a twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan, a protracted war in Iraq and a massive destabilisation of the region.
The US, the UK and its coalition partners lied to the public about its rationale for war and intervention in an attempt to control more of the world’s oil supply, and to create puppet regimes subservient to US and Western geopolitical interests.
Bush used the “with us or against us” and “good battling evil” rhetoric to justify the invasion of Afghanistan. Although most of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia (a US allied country) and not Afghanistan, Bush argued that the US had to invade in order to defeat the Taliban, who was harbouring the mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin-Laden.
The coalition led by the US and the UK employed an enormous amount of force, overpowering the Taliban initially and installing a pro-Western government. Liberals clung to the neocolonial justification that this war and occupation was a humanitarian effort to liberate the women of Afghanistan from the Taliban. Yet the occupation brought death, displacement, misery, torture, instability, and predictably, the growth of the Taliban.
But the twenty-year occupation came to an end this month, as Western troops and government officials evacuated the country in defeat after the Taliban regained control of the major cities in the country, including Kabul. As Kieran Allen outlined in his recent article on the withdrawal from Afghanistan:
“The Cost of War project estimates that 240,000 people were killed in the war zone of the Pakistan-Afghanistan. Like any colonial army US troops committed appalling atrocities, – bombing wedding parties, beating up innocent civilians, and routine torture.
“It spent an estimated $2.26 trillion but much of that money was funneled into a corrupt government and its warlord allies.”
…and then Iraq
However, in the post-9/11 triumphalism and the quick success of toppling the Taliban, Bush set his sites not just on Afghanistan, but on Iraq and the oil that lay beneath the ground.
In March of 2003, Bush announced the invasion of the latter, riding on the jingoism and Islamophobia which was so pervasive at the time, even though millions of people globally came out in protests against the war.
Through lies about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and Saddam Hussein harbouring members of al-Qaeda, George Bush and Tony Blair forged ahead with their shock-and-awe dismantling of Iraq.
The war in Iraq was notorious for torture camps, private mercenaries, and lucrative oil deals. In the end, sectarian violence deepened and US was unable to install a US-friendly and stable government.
Along with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and its allies have engaged in military operations from Libya to Syria. The past twenty years has been one of constant war, displacement and instability across the Middle East and North Africa because of Washington’s imperial project, buoyed by the opportunity and political cover that 9/11 gave its military.
September 11 also ushered in an era of civil liberties being trampled. The US Patriot Act 2001 was quickly passed, a sweeping piece of “anti-terrorism” legislation that gave to the government far-reaching powers of surveillance of US citizens and residents. It also expanded the provision for counter-terrorism in government departments and widened the definitions and sharply increased the penalties for terrorist related crimes.
Countries like the UK, France and others followed suit. The post-9/11 world – both within the US and internationally – is much more militarised, surveilled and oppressive.
Additionally, it was in this climate, that the Guantanamo Bay Prison was opened and expanded to detain and torture prisoners, many of whom were never charged with a crime. This blatant disregard of due process and international law continues, as the US continues its two-decade-old war on terror.
War on Terror
Two decades on from 9/11 and the reverberations are still being felt, many thousands of miles away from the Boston classroom in which I first heard what happened.
That tragedy, and the response of the US, the UK and its allies, heralded in the age of the war on terror. The ‘axis-of-evil’ mantra of that war meant it quickly developed into a war on Islam and ensured that across the globe Islamophobic attacks would surge tremendously – both through racist legislation and right-wing physical attacks and murder.
From the burqa bans in France to the Prevent programme used in UK schools, Muslims continue to be scapegoated in order to take attention away from the imperial aims that have driven Western leaders.
Wherever we are in the world, we need to increase the pressure on our own governments to end the disastrous war on terror, and to stop the support of US and Western imperialism.
This means refusing to allow the US military to use Shannon Airport. It means challenging the Islamophobia that is rampant in our society. It means welcoming the refugees who have been displaced by two decades of occupation. And it means actively demilitarising our societies.