What we are Forgetting to Remember: The Social Context of 9/11

by Mike King

September 11, 2001 is a world historic moment, a historical signpost – “9/11” – marking more than a deadly attack, but a moment that truly changed history, one that can help us understand both the past and the present.  This week marks the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Of the memorials given, documentaries aired and news stories published this week, few will address the causes and effects of 9/11 in a way that gives a sense of the root causes, social context and contradictions that surround that moment and continue to define our present.

9/11 grew out of everything from Cold War contradictions to longstanding political grievances and anti-imperialism in the Muslim world.  9/11 propelled two unending wars, Afghanistan being the longest in US history, bankrupting both State finances and global moral legitimacy.  Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, and his mysterious burial at sea, and despite the fact that there have been no successful terror attacks in the US since 9/11, the US has lost the “War on Terror” in every other conceivable way.  Whether in terms of lost economic hegemony or in terms Federal budget deficits (and their social effects), largely caused by the costs of wars, or in terms of a loss of geopolitical control over much of the Western hemisphere or North Africa, the US leveraged its Empire to fund a new Crusades which has them clutching to their global thrown with one hand, munitions with the other, as the other world powers and financiers wait for the right moment to pull the rug out from under them, as multiple occupations meet persistent resistance.

For the US, what has been a fumbling set of mistaken Cowboy adventures, and a more-than-foreseeable lack of substantively different policy from Obama and the Democrats, has been a living hell for the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and many other countries – from the multiple drone bombings of Afghan weddings to the ongoing effects of depleted uranium in Fallujah and throughout Iraq.  A government or a nation that cannot overcome its own hubris to see that it is destroying its own power has a degree of poetic irony.  A government or nation that seeks to hide or obscure the horrors they have reaped in the process of the last ten years does not deserve to memorialize its own losses, especially when the piles of dead bodies that led to 9/11, and the piles of dead bodies that have been created since, would dwarf the twin towers of Lower Manhattan, were they still standing.

Dr. Frankenstein’s Amnesia

Al Qaeda is more of an ideology and a very loose network than it is an organization with clear command structures or cohesiveness.  Nonetheless, the idea of Al Qaeda and the original formation of those networks emerged in the early-mid 1980s in the largely informal and volunteer pan-Arab response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  The overarching lineage of militant Islam, or Islamism more generally (which is largely non-violent and reformist), can be traced to many factors outside of the scope of this essay.  Al Qaeda can also be traced to the radical re-interpretations of Islam from thinkers like Said Qutb, the illegitimacy and repressiveness of most Arab states among and against their own people (of which the US has played the leading role post-WWII), the lack of economic opportunity in the Muslim world, and old networks of resistance from a previous Marxist-Leninist era of resistance to foreign aggression within the Muslim world.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is part of the Cold War competition with the US for global dominance.  After the Soviet invasion, the US armed, trained and funded Osama bin Laden and the Islamist fighters that would eventually spawn al Qaeda.  The Islamists’ victory over the Soviet Union propelled the dissolution of the USSR – a victory for the US, who would become sole political and economic leaders in the world, but with unintended side effects.  Those unintended consequences included arming, training, and funding a network of radical Islamic fighters who had not only confidence from defeating the second biggest military in the world, but a fair amount of legitimacy in the eyes of many in the Muslim world for beating back an imperial force.  The US knew bin Laden and company viewed the US as a natural enemy and that they were serious militants committed to attacking all of those who they thought manipulated the politics, economics or culture of Muslim countries – and that the US was on the top of their list.  On one level, a key piece in the downfall of the USSR (the resolution of one contradiction) had the unintended consequence of emboldening a new enemy and creating new conflicts at the very same moment.

The US has managed to completely fail to understand the two most significant military defeats since World War II – the US and Soviet defeats to guerilla forces.  The US learned many things from Vietnam which they have applied to their efforts since – switching to an all-volunteer army (made easier by widespread downward mobility in the working and middle classes), investment in technology to decrease the number of troops needed (made possible by harnessing almost 50% of public resources), information and media control over messages and images, etc.  These technical solutions have helped them present a sanitized picture of the wars and create large swaths of the American public more or less shielded from the direct costs of war (deaths and injuries), though largely not the “invisible.” indirect costs of increased austerity due to military priorities or the creation of a new generation of militant Islamists.  What they failed to learn in Vietnam, and what the Soviets learned the hard way in Afghanistan, was that while you may be able to destroy much of a country, it is extremely difficult to impose a system of government on a people via foreign occupation – especially in a country like Afghanistan where there is no modern state structures or national civil society.  Being “militarily superior” to civilian weddings, or using depleted uranium biological weapons to secure cities or bribe money to pay off militias in Iraq, does not give you the moral authority to govern to govern your own nation, let alone someone else’s.  The Afghan resistance, an associated militarism, bled the USSR dry, not in terms of casualties, but financially – this has far less to do with the superior military of the Taliban, and everything to do with the idiocy of US strategy.  The words of Chalmers Johnson ring even truer in 2011 than they did under Bush’s two terms, “We are on the cusp of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire.  Once a nation is started down that path, the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play – isolation, overstretch, the uniting of forces opposed to imperialism, and bankruptcy” (Nemesis 2006: 279).

From the Wars that 9/11 Produced, to the “War” that Produced 9/11

Al Qaeda’s political legitimacy, part of their economic funding, and the formation of their networks were all partially created by the US government.  By no means does this mean that the US is primarily to blame for 9/11 or that the US planned it in any way.  However, history is more complicated than “good” and “evil.”  People are responsible for their actions (including the US), but peoples’ worldviews, their motivations, the groups they are born into or networks that they join, and their actions, are products of social forces, social conflict and history.  Those planes didn’t figuratively just fall out of the sky – there is a longer and broader and deeper context that created that September morning.  Regardless of where people want to place their emphasis, what extent to which we want to look at the suffering of others, or, for some people, which lives mean more, or even which lives matter at all, etc. – memorials that purposely ignore the history and the relationships that caused 9/11, and the effects of our response, make a vulgar mockery out of the lives lost that day.  A society that would flaunt the deaths of the 9/11 victims as simply de-contextualized propaganda to disseminate at football games this Sunday, while hiding flag draped coffins coming back from Afghanistan, should be doubly shamed.  Of course this is not to mention the 9/11 workers who still do not get adequate healthcare or compensation, or the troops and their offspring with Gulf War Syndrome, most like from Depleted Uranium, who get nothing at all.  The fact that this isn’t more obvious is just testament to the moral and intellectual depravity of this country, which itself is both a cause and effect of this entire sordid history.

Part of the social context of the Muslim world is the inherent grievances many Muslims have towards the US and the West.  For the most part, Muslims feel a sense of solidarity with other Muslims regardless of nationality.  The Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a grievance that echoes from West Africa to East Asia, through the Muslim diaspora.  US interference in Middle East politics from supporting dictators like the Shah in Iran 50 years ago, the Suadis, or until recently, Mubarak in Egypt, are obvious political grievances that also have a cultural, economic, and religious dimension as well.  The Iraqi sanctions, from 1990 to 2003, led to the preventable deaths of 1 million children under five.  The wars and occupations since 9/11 – Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Guantanamo Bay’s unlawful, indeterminate detention, Abu Graib torture, the use of biological weapons in Iraq, etc. – all of these grievances continue to fester and grow.

One can appreciate root causes that motivate certain actions without condoning those actions, or while even abhorring those actions.  We can both hate al Qaeda and their tactics while also learning about the social forces that have produced them.   Al Qaeda is not very popular in the Muslim world, however they attempt to speak to common grievances in the Muslim world.  We should see Muslim grievances as completely legitimate regardless of what we think of Al Qaeda.  The extent to which we let the following forms of domination and oppression persist in the world, unexamined and unchallenged, is both a cause and an effect of tacitly or overtly supported military responses that exacerbate rather than alleviate those grievances and that pain, compounding intended and unintended consequences and creating “collateral damage” of all kinds.

The world in which Samuel Huntington, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama for that matter, would like us to believe we live in is constructed around Manichean frames of “Us and Them” and “Good and Evil.”  There is a third way of social justice and peace that is always marginalized, mostly by the same forces that show only marginally more practical empathy for their own “heroes” as they do for the “evildoers.”  The type of contextualizing of 9/11 requires more imagination than should be necessary, but it is essential if this day is to have any usefulness for making sense of or pursuing justice – the fundamental prerequisite for any type of lasting peace.

Whether in having a hand in creating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or fighting them there 25 years later, in funding and arming Saddam Hussein in the 1980s or putting a noose around his neck 15 years later, the people most hurt in the Cold War or the War on Terror have been civilians.  When we stop to remember the 3,000 people who died on 9/11 we should remember the broader cycle of violence that created that day and the thousands of other days and millions more dead we never knew about.  Until the popular discourse around 9/11 understands it as part of a vast, historic cycle of pain, rather than a horrible, discrete act it is presented as, we will never learn the lessons of 9/11.  If we are to say “never again” it has to mean for everyone, not just those that live in the US.

Mike King (mking@ucsc.edu) is doing a PhD in Sociology at the University of California.

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