It’s impossible to write anything new about September 11. From the human stories of courage and tragedy of victims, survivors and responders, and fanaticism and hatred of perpetrators, to the macro level of world affairs and global history, no aspect of the event remains unexplored. Like the beginning of the last world war (1 September 1939 for the Europeans, 22 June 1941 for the Russians, 7 December 1941 for the Americans) or the assassination of John F Kennedy, everyone then alive will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard – or saw – the news. It’s a cliche to say that 9/11 changed everything; it didn’t, but it serves as one of those useful symbolic markers for the end of one era and the beginning of another. What this new era will be remains to be seen; it’s too early to say, as we are likely only at its beginning. Though perhaps, to borrow from Churchill, we are now reaching the end of the beginning.
So where exactly are we?
It is said that on September 11, radical Islam (or Islamism, or Islamofascism, or jihadism, or whatever you want to call it) declared war on America, in a similar way that Japanese bombers delivered the message to the government and the people of the United States at Pearl Harbor. It took nearly four years of bitter conventional war across the Pacific and Asia, climaxing in two mushroom clouds, to defeat the Empire. Four years after 9/11, the US war reeling from the exploding insurgency in Iraq. But 18 years on, I believe it should be relatively clear that the challengers have lost – not in a sense that the ideology animating them has been once and for all extinguished (to the extent that Nazism and Japanese imperialism were in the ashes of Berlin and Hiroshima by August 1945) but that those who have challenged America on that one day in September have failed to achieve any of their objectives.
Al Qaeda has been largely destroyed. So has its successor ISIS. There have been terrorist attacks since September 11, of course, but nothing even remotely matching the impact of the original attack. There will no doubt be further attacks in the future; the problem with politely calling it “the war on terror” is that it cannot be won because terror is a tactic, which will be always used by those with less power. Violent Islamism survives too and will keep getting reborn in other places, like a global game of “whack-a-mole”, because its absolutist demands are unsatisfiable and the grievances that give rise to it are endless. But those who perpetrated 9/11 and those who have been inspired by them have been trounced in any and every way, from conventional warfare through insurgency to counter-terrorism. Most are dead, those who remain have been rendered largely impotent.
This is not to say that the United States has won. There is no unequivocal victory because this is not an unequivocal war. For all the fire and the fury, the jihadis of September 11 have nothing to show after all these years; their clock has been been turned back to perhaps 1996. America has not been bested militarily and the economic impact of the terror attacks has been overall minimal. The world-wide Caliphate remains a dream and even the Middle East, the home of the jihad, is no closer to Islamofascist theocracy. America remains the force in the region, Israel survives.
It is also not to say that the price paid by the United States (and to a lesser extent its allies) has not been huge, in terms of both treasure and blood. Trillions were sunk in Afghanistan and Iraq, with mixed results. Hundreds of thousands have died, most at the hands of the Islamists at war with the world and modernity. One can also include in the tally, if one’s that way inclined, the erosion of civil liberties at home as well as the loss of the post-Cold War optimism.
It’s been a Pyrrhic defeat for jihadis; whether it turns out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the United States only time will tell. But I doubt it. The truth of the matter is that America (and the West more broadly) is too big to fail, or rather too big to be defeated by others. We can only defeat ourselves. Enemies can pry and prod, challenge and attack, ram and batter, but our collective demise, if it ever comes, will be by suicide, not murder. Our walls are mighty but all the Trojan horses are our own. We can rot and hollow ourselves from the inside – economic mismanagement, identity politics, the war between the elites and the rest, loss of confidence, civilisational exhaustion, deindustrialisation are the things that in the end will cause more long-lasting damage than any terrorist or even conventional enemy. They can’t make ruins, they can only inherit them. As we remember the victims of 9/11 today lest we forget that too.
(the cover image, rarely for TDC, has been created inhouse rather than stolen from the internet)