By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 9-14-10
As we mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11, it is worth contemplating the many valuable lessons this tragic episode has taught us.
It is hard to believe that nearly a decade has passed since that nightmarish September morning, when 19 Islamists sought to end the lives of tens of thousands of people -and succeeded in murdering 2,977 innocents of different faiths, different backgrounds, speaking different languages.
What is most surprising about that moment is how little things changed for the vast majority of us -except of course for the victims, their friends, and families. The refrain from the time “life will never be the same,” was ultimately upstaged by the lure of the normal, our addiction to the regular routines of our lives. In the nine years since 9/11, You-Tube and Google, iPods and iPads, rush hours and vacation days, have proved more powerful than the disruptive force the Islamist mass murderers sought to unleash. Therein lies America’s -and the West’s -true victory over Al-Qa’ida.
Enough time has passed to draw some historical lessons from the attacks, including:
People can die, buildings can crumble, democracy lives:
In the age of terrorism we have learned how quickly one’s individual destiny can change. After 9/11 in New York, after 7/7 in London, after so many terrorist bombings in Jerusalem, stories piled up about some people being in the wrong place at the wrong time through happenstance -and others avoiding that fate through equally random occurrences. One of the most unnerving things about 9/11 was that two massive buildings were destroyed -and others, including the Pentagon, sustained major damage. The volume of lives lost and the extent of the rubble demonstrated the intensity of the attacks -and terrified millions.
However, nine years later, with the population of the United States having exceeded 300 million, with billions living peaceful lives all over the world, the impact of these terrorist attacks seems diluted. Moreover, the attempt to target democracy failed completely. The United States continued to function. The idea of democracy -like the structures of American lives -proved far more powerful than the lethal tactics of Osama bin Laden.
Americans are more ambivalent about war than they -and others -realize:
It is, of course, easy to caricature Americans as a militaristic people, considering how large the defence budget is, how many wars the country has entered, and how effective Hollywood has been in romanticizing war -as well as the U.S. military impulse. Yet the Iraq War helped derail George W. Bush’s presidency. In 2008, Barack Obama beat Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination by running as the antiwar candidate. This antiwar impulse was not new, nor did it only emerge after Vietnam. In fact, most of America’s major wars triggered major opposition -an opposition that was most quieted by decisive victory rather than some aversion to pacifism.
Intolerance grabs the headlines, tolerance carries the day:
Since 9/11, we have heard much about “Islamaphobia.” And there is, of course, a passionate debate going on about building a mosque near Ground Zero. But what is most remarkable is how few incidents of vengeance there were against Muslims and Arab-Americans in the United States after 9/11.
Despite being caricatured as a hyperpatriotic redneck, President George W. Bush spoke passionately and eloquently about the need to distinguish between Islam and Islamism, and between fellow Americans and a perverse minority of killers.
Even the current debate is being carried out most politely, with many opponents of the mosque acknowledging U.S. Muslims’ freedom to worship but requesting that the Muslims themselves choose to change the venue.
The fact that America’s Muslim and Arab communities have continued to thrive despite the Twin Towers, the Fort Hood massacre, and attempts to bomb Times Square and airlines loaded with holiday-going passengers, is a tribute to the United States, as is the fact that after 9/11, a man named Barack Hussein Obama won the presidency convincingly against a war hero and former prisoner of war, John McCain.
Islamist terrorism is nihilistic and self-destructive:
After 9/11, the conventional wisdom assumed that the U.S., along with its allies including Canada, would endure wave after wave of terrorist attacks and that ultimately the terrorists could win. It is striking how little faith so many had in democratic and Western resilience.
Nine years later, more Muslims than anyone else are targeted by fellow Muslims in suicide bombings.
Even the Palestinians have turned away from daily terrorists attacks as a tactic. It has become quite clear that the world’s revulsion -and the West’s pushback -had an impact. Terrorism has not disappeared but is on the wane.
As still-grieving relatives light their memorial candles, as good people throughout the world mourn the senseless slaughter, it is worth reframing 9/11. It was not a spectacular day of terrorism. Rather, it was a day that demonstrated Western strength, Islamist weakness, and the very dramatic limits of terrorism as a tactic.
Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.