On September 11th, 2001, I was at my desk as usual, writing something for The Irish Times. I have no memory of what I was writing about because whatever it was melted instantly into irrelevance. The world had just changed.
Through the haze of shock and terror, I wrote another piece instead, about how deeply those monstrous attacks would affect the way Americans thought about themselves and the world. That summer’s big blockbuster Hollywood movie had been about the only comparable external attack on the US homeland in the 20th century, the Japanese bombing of the US fleet at Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Sixty years later, Pearl Harbour continued to reverberate in American consciousness. It did not demand any great insight to realise that the 9/11 attacks, which were on defenceless civilians instead of the US navy and on major cities rather than a naval base in Hawaii, would “cut right to the bone of America and no one knows whether the society has the cultural and psychic resources to heal the wound”.
The great tragedy for the bereaved and the survivors of 9/11 is that there is a real sense in which bin Laden won. His investment in mass murder has paid spectacular dividends in global mayhem
I remember that, at the time, people hated the piece I wrote because it was full of foreboding about what the US would do next:
“The terrible probability is that America will react viscerally to such a visceral hurt . . . there will almost certainly be a dark side. For there is in American culture a fundamentalism no less strong than that of those who may have plotted [today’s] carnage. The tendency to divide the world between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, the elect and the damned, is, ironically, one of the things that America shares with its most ferocious enemies.”
That was badly out of tune with the general mood, in Ireland as much as in America, of grief and anger. Such was the scale and savagery of the atrocities, so great was the outpouring of love and sympathy, that it seemed in bad taste to suggest that the US response might be dangerously irrational.
Now that the last chapter of that direct military response has been written in the US and NATO's humbling flight from Afghanistan, leaving the country where the 9/11 attacks were planned back in the hands of those who sheltered Osama bin Laden and al- Qaeda, such anxieties seem obvious to the point of being trite.
It is hard now to remember just how wide and deep international sympathy for the US was after 9/11. The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the “horrifying terrorist attacks” and called on all countries to help bring the perpetrators to justice.
Just think of the countries that attended the conference in Bonn on November 27th, 2001, on a new political settlement for Afghanistan after the US-led invasion had toppled the Taliban.
Those countries were the US, Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran. This is not a misprint: Russia and Iran were on board with the Americans. The Iranian regime had even ordered an end to the ritual of chanting "Death to America" at Friday prayers in mosques.
There was a genuine consensus that the US had been viciously assaulted and had the right, not just to retaliate, but to try to remove the threat of further attacks by a cruel, fanatical, relentless and extremely formidable enemy.
Yet, within a month of that Bonn conference, and even while bin Laden was escaping from the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan where he had taken refuge, George W Bush’s administration was planning to invade Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. It was already about to shatter the consensus that gave it such strength.
Bizarrely, the US authorities, having located bin Laden with the hard core of his al-Qaeda fighters, refused urgent requests from their own commanders on the ground to send in reinforcements to capture the prime perpetrator of the 9/11 crimes. Their minds were elsewhere: on the road to Baghdad.
The link between cause and consequences had been broken. This is the definition of the irrational. The response had lost all moral and political connection to the original atrocity. Even the crude logic of revenge was wrecked beyond repair.
There really was an American fundamentalism. For the dominant figures in the Bush administration, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the only possible response to the powerlessness and vulnerability of 9/11 was a show of absolute power and utter invulnerability. The US had to prove its omnipotence by demonstrating its ability to reshape the globe, toppling distant regimes and replacing them, not just with friendly governments, but with little Americas.
This was exactly the binary mentality that any genuine friend of the US ought to have feared. If you read testimonies of US officials and officers who served in Afghanistan, collected by the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers project, it is striking how often the puerile phrase “bad guys” is used to denote the enemy.
The world after 9/11 was divided by the US into good guys and bad guys. Brutal warlords were good guys, if they were our brutal warlords. The bad guys were not just those who actually threatened the US, but an ever-growing list of indigenous movements. (The US ended up conducting “counterterror activities” in 85 countries.)
In this simplistic moralising, Cheney and Rumsfeld never asked the single most important question: what was bin Laden trying to achieve on 9/11? The attacks were clearly not mindless but highly purposeful.
His purpose on 9/11 was simply to repeat the trick on the other cold war superpower, the US. The US gave him what he wanted and, by invading Iraq as well, so much more
The irony is that the United States should have understood that purpose precisely because at one time it had shared it with bin Laden. It is contained in a single word: quagmire.
What bin Laden had experienced, and helped to bring about in the 1980s, was the humiliation of a superpower. He saw how the Soviet Union could be fatally undermined by trapping it in an endless and unwinnable conflict in Afghanistan.
His purpose on 9/11 was simply to repeat the trick on the other cold war superpower, the US. He hoped to lure the Americans into a long war in Afghanistan where they, too, would be defeated. The US gave him what he wanted and, by invading Iraq as well, so much more.
As Jeffrey Eggers, who served on the National Security Council for both Bush and Barack Obama, put it: “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”
A single image sums up the futility of the ludicrously-named “war on terror”. When Donald Trump’s negotiators met the Taliban in Qatar in 2019 to begin what were essentially surrender talks, five of the men across the table from them had been incarcerated without trial, each for 12 years, at Guantanamo Bay.
All that has been achieved is the amplification of a disaster. The death toll on 9/11 was a fearful 2,977. The wars it triggered have killed 801,00 people directly and several times that number indirectly. Thirty-eight million people have been driven from their homes. The US has spent $6.4 trillion (€5.4 trillion) to achieve these results.
This is surely beyond the darkest dreams ever harboured in bin Laden’s fanatical heart. The great tragedy for the bereaved and the survivors of 9/11 is that there is a real sense in which bin Laden won. His investment in mass murder has paid spectacular dividends in global mayhem.
The United States is not the Soviet Union. It will survive this defeat. But it still has to come to terms with the almost unbearable truth that the deepest wounds of 9/11 are the ones it inflicted on itself.