I was a Year Ten high school student. I remember my friends talking about the attacks as we rode out bikes to school. In social studies, our teacher pulled a TV to the front of the class and we sat and watched in silence. I must have spent eight or ten hours watching TV that day. More than anything, I remember the dust.
That’s my recollection of 9/11, one of those moments where you remember where you were. And as we all think back to our own experiences of 9/11, the anniversary makes for a good opportunity to sit back and consider the attacks from the eyes of the people who organised them.
19 fanatics, armed only with box cutters and a few weeks’ training at a flight school, arguably changed the course of history more than any other people this century. The domino effect from those burning towers is extraordinary.
Would the Iraq War have ever been fought if 9/11 didn’t happen? Would the U.S have fought in Afghanistan for twenty years? Would George W. Bush have been re-elected President? Would Donald Trump have ever made it to the White House? Would we have born witness to a series of terrible soft target attacks, the London underground bombings, the Bataclan theatre attack, the Boston and Manchester bombings? Would ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and however many other Islamic-inspired extremist groups have ever been formed?
In many ways, our World has changed for the worse because ultimately, sadly, the 9/11 terrorists achieved their awful objective. And some. They killed a lot of people. They brought down the towers. But they achieved more than that. Even though we knew their ultimate goal was to drive America and other Western democracies into a state of perpetual fear, even though their ultimate objective was spelt out clear as day in the name we used to describe them; terrorists, we couldn’t help it. For the last twenty years, Western democracies have lived in fear, and it’s only made the risk of terrorism worse.
A few nights ago, I watched a film about the late Middle East foreign correspondent, Robert Fisk. It included a clip of him in a debate about the root cause of the 9/11 attacks. ‘It’s evil, pure and simple!’ said the person he was debating. ‘Evil! Evil! Evil!’. Fisk argued that actually, life doesn’t work that way. It’s not so simplistic. No one wakes up and has a cup of tea and says ‘I’m going to do something really evil!’
One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Think of all the conflicts America was involved with in the decades before 9/11. Consider it from the hijackers’ perspective. Why is it just for American soldiers to invade and bomb distant lands – often Muslim majority countries - but evil when a group of people attack New York in response?
Scared people act irrationally. The wars that spun out of 9/11 didn’t eliminate the risk of terrorism. They increased it. With every civilian wrongfully killed by a rocket or a drone, every village torn up by an armoured troop carrier, another dozen potential enemies were created.
And here we find ourselves, twenty years on. Is our World any safer than it was on September 10, 2001? For me, I think it’s the saddest thing about those awful events twenty years ago: The plan worked.