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© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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For the past twenty years, the September 11 attacks have been seen by American and international policymakers and populations alike as a breaking point of international politics and security. After the attacks known simply, and almost mythologically, as “9/11” the “Global War on Terror,” as it was initially known, was and still is seen by many as a unique schism, a rupture or turning point not only of U.S. foreign policy, but of the meaning of security, surveillance, and global struggles. The event seemed a clean cut from the old world and the old millennium and a conclusive ending to the Cold War, ushering in a new era. This was referred to often by policymakers to justify new interpretations of national and international law, a new state of “exception that has now become the rule” 1 and put in a historical continuity to, for example, the attack on Pearl Harbor. The question is whether this specific thinking about 9/11 makes sense, even twenty years on. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, while observing the Gulf War in 1991, came to the assumption that the war had not taken place, saying that since “the war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed.” 2 His provocative thesis does not suggest that there were no material expressions, no killings or deaths. What he argues is that the beginning, course, and ending of the war had already been decided and scripted by the media before it had even started. In a hyper-mediatized age, this constantly blurs the line between reality and fiction. In a similar way, the beginning and the course of the War on Terror were already decided before it had actually begun a war that would last forever, since a war on terror, by definition, lacks any resolution. 9/11 was not a singular event that changed everything in U.S. society and American engagement in international affairs, even though many U.S. policymakers and a large part of both the domestic and international audiences of the event itself might have perceived it that way, and perhaps still do. The meaning of 9/11 did not unfold by itself, but had to be carefully molded, implemented, and eventually normalized. It was framed as a war of modernity, moral goodness, and the Western way of life against sociopathic evil-doers who aimed to destroy and ultimately roll-back enlightened civilization. The event also gave rise to inescapable logics from all-encompassing surveillance and airport security to military invasions and drone warfare, and vague concepts of counter-terrorism that would collapse under any form of closer academic or intellectual scrutiny, but somehow found their way into a collective common sense, fitting well into our contemporary period and its anxieties. Apart from theoretical considerations, there are various empirical arguments against the War on Terror. For example, terrorism mostly affects the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and rarely displays an existential threat to the West. Furthermore, international terrorism was a security issue before 2001 and was a central concern for previous administrations (e.g. Osama bin Laden had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List since 1999), but after 9/11, it was rhetorically redefined from a crime to an “existential threat” and an “act of war” by President George W. Bush, giving it a new dimension. This shows how powerful the construction of 9/11 was as a breaking point of history, an (ultimately ahistorical) reference point that signifies a moment of weakness and trauma from which the nation can rise again to greatness. Instead, it has ushered in a new, inevitable era for security and foreign policy. 9/11 and its aftermath were thus discursive constructions that continued longstanding features of international politics and U.S. foreign policy.   The interpretation of the 9/11 attacks by the Bush administration, and the way this narrative was continued by Presidents Obama and Trump (and potentially Biden), served a crucial purpose: It brought back a world in which American identity feels most comfortable, namely in an existential confrontation with a dark, ever-powerful enemy that has to be battled in a series of arenas and consecutive apocalyptic events until the day of reckoning. Thanks to the forceful and violent symbolism of 9/11, the U.S. could easily slip into a role all too familiar: a non-aggressor or invader that is always a benign and benevolent defender against evil. Terrorists attacking an innocent nation created the space for the United States to pick up the sword of justice to fight alleged pre-modern demons of darkness. But twenty years on, the infinite nature of the War on Terror seems more obvious than ever. The Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Iraq are not shining examples of a world made safe for American democracy, while the killing of leading terrorist figures, from Osama bin Laden to Abu   Bakr   al-Baghdadi , the leader of the so-called Islamic State, did not solve the issue. Our world remains one driven by a perpetual state of exception that “functions in politics as cover for the suspension of the rule of law and the introduction of new executive powers justified by crisis,” 3 violent counter-terrorism policies, and omnipresent surveillance which, rather than solving the ongoing crisis of the post-9/11 world, perpetuates violence as a main feature of international politics. The eschatological battle between good and evil is fought on an endless sequence of apocalyptic battlefields at different times and in different spaces, but never really leaving us. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq will not bring an end to the fight, one increasingly fought by covert operations and drones, while even more security threats are created. Rethinking the way we make sense of 9/11 and to historically contextualise and learn from it could help develop the right solutions for the future, and break the circle of violence.
September 8, 2021 The “War on Terror” Did Not Take Place: “9/11,” A historicity, and the Infinite Apocalypse
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For the past twenty years, the September 11 attacks have been seen by American and international policymakers and populations alike as a breaking point of international politics and security. After the attacks known simply, and almost mythologically, as “9/11” the “Global War on Terror,” as it was initially known, was and still is seen by many as a unique schism, a rupture or turning point not only of U.S. foreign policy, but of the meaning of security, surveillance, and global struggles. The event seemed a clean cut from the old world and the old millennium and a conclusive ending to the Cold War, ushering in a new era. This was referred to often by policymakers to justify new interpretations of national and international law, a new state of “exception that has now become the rule” 1 and put in a historical continuity to, for example, the attack on Pearl Harbor. The question is whether this specific thinking about 9/11 makes sense, even twenty years on. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, while observing the Gulf War in 1991, came to the assumption that the war had not taken place, saying that since “the war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed.” 2 His provocative thesis does not suggest that there were no material expressions, no killings or deaths. What he argues is that the beginning, course, and ending of the war had already been decided and scripted by the media before it had even started. In a hyper-mediatized age, this constantly blurs the line between reality and fiction. In a similar way, the beginning and the course of the War on Terror were already decided before it had actually begun a war that would last forever, since a war on terror, by definition, lacks any resolution. 9/11 was not a singular event that changed everything in U.S. society and American engagement in international affairs, even though many U.S. policymakers and a large part of both the domestic and international audiences of the event itself might have perceived it that way, and perhaps still do. The meaning of 9/11 did not unfold by itself, but had to be carefully molded, implemented, and eventually normalized. It was framed as a war of modernity, moral goodness, and the Western way of life against sociopathic evil-doers who aimed to destroy and ultimately roll-back enlightened civilization. The event also gave rise to inescapable logics from all- encompassing surveillance and airport security to military invasions and drone warfare, and vague concepts of counter-terrorism that would collapse under any form of closer academic or intellectual scrutiny, but somehow found their way into a collective common sense, fitting well into our contemporary period and its anxieties. Apart from theoretical considerations, there are various empirical arguments against the War on Terror. For example, terrorism mostly affects the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and rarely displays an existential threat to the West. Furthermore, international terrorism was a security issue before 2001 and was a central concern for previous administrations (e.g. Osama bin Laden had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List since 1999), but after 9/11, it was rhetorically redefined from a crime to an “existential threat” and an “act of war” by President George W. Bush, giving it a new dimension. This shows how powerful the construction of 9/11 was as a breaking point of history, an (ultimately ahistorical) reference point that signifies a moment of weakness and trauma from which the nation can rise again to greatness. Instead, it has ushered in a new, inevitable era for security and foreign policy. 9/11 and its aftermath were thus discursive constructions that continued longstanding features of international politics and U.S. foreign policy.   The interpretation of the 9/11 attacks by the Bush administration, and the way this narrative was continued by Presidents Obama and Trump (and potentially Biden), served a crucial purpose: It brought back a world in which American identity feels most comfortable, namely in an existential confrontation with a dark, ever- powerful enemy that has to be battled in a series of arenas and consecutive apocalyptic events until the day of reckoning. Thanks to the forceful and violent symbolism of 9/11, the U.S. could easily slip into a role all too familiar: a non- aggressor or invader that is always a benign and benevolent defender against evil. Terrorists attacking an innocent nation created the space for the United States to pick up the sword of justice to fight alleged pre-modern demons of darkness. But twenty years on, the infinite nature of the War on Terror seems more obvious than ever. The Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Iraq are not shining examples of a world made safe for American democracy, while the killing of leading terrorist figures, from Osama bin Laden to Abu   Bakr   al-Baghdadi , the leader of the so- called Islamic State, did not solve the issue. Our world remains one driven by a perpetual state of exception that “functions in politics as cover for the suspension of the rule of law and the introduction of new executive powers justified by crisis,” 3 violent counter-terrorism policies, and omnipresent surveillance which, rather than solving the ongoing crisis of the post-9/11 world, perpetuates violence as a main feature of international politics. The eschatological battle between good and evil is fought on an endless sequence of apocalyptic battlefields at different times and in different spaces, but never really leaving us. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq will not bring an end to the fight, one increasingly fought by covert operations and drones, while even more security threats are created. Rethinking the way we make sense of 9/11 and to historically contextualise and learn from it could help develop the right solutions for the future, and break the circle of violence.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
The “War on Terror” Did Not Take Place: “9/11,” Ahistoricity, and the Infinite Apocalypse
Written by
Postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of International Relations, Prague. @JulianSchmid18
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT