Ten years on, it’s time to declare the end of the post-9/11 era.

india Updated: Sep 07, 2011 23:03 IST

When the artist Art Spiegelman told his story of 9/11 in a graphic novel, he called it In the Shadow of No Towers. It was an arresting thought, the gloom cast not by the twin peaks of the World Trade Centre but by their absence. We have been living in that shadow for the last 10 years. But it’s time we escaped it.

Of course that will be impossible for those directly affected. No one expects those still grieving for a wife or son, a husband or sister, to put the September 11 attacks behind them just because an anniversary with a round number is looming. What deepens their tragedy is that it continues. The documentaries, newspaper testimonies and eloquent reminiscences leave no doubt that for those directly affected, 9/11 will never let them go.

Artists and writers, too, will resist closing the book any time soon. Happenings on that scale take many decades, not just one, to process. As Salman Rushdie puts it: “I think these great events have to rot down. Maybe another generation has to look at it.”

But if grief and art will necessarily stay fixated, the realm of politics needs to move on. Osama bin Laden is dead; George Bush and Tony Blair are long gone from office. The two 9/11 wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not over, but both now have a timetable for troops to come home. The phrase of the age — ‘the war on terror’ — has been retired. As for al-Qaeda, it
has been decapitated.

Of course no wants to tempt fate with complacency. For that reason one aspect of the post-9/11 landscape will and should remain in place: vigilance. Police and intelligence agencies charged with protecting the public cannot revert to September 10 pretending that 9/11 did not happen. The threat has changed, but it has not disappeared. Other aspects of the post-9/11 order persist too. Guantánamo Bay remains open, one of the early disappointments of the Obama presidency. The US ‘homeland security’ apparatus created a decade ago is now well dug in. Given the tenacity of such bureaucracies, few would bet on this newer one allowing itself to be mothballed.

But it’s the mindset that has to go. In those dazed days after the attacks, a new foreign policy doctrine was hastily assembled. It said that the world faced a single, overarching and paramount threat in the form of violent jihadism. Every other battle had to be subordinated to, or subsumed into, that one. And the call went beyond foreign policy. Culture, too, was to be enlisted in a clash of civilisations between Islamism and the west that would rank alongside the great 20th century struggles against communism and fascism. Christopher Hitchens confessed he felt “exhilaration” as he saw the towers fall. At last there would be war against “dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting”.

Such talk has been a constant of the 9/11 decade but its time has passed. For one thing, it’s predicated on a mistake. The right way to regard the 2001 attacks was as a heinous and wicked crime — not a declaration of war. As Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, argued in her first Reith lecture calling it a war “legitimises the terrorists as warriors”. It’s exactly what al-Qaeda wanted — feeding their fantasies of grandeur — and we gave it to them. Second, post-9/11 thinking has led to grave and lethal misjudgments. The greatest of these is agglomeration, lumping disparate and complex threats under one easy heading. The most notorious example will always be Iraq.
We should mark the 9/11 anniversary with respect and care for those who died. But then we ought to close this sorry and bloody chapter — and bury the mentality it created.

The Guardian. The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Sep 07, 2011 23:00 IST