Over a coffee and a pre-editorial conference cigarette, I was doing a crossword in the smoking room on the fourth floor of Newspaper House in Cape Town at the moment when the first plane sliced into the World Trade Center in New York 20 years ago. 

I had just turned my attention to a relatively straight-forward clue – Sheep-herder finds right route to pit worker (7), if memory serves – when the news editor stuck his head in the door and said: ‘A plane’s just gone into the World Trade Center!’ I didn’t pay too much attention to him – mainly because the answer to the crossword clue – collier – suddenly came to me, but also because in that instant the World Trade Centre I had in mind was the one in Kempton Park where the Codesa negotiations had taken place, and I pictured a light plane having crashed into its warehouse-like form. This World Trade Centre was near O R Tambo airport, after all. Perhaps the luckless pilot had somehow misjudged his approach. It might warrant a mention on page 5.

A minute or two later, I stubbed out my cigarette and sauntered back to the newsroom. I knew instantly that something dramatic had happened: everyone was clustered in tight huddles around the newsroom’s three column-mounted television sets. I had just joined the nearest huddle when the second plane, ‘sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty’ (as novelist Martin Amis would memorably describe it), slammed into the second tower. 

And the world changed. 

As Amis described it in the Guardian, it was the ‘advent’ of the second plane that ‘was the defining moment’. He recalled: ‘I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by effect… That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.’

What that future would be would depend in large part on the behaviour of the world’s leading democracy.

Lessons learned (or not)

Writing this week, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner reflected on the 20 years since in a piece headlined Afghanistan crisis: Five lessons learned (or not) since 9/11

It was his fourth lesson that leapt out at me: 

‘4. Respect human rights or lose the moral high ground

Time and again people in the Middle East have told me: “We may not have liked US foreign policy but we always respected its rule of law. Until Guantanamo Bay.” Rounding up suspects “on the battlefield” – including in a few cases innocent civilians who had been sold for a bounty – and then wrapping them in nappies, goggles and earmuffs to be transported halfway across the world to a US naval detention centre on Cuba did untold damage to America and the West’s reputation. Detention without trial was something that happened in autocratic countries back home. Arabs did not expect it of the US. Worse was to follow, with revelations of “enhanced interrogation”, waterboarding and other mistreatment at CIA black sites where suspected terrorists simply disappeared. The Obama presidency put a stop to this but the damage was done.’

(As an aside, haven’t you found in recent days that one of the oddest things – except perhaps that it may be less odd than merely transparent – has been the weight of consensus behind blaming Joe Biden for a flawed withdrawal from Afghanistan that was authored by Donald Trump’s administration – through a deal some say helped strengthen the militants – and then dumped in Biden’s lap? But that’s another story.) 

In the days, weeks, months and years after 9/11, the risk was inevitably going to be that the powerful would fall for the deceptive catharsis of what is always an irresolvable contradiction: defending human rights by undermining human rights. 

I suspect it’s a toxic thread that runs through most of modern America’s do-gooding foreign military excursions, including in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. And it usually boils down to misidentifying a distinction between ends and means, and failing to confront the truth that no end result can ever be better than or different from the means employed to reach it, for the two are indivisible. 

(This is the very foundation of our objection to democratic South Africa’s reliance on race-based measures to redress the effects of race-based apartheid law.) 

Uncanny dispassion

One of the most impressive post-9/11 commentaries was written – with uncanny dispassion – just a day after by British commentator Simon Jenkins. 

Maturity, he wrote, lies in learning to live, and sometimes die, with the madmen. 

His was a salutary reminder that 9/11 was not the last word in human horror, and that it was not by any stretch the terror to end all terror, but merely perhaps a new frontier in the politics of fanaticism, or the politics of fear. For Jenkins, ‘(the) message of yesterday’s incident is that, for all its horror, it does not and must not be allowed to matter. It is a human disaster, an outrage, an atrocity, an unleashing of the madness of which the world will never be rid. But it is not politically significant. It does not tilt the balance of world power one inch. It is not an act of war. America’s leadership of the West is not diminished by it.’ 

He concluded (presciently, you could say): ‘The cause of democracy is not damaged … unless we choose to let it be damaged.’

It was Jenkins, too, who warned in 2001: ‘The cynical purpose of declaring war on terrorism, like the abortive “war on drugs”, is to silence … critics and harness emotion to the cause of policy. It puts reason in quarantine. We should therefore be aware how thin is the veneer of democratic culture. A few crazed individuals can apparently induce great nations to suppress their instinct for justice and replace it with quotes from Henry V.’

From across the Atlantic – he had made New York his home – Indo-British novelist Salman Rushdie suggested where the real fight lay. (Having lived under a death sentence imposed by a malevolent fatwah handed down by Iran’s clerical leadership for his ‘blasphemous’ novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie, it’s fair to say, had some insight into the difficulties of sticking up for freedom.) 

‘These will be our weapons’

‘The fundamentalist,’ he wrote, ‘believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons.’

Hawks, one imagines, are not mad about this sort of reasoning. But, as Rushdie put, it: ‘Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.’

Rushdie was right. And I think the 20 years since 9/11 remind us of the very great risks of being deluded into thinking that by compromising the freedoms we are for, we stand a better chance of obliterating the fanaticism we are against. 

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