Trying to think of something new to say about 9/11 on the 10th anniversary of the attacks comes up against one supreme problem — for the past 10 years we have never stopped thinking and talking about the attacks, because everything since appears to have flowed from them.

The towers still loom above us, or their absence does — shafts of absence reminding us of the vanished world of ’90s “new world order” of globalisation and neoliberalism. 9/11 draws all discussion in towards it, a vast implosion of Western identity.

The event has become whole, one. Various forms of alternative expression — September 11 attacks, the World Trade Centre bombing — have long since fallen away. It’s 9/11, our era’s lodestar.

Yet though the event is always with us, the actual images of it never lose their power to shock. Not shock merely — they never lose their power to resist our understanding, that sudden reshaping of the entire skyline of the capital of the West. The lethality itself does not explain it — one can understand a mushroom cloud of far greater power and death.

What makes 9/11 so extraordinary is that it was designed not merely for the actual impact, but also for the lasting visual effect. The event was the most art-directed terrorist outrage in history, considered for the effect of a double impact. Major outrages that leave no visual effect — the Mumbai shootings, for example — disappear quickly into the background.

Yet 9/11 lives on in endlessly repeated footage. In a society addicted to images, we tell ourselves that the terrorists will not win, but we cannot help picking at the scab, opening the wound afresh.

9/11 has dominated the period sense by putting the question of war and peace, enemies and exceptions, at the centre of life and politics. Are we at war? Are we always at war? Is peace really a hidden form of war? Can values and rights be extended universally — or does a polity only define itself by drawing a line, and defining itself against what is beyond it, denying the “others” any notion of commonality.

Those questions became live when the first plane hit, because it was necessary to define it? Was it an act of war? By one definition, it clearly wasn’t — it was merely a crime, a mass homicide, albeit as a product of a mass conspiracy.

Yet at the same time, how could the Western powers have treated it as such, and maintained their own projection of power? To define 9/11 as merely a crime would have demonstrated the full porousness of the globalised world as it is, the degree to which the structures of power were changing.

There was no way for the status quo to define it as anything but a war, and in doing so, create the two sides necessary to define a war. In the interim that involved making al-Qaeda a de facto state power, somehow inhabiting the whole of Afghanistan as a force to define the West against.

It was absurd but it was necessary and in any case it was soon superseded by a real state — Iraq — and then, as that collapsed as adversary, by the whole of Islam, which was then defined as a uniquely pernicious historical development, ranged against all humanity. Though it had begun well before 9/11 and bloomed with it, Islamophobia only really became the central motif of the “war on terror” in recent years, as the war bogged down in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda was substantially defeated as an operational outfit.

As Islam became the other, the notion of an enemy against which one must define oneself became deterritorialised, and the enemy came to be seen as much within as without. Islam, by means of immigration, birth rates and refusal to assimilate, has breached the gates, by this theory, and moves outwards from within to meet the enemy without, annihilating the West.

This generalised fear connected with the other process that had emerged since 9/11 — the abolition not merely of the liberal state, but of the West’s liberal identity. Though neoliberalism continued to dominate economic management, neoconservatism and its belief in a strong state, defined by its relation to its enemies — and reserving unto itself the power to reach into people’s lives — became the dominant ideal.

With a conservative ideal of the social whole, what becomes uppermost is not the liberal community as constituted by abstract rights and agreements, but the nation as founded in its ethnos, its race community. Rights become secondary to the collective being of the nation-family, whose collective survival is uppermost.

The more one abolishes individual rights — especially for those outside the ethnos — the greater one’s commitment to the being of the nation. Thus rendition, torture, surveillance, border protection — the more ruthless and indifferent the exercise the more it becomes an expression of love for the collective and devotion to it.

At its limit, the conservative idea of the good, and the welfare of the ethnos, sees the distinction between democracy and some post-democratic form as a secondary consideration. The vast security state built up in the US and Britain following  9/11 is an expression of that belief.

But at the same time as this massive and elaborate structure and ideology is put into place, it is simultaneously coming apart. The fat years of the 9/11 period were 2001 to 2005 — from the call to arms, through to the quagmire in Iraq. After that, as fast as things have been coming up, they’ve been coming down.

The war on terror was as posed for the cameras, as was 9/11, the event that inaugurated it. Had it not been, the West would have got serious about financial reform, realising that global instability posed a greater threat to security than dozens of half-arsed plots.

But 9/11 had been the birth of an empire that “makes its own reality”, and thus suffered an inability to test its perceptions. Ultimately in trying to overcome the forces that created 9/11, it has been in thrall to them, and to the event itself, honouring it by failing to move beyond.

We have no way of knowing how close 9/11’s power is to being played out, because only the next event will decisively situate it as past. On the anniversary itself, “lest we forget” will be endlessly intoned, but there will be no need — the burning tower and the second plane have been printed by heat on our retinae, never out of the mind’s eye, 10 years old, and right now, ever afresh.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey