I think this is the last post I’ll write about 9/11. The reason is not just that I, and the world, are running out of things to say about that awful event — although that is certainly true. It’s that the era that the terror attacks of 2001 defined is now receding into history. The world is no longer so clearly shaped by what happened that day, and the ways that Americans learned to define ourselves and think about the outside world as a result of those events are largely being replaced by newer constructs. This, in other words, is the end of the 9/11 Era.
I suppose I have three things to say about 9/11. The first is to observe how the conflict that many pundits of 20 years ago expected would define this century — a conflict between the West and Islam — ended up being shorter, more decisive, and less world-shattering than they expected. The second is to note that although 9/11 changed the world, it was really just the harbinger and the motif of changes that were going to happen anyway. And the third is to lament the scars that the 9/11 Era left on my generation of Americans.
The War on Islam and the Wars of Islam
The series of conflicts precipitated by 9/11 are now known as the War on Terror, but at the time, some were calling it “The Long War”. For example, the RAND Corporation released an entire book called Unfolding the Future of the Long War. From their website:
The United States is currently engaged in a military effort that has been characterized as the “long war.” The long war has been described by some as an epic struggle against adversaries bent on forming a unified Islamic world to supplant western dominance, while others describe it more narrowly as an extension of the war on terror.
The idea of a conflict between the West and Islam — or between Islam and modernity itself — was typical of both those who supported the prosecution of such a conflict and those who opposed it. Everyone was polishing off their copies of Jihad vs. McWorld.
With the U.S. withdrawal from and the Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan, some now dare to say that this Long War is over. And they are not wrong. But it’s important to understand what this war really was, and who won it.
What happened, as I see it, was that globalization, economic development, and the internet brought many Muslim societies into closer contact with Europe, America and other societies around the globe. Foreign ideas and opportunities for consumption caused friction within those societies, some of which spilled over into friction between those societies and other countries. It was this latter spillover that we perceived as the “War on Terror”, but in fact this was largely a sideshow compared to the upheavals that were happening within the Muslim world. And now both those upheavals and their international sequelae are dying down, because the process of rapid cultural modernization is now clearly ascendant, and the conservative backlash within Muslim societies has mostly been crushed or forced to acknowledge the inevitable. In other words, McWorld defeated Jihad — and it was never really a contest — while America largely thrashed around and inserted chaos and destruction into that process.
I wrote about that topic in a post back in February called “The End of the War on Islam”. I’m pretty satisfied with that post, so I’ll just quote from it now. Here’s what I had to say about America’s “War on Terror”:
This is a thing that you used to get yelled at for saying in public — no one wanted to jinx it, or encourage complacency, or minimize the terror attacks that still do strike many parts of the world. But it has been true for a while:
Osama bin Laden sleeps with the fishes, and the senior al Qaeda leadership has pretty much all been killed or captured.
Al-Qaeda has failed to launch an attack on U.S. soil since 2001.
Attacks by al-Qaeda over the past decade have all or nearly all been the work of loosely affiliated regional groups like AQAP or Al-Shabaab that have sworn nominal allegiance to al-Qaeda.
ISIS has lost all of its core territories in Iraq and Syria, and its founder and leader is dead.
ISIS managed six small terror attacks in the U.S., with the only two fatal attacks being the Orlando and San Bernardino shootings. These attacks were “stochastic terrorism”, perpetrated by lone-wolf types who said nice things about ISIS but very possibly had other motives.
Of course no one knows the future, and some other dangerous Islamist group might emerge and start launching terror attacks, etc…But if so, the U.S. is well-equipped to stop it in its tracks.
The U.S. won the War on (Islamist) Terror the old-fashioned way: By being an effective state and outfighting the enemy. I know people don’t like hearing that the U.S. is an effective state, but it is. We rolled up terrorist financing networks, infiltrated and disrupted terrorist organizations online, and built a massive security state. Yes, we did some security theater — removing our shoes in the airport being the most ridiculous legacy — but we also did lots of very effective security stuff, like having the NSA spy on everyone. When offered an explicit choice between privacy rights and security, Americans chose the latter, as evidenced by the lack of enduring and transformative outrage over Ed Snowden’s revelations.
That was all the stuff we did to beat al-Qaeda and to make sure that no more Qaeda-like groups emerged. As for ISIS, we also bombed them and helped their enemies take away their territory. They fought hard, but were utterly overmatched.
Winning a War on Terror is not like winning a normal war. There is no surrender, no victory parade. The terrorist groups simply degrade or turn their attention elsewhere until we start noticing them less. Perhaps the true measure of victory is whether a blogger such as Yours Truly can write “we won the War on Terror” without provoking a massive backlash.
Of course, terrorism itself is a military tactic rather than a movement, so it will never be defeated; you might as well fight a War on Flanking Maneuvers. Right now, the terror threat in America has shifted; White supremacist terrorists now constitute a much larger source of death and destruction than Islamists. Presumably, the security state developed to fight the Islamists will now be turned against this new threat.
Of course, this is only the case for America, in China and India, it looks like a “War on Terror” is being used as an excuse for ethnic nation-building, while European countries are sure to have their own issues as well. But a world of 9/11-style attacks, launched by free-roaming unaccountable nonstate groups, look like a future we avoided.
And here’s what I had to say about the discrediting of the jihadist movement within the Muslim world:
Al Qaeda attacked plenty of other Muslims, but their biggest and most spectacular attacks were against America — the “far enemy”, as they called us at the time, to contrast us with the “near enemy” of Muslim regimes they didn’t like. But ISIS started off killing and oppressing Muslims in the Middle East, and despite a few small scattered terror attacks in Europe and the U.S., they never really lost that local focus. That didn’t exactly endear them to their fellow Muslims.
In addition, ISIS’ ideology and behavior were so obviously retrograde and dead-end that one look at what they were doing would turn off nearly anyone. They burned some guy alive on video. They brutally oppressed the areas under their military control. They treated their international recruits like servants. They advanced a version of Islam so hilariously medieval that pretty much every important Islamic cleric denounced them. In a word, they sucked.
Also, they got beat. They clearly didn’t have the military strength to actually establish a caliphate, or create a new country, or do much of anything really. Almost nobody likes an insane totalitarian medievalist, but absolutely no one likes a totalitarian medievalist loser.
All this explains why essentially no one in the Muslim world actually liked ISIS:
And it’s not just that they quietly disapproved of ISIS. Muslims viewed fighting ISIS as a top policy priority. And they followed through with this — it was Muslim Iraqis and Kurds and Syrians who defeated ISIS in its original territory, and Muslims elsewhere who are fighting ISIS’ remnant satellite organizations now.
Remember how in the wake of 9/11, commentators used to always demand that moderate Muslims condemn jihadists? Well, folks, they did one better — they shot the jihadists.
Some will claim that the Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan gives the lie to my thesis. But they are wrong. Yes, the Taliban is a conservative Islamist group that is now in charge of a country once again. But in reconquering Afghanistan, the Taliban were forced to act more like a ruling power than a revolutionary power. Already, they are fighting to crush ISIS, the true radical revolutionary Islamist force. And they will win. And they now know that in order to create stability, they will have to tolerate at least some cultural diversity:
As for the Taliban’s hardcore ideology, these days it’s looking less like medievalism and more like the religious conservatism that the West has long known. It’s too early to know for sure, but it’s looking like the Taliban will be a brutal repressive autocracy, but nothing like the engine of global jihad that they looked like back when they supported al Qaeda.
Modernity defeats traditionalism for a reason. Modern gender roles, economies, and social institutions are mostly not an imposition of American or European values; they are natural human adaptations to industrial technology and information technology. Even the most ferocious traditionalist backlash ultimately stands little chance. I don’t want to be too flippant about a multi-decade conflict in which millions died — many of whom were killed by my own country’s actions. But it’s important to realize that this clash of modernity and traditionalism was both far less destructive than it was in the West, and is being resolved more quickly.
In a deep, fundamental, comprehensive way, Osama Bin Laden lost his war.
A future brought forward
September 11th, 2001 changed a lot of things in the world. Besides the aforementioned wars, it initiated the creation of the modern digitally enabled security state — everything from Snowden to China’s totalitarian efforts in Xinjiang grew out of the time that a few angry people with only the barest minimum of state backing managed to destroy the heart of the greatest city of the most powerful country on Earth.
But any serious consideration of why and how both 9/11 and the post-9/11 security state came to be must acknowledge that these changes were probably inevitable. Both the attacks and the response were due to the rise of the internet.
The internet enables much quicker and more comprehensive information sharing that fundamentally increases the capabilities of non-state actors like al Qaeda. Terrorists can spread their ideology online, coordinate their operations electronically, and learn detailed methods for creating maximum destruction. Internet-enabled finance, too, is crucial for funding these groups. And the internet offers would-be terrorists a wealth of information about their intended targets.
9/11 made this plain, but had 9/11 never happened, these technological facts would still have been true. Oklahoma City, the Tokyo gas attack, and many many other attacks around the world show that there was no dearth of desire for mayhem even without the motivating force of radical Islam. Eventually somebody was going to use the internet to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack, and governments and societies were going to realize how vulnerable new technologies had made them.
And at the same time, the internet has enabled surveillance of a finely crafted type that the totalitarians of the 20th century could only dream of. Hitler couldn’t track Anne Frank’s phone, nor Stalin scan Solzhenitsyn’s metadata. It remains to be seen whether digital totalitarianism will be gentler than the industrial-age variety (because it can afford to be) or far more cruel and insane (because it can be). But it’s clear that we’re going to find out, and we were always going to find out, given that states like China were always going to find ways to use the tools the internet gave them. And “free” societies like the U.S. and Europe were always going to use the tools of digital surveillance as the inevitable counter to the problem of non-state terrorism.
In other words, 9/11 was the cyberpunk terrorism-and-surveillance dystopia we ended up getting, but we were always going to get one. The notion that Bin Laden defeated the West by goading it into abandoning some of its freedoms neglects the overwhelming likelihood that this would soon have happened anyway.
Another future that 9/11 brought forward was an American reckoning over race and nationhood. The nation was becoming more diverse and more culturally liberal, and that was always going to provoke some sort of a conflict. As it happened, it was 9/11 and the War on Terror that precipitated that conflict, causing a wrenching and contentious debate over whether America was still a Christian country (a debate the Christians increasingly look to have lost). But already, there was a feeling that this struggle over religion was a proxy for a deeper struggle over race — when people on the Right insisted that Barack Obama was a Muslim, it was widely understood that his religion was not what was making them uncomfortable.
And so the true battle came — the Woke Era and the Trump Era. But that was destined to happen anyway, as anyone who has read American history, seen the statistics on changing demographics, and listened to subterranean chatter on the Right would have realized. And in a way, the 9/11 Era and the War on Terror might have delayed the eruption a few years, by keeping the focus on religious conflict for a little while longer, and by briefly uniting the country over the need to destroy the people who committed the attacks (as we in fact did).
In fact, the clearest sign that the 9/11 Era is over is that the memory of that terrible day is now being ludicrously drafted into service in modern culture wars that have nothing to do with it:
So those who believe Bin Laden defeated America by making us turn against each other are wrong — we were always going to turn against each other, over the same thing we turn against each other over every 50 years. And as always, as Lincoln told us, only America can actually defeat America.
A lost generation
So count me against the Great Man Theory of 9/11. Osama Bin Laden carried out the most spectacular and destructive terrorist attack the world had ever seen, and threw much of the world into chaos. And yet ultimately the Great Man could not withstand the forces of modernity, and the future he brought forth was one that was going to happen anyway. Now he is dead, and in a hundred years historians will be debating whether he even mattered.
But there are many groups of people in this world whose own personal histories were altered irrevocably. The millions dead in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and Yemen surely would wish that history had found a different way to bring us into the 21st Century. The Muslim Americans who spent years living in fear of oppression and reprisal certainly feel the same.
And then there’s my generation of Americans — the people born too late in Generation X to really remember the Cold War, but too early to be at the vanguard of America’s current cultural conflicts. The Xennials, the Oregon Trail generation — whatever you want to call us. Some of us suffered and died in America’s post-9/11 wars, of course, but more than that, I feel that we lost much of our sense of purpose and meaning in those years.
In the 90s, it looked like my generation would be the one to design a better world in the wake of the 20th century’s dark and brutal conflicts. Relatively untouched by the Cold War, awakening to a world of globalization, increasing freedom, and rapid technological progress, we were the ones who were going to figure out what it all meant. And then we found ourselves struggling instead against the specter of resurgent theocracy, militarism, and the burgeoning security state.
Had Bin Laden never managed what he managed — had terrorism and digital repression taken 10 or even 5 more years to emerge as forces on the global stage — my generation would have had a little more breathing room, a little more time to establish our optimistic viewpoint as a consensus to move our nation forward into the next set of challenges. Instead, on 9/11, we found ourselves flung head-over-heels into the teeth of those challenges, reacting instead of acting.
Now what sage advice do we have to offer the younger generations — the younger Millennials and the Zoomers and the kids who come after? Many of my contemporaries whose political lives were defined by the struggle against the insanity of the Iraq War never really came back from that struggle; now, they push for a policy of appeasement toward China as if they can’t see any difference between that situation and this. The fight against George W. Bush is a fight they will never come back from. Few of us will, to be honest.
This is why I am glad that the 9/11 Era is over. It was a nasty, destructive, stupid interregnum between the 20th century and the 21st. The attacks of that day, and all the destruction that followed, will never be forgotten. But it’s time to move on.