The destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York remains an indelible stain on our troubled world.
But today’s 20th anniversary will also be filtered through the minds of a global audience who witnessed with sorrow, anger, and disbelief the more recent events in Kabul and the chaos surrounding the ending of twenty years of US and allied military involvement in Afghanistan, a multi- ethnic and mostly tribal society and now an Islamic Emirate.
The Taliban regained power with a worrying ease. The handling and timing of the evacuation of personnel from Kabul became an embarrassment as the August deadline approached.
The legacy of 9/11 is again being seriously debated as the emotional toll on Afghans rises, threats to human rights abound, and geopolitical questions about the future of this whole region are in the spotlight as are the foreign policy roles of the US and the UK, “the rapid, fragile, and chaotic collapse of America and the UK presence in Afghanistan prior to 9/11”, can-not be overlooked.
It is worth remembering that 9/11 was a brutal reminder of what Robert Burns described as “Man’s inhumanity to man made countless thousands mourn”, and how far removed we are from embracing a broader and more sustainable humanity in what seems to be a world of perpetual chaos and division.
These sentiments were uppermost in my mind as I moved a Motion of Condolence in the Scottish Parliament as First Minister the day after 9/11. The motion read, “that the Parliament condemns the senseless and abhorrent acts of terrorism carried out in the United States yesterday and extends our deepest sympathies to those whose loved ones have been killed or injured”. These sentiments were supported by all the Party leaders, and I am sure the whole nation.
My comments referenced George Orwell, who wrote of the invincibility of the values of law and civilisation in the face of the dangers and destruction of wars, He said, “No bomb that ever burst, Shatters the crystal spirit”.
Conscious of my many friends and colleagues in the US, there were some personal reflections, on how they would be impacted by these violent acts of terrorism as well as my own thoughts on visits to the buildings that had figured so prominently on 9/11.
My meeting with President George W Bush in the Oval Office, a few months before 9/11, where he was so enthusiastic about the bust of Winston Churchill, his great war leader, but of course unaware of what lay ahead for himself and America.
A visit to the Pentagon, three years before 9/11 on a UK Parliamentary trip to meet Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005.
Enjoying dinner, years earlier with friends in the “Window on the World”, restaurant on the top of the World Trade Centre looking up through Manhattan to Central Park.
The fact that a few weeks before 9/11 and on many more occasions before then, I had flown into Newark Airport where the sky- line had been dominated by the Statue of Liberty and the unique landmark of the Twin Towers, now removed by a terrorist demolition squad.
And more recently on a visit to the new, “One World Trade Centre”, which replaced the destroyed twin towers in the form of two giant fountains containing the names of those who perished. This reignited that sense of sadness and stoked new doubts about the precarious nature of a still troubled world.
America, by any measure, is a remarkable country, but as it reflects on 9/11, its complexity, bitter and apparently unbridgeable divisions, its tribal and primitive politics, and an increasingly corrupt democracy, reveal a nation at war with itself and fast losing traction, understanding and perspective on what its role is, in a world of bewildering change and seismic shocks of increasing frequency and intensity. Diversity, political incoherence, and a unique sense of exceptionalism make it difficult or impossible for America, and slightly misquoting Robert Burns, “to see themselves as others see them”.
The US has moved on from the days of, Bush’s “war on terror”, the “coalition of the willing”, and Rumsfeld’s, “shock and awe”, rhetoric. There may have been no terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 in the West for two decades, but incalculable damage has been done to global solidarity and relationships between the faiths, by associating Islam and Muslims with violence, suggesting they were more likely than other religions to encourage violence and to fan the flames of antimuslim sentiment. This has been a destructive legacy.
On December the 7th 1941, described by Franklin D. Roosevelt as, “a date which will live infamy”, the US was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval air force of the Empire of Japan. The attack on Pearl Harbour brought the US into the Second World War and moved the country from its isolationism, as allies in Europe struggled against the might of Germany.
The war in South Vietnam ended up with defeat for the US and a chaotic evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. This was another low point for the US.
And now the exit from Afghanistan in August 2021, when another chapter in US foreign will have to be written. What will that look like beyond the idea of “no more, never- ending wars”. The US might be “back”, but is that in a new partnership with friends and allies or “back” to its old ways?
Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State in the Clinton administration speaking on the NBC-TV Today Show in 1998, gave us a valuable insight into America’s enduring dilemma when she said, “America has to be the world’s indispensable nation. If we have to use force it is because we are America. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future and we see the danger here to all of us”. President Barack Obama speaking at West Point also said, “So the US is and will remain the one indispensable nation”
But when the purpose of American power is no longer self- evident, the principles upon which it is based are unclear and the policies supporting it are uniquely self- interested, then it must be time for a rethink.
Uniting the world “under US supervision”, begs important questions that must be part of a new debate after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Britain’s uncritical and unwavering support of US foreign policy must be part of this process.
But today is about embracing a broader humanity and to remember those who lost their lives or were injured on 9/11. Lets’ hope that sometime in the future the world will rise to the inspiring thought, “That man to man the warld o’er, Shall brithers be for a’ that: in the words of Victor Hugo, we should become patriots of humanity, not just of narrow nationalism.