international analysis and commentary

9/11: The bonfire of false certainties


The nineteenth century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville was writing about “l’ancien regime” less than a lifetime after the 1789 French Revolution. The French people, Tocqueville wrote, had cut their destiny in two and were separated by an abyss from all that had taken place before the Revolution. 9/11 had the same impact on much of contemporary Europe – it certainly had on me. Ten years ago, some five days before the al Qaeda attacks, I was watching England thump Germany 1-5 in a qualifying match for the World Cup in Munich. To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times it was the worst of times”.

A previous generation of Europeans had all known their whereabouts the moment they had heard of Kennedy’s assassination. On 9/11, my wife and I had been enjoying a day’s walking high up on the moors of Dartmoor in southwest England. We returned to the car next to Okehampton Castle at precisely 5:01 pm. I turned on the BBC news and for at least a minute I thought I was listening to some kind of trailer for a BBC sci-fi drama. Only with the dawning of that day’s chilling reality did I begin to grasp the meaning, the moment and the importance of the day. The flames that consumed so many innocent thousands in New York and Washington that day also consumed Europe’s false certainties.

The simple fact is that before 9/11 there was movement towards some form of political union, albeit bumpy and prone to diversion. After 9/11 any real pretence to political solidarity fell away. Despite the show of theatrical solidarity in the immediate aftermath, the ensuing wars in Afghanistan, and of course Iraq, polarized Europe and revealed the shallowness of the patina that had hitherto papered over deep cracks. 9/11 was Tocqueville’s abyss.

On 10 September, 2001 America the mighty sat firmly and proudly atop the great heap of power that passes for international structure in this world. Its economy was booming, its deficit under control and all that it really had to concern itself with internationally was the failure of its European allies to deal with the detritus of post-Cold War suffering in southeast Europe. A small war in a small place called Kosovo had been won. Somalia still burned (and still does) but having been singed in the battle of Mogadishu in 1993, the American superpower, we were told, did not clean windows, i.e. did not nation-build. Al Qaeda had caused mayhem and carnage in Saudi Arabia and Kenya but was not seen as an existential threat to the West.

Europe was as ever navel gazing about its failure in the Balkans. And yet, the euro was bedding in with only those serial recalcitrants the British proving truly resistant. But, they would come round in time. Nine years on from the Maastricht Treaty and the founding of the European Union there was still some reason to believe that the political momentum of the European project would eventually spill over from monetary union and the single market into fiscal unions and even one day perhaps security and defense union.

Asia still seemed a squabbling continent full of squabbling locals with few pretensions to global dominance. The twenty-first century would still be decidedly Western, nay American.

Ten years on, such false certainties seem to belong to another age. There were exacerbating factors that helped deepen the abyss between the age of the twin towers and the age after the fall. If Al Gore had won the 2000 US elections the American response might have been very different. One of the great “what ifs” of history, it is reasonable to assume that the now disastrous war in Iraq would never have taken place.

By the time of the March 2004 Madrid train bombings Europe had become hopelessly divided. At the grand political level the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq had split both the EU and NATO asunder, just at the moment when the historic duty to “unite” Europe through enlargement of both was finally being realized. Divisions were further exacerbated over the imbalance of effort in Afghanistan in which too few allies did too much of the dying in a deepening war which had been caused by the Taliban support for al Qaeda. The lukewarm solidarity shown the Spanish and British when Madrid and London were attacked by terrorists reflected the breakdown in European political momentum.

At the social level political elites were deemed to have failed as deep-seated divisions between indigenous communities in European states and the waves of new immigrants, many of them Muslim, were also seared open. Unable and unsure of how to deal with the threat of terrorism the state became both more intrusive and less trusted, dangerously undermining the legitimacy of state and supra-state institutions in the popular mind. And then came the 2008 financial crash and the dawning reality for a few Western Europeans that they were being asked to bale out the rest. Ten years on from 9/11 trust has almost evaporated with deep insecurities and vulnerabilities evident across Europe.

The darkest hour is just before the dawn. Perhaps the anniversary of 9/11 will also serve to open a new chapter in which having survived the shock, with Iraq retreating into European history, Afghanistan soon so to do and much of the Middle East apparently rejecting the gruesome medievalism of violent jihad Europe and Europeans will rediscover an essential strategic truth. That no European is truly powerful in today’s world and that together not only is Europe safer but also the world in which Europeans reside.

As Tocqueville might suggest, now is the time for Europe to rediscover political vision. Are our leaders up to it?