It´s a day we remember all too well – one which has secured its place in modern history. Many at university today will not remember the event itself, but we are all too aware of the details. This Monday gone marked 16 years since 11 September 2001, the day on which two passenger airliners were hijacked and flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.
The planes were two of four destined for California, which were taken over by members of terrorist group al-Qaeda and crashed in various locations on the east coast. Each liner had a different target, one colliding with each of the WTC towers, and one into the Pentagon. The fourth jet did not reach its intended location, as the hijackers crashed early when they realised that the passengers were likely to overcome them. Later intelligence revealed that it had been headed for the Capitol Building in Washington.
Osama bin Laden, then head of al-Qaeda initially denied all involvement with the attacks, although he did openly support them, saying in a 2001 video that “terrorism against America deserves to be praised because it was a response to injustice, aimed at forcing America to stop its support for Israel, which kills our people.” It was not until 2004 that bin Laden officially took responsibility for orchestrating the attack.
In the weeks and months that followed that day, the governments of both the United Kingdom and the United States announced various plans for legislative and military action to counteract the threat posed by extremist groups in the Middle East, the most infamous of which remain the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The coalition of US-led forces began bombing Afghanistan within a month of the 9/11 attacks and, nearly 16 years on, fighting continues in the country, with the death toll estimated at anywhere between 25,000 and 40,000 people. At the same time, the Iraq War remains one of the most contentious issues in modern-day Britain, and is undeniably the bitter legacy of Tony Blair’s 10 years as Prime Minister.
Although by 2003 Iraq’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks had been disproven, the US and United Kingdom built the case for an invasion based on Saddam Hussein’s supposed close ties to al-Qaeda, and his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.
This case, as was later seen, was entirely groundless, making the nine-year war “the greatest intelligence failure in living memory” as described by The Telegraph in 2013.
It is this very failure which has left one of the most significant marks on our society. As a nation it seems our collective attitude to military intervention has shifted entirely. Following the Arab uprisings of 2011 there were calls for the UK to take action, principally in Libya, against the Gaddafi dictatorship, and later in Syria against Islamic State. Although Britain did eventually partake in a series of air campaigns, enforcing a no-fly zone in the former case, the interventions were smaller than what might have been expected in years gone by, and some in the public sphere felt it was not enough. It would seem that we are far more tentative about the idea of military action, with YouGov figures showing that it took over a year for the majority of the public to back mobilising the RAF in either case and, given the results of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is not entirely surprising.
What came as one of the more surprising products of 11 September 2001 was that the attacks taught an increasing proportion of the population to distrust their own government – those whose entire existence is supposedly devoted to our protection.
In America this can be seen in the ‘9/11 was an inside job’ bumper stickers, or t-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Dick Cheney Made Money off the Iraq War’; in Britain it can be seen in our reaction to the findings of the Chilcot Report: disappointment, but not surprise.
Many consider, however, the sad irony of the West’s ‘war on terror’: that in our haste to neutralise threats to our security, we inadvertently created so very many more. Even since the beginning of 2016 the occurrence of terror attacks in Europe has markedly increased, with Islamist extremists using frequent and continuing interventions in the Middle East as explanation for their actions. The rate at which this vicious cycle is escalating is seemingly unsustainable, especially as we see more and more home-grown threats, like that seen in the Finsbury Park mosque attack in just June of this year.
The dialogue of this war on terror has also had a significant impact on our domestic policy.
Although in the United Kingdom we haven’t seen the same levels of human rights infringements as in America, where Guantanamo Bay – opened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – remains an uneasy loophole in the law, we are increasingly being asked to balance our privacy against our safety.
The last 16 years have seen swathes of legislation attempt to pass through Westminster, seeking more government surveillance powers to assist in the defence of the country. Not all have been successful, but from compulsory ID cards to increased ‘snooping’ capabilities for the intelligence services, all stem from the terrorism paranoia felt in the last decade and a half.
Human rights advocacy group Liberty has spent much of that time fighting on the side of civil liberties, and successfully fought measures such as prolonged pre-trial detention for terrorist suspects. Shami Chakrabarti, who started at the organisation on 10 September 2001, was director for over a decade, and reasons the organisation’s fight in her 2014 book, On Liberty.
Chakrabarti’s argument is that “our rights and freedoms are not like those pick-and-mixes in old-fashioned sweet shops”, and that once you start chipping away at one segment you run the risk of them all tumbling down around you. But this is not a view shared by our entire society, and it is easy to see why.
Many feel that, with nothing to hide, why should it matter if the secret services pore over our text messages? After all, the only thing they’re going to discover there is that it’s your turn to buy toilet paper, or at worst that you’re planning on cheating in your exam tomorrow morning.
There’s no easy answer to the question of where we should strike the balance between our protection and our individual rights.
This has ignited one of the most contentious arguments of our time, and it is one which still doesn’t seem to have a clear winner.
On this topic, and so many more, the post 9/11 world finds our society polarised on two sides of an impossible dilemma.
Whether it is an issue of civil liberties, of whether or not it is right to take military action, or even to what extent our leaders need to be held accountable for their actions, there are more arguments to be had with each other every day.
All that we can really do, on this day of reflection, is show our respects, and hope for a little more understanding in the world.