I was exactly three months old on the awful day, when my parents switched on the TV in time to see the footage of the Twin Towers fall.
Years later, they recounted the shock, disbelief, and fear they felt whilst glued to the screen. But more than this, a resounding question haunted their minds: what world have we brought our baby daughter into?
The concept of four planes being hijacked is terrifying. As is the fact Al Qaeda targeted the very symbols of American and Western strength. The World Trade Centre (wealth), the Pentagon (security), and the Capital building (democracy), which it is believed that United 93 was heading for, before the passengers on-board sacrificed themselves to divert and crash it in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
There is a personal side of the legacy of 9/11 which is still widely felt: the fear, the images, the stories behind the 2977 innocent people who died. Each one had an immeasurable impact on their family and friends left behind – in this sense there are too many stories for one person to ever comprehend to understand the scale of 9/11.
Yet, we must try to listen to these stories, however difficult or emotional they may be, they are part of history, and we must learn from history. So how can we begin to reflect on the enormity of 9/11, and its far-reaching legacy?
The BBC’s documentary Surviving 9/11 documents the personal stories well. The experiences of the survivors are incredibly moving. You hear from Lauren Manning, who was left with 80% burns from the lift shaft-turned-fireball at the bottom of the North Tower. Bill Spade, a firefighter who lost the rest of his crew when the towers collapsed. Melodie Homer, the wife of Leroy Homer Jr. the pilot of the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania, whose heroism, unlike the other passengers, in tackling the terrorists has been overlooked, arguably due to the colour of his skin. All these people have unique experiences and viewpoints which remind us of 9/11’s personal impact.
As remarked in Surviving 9/11, everyone who was born before that day and is still alive now is a survivor of 9/11. We are all living with the emotional, political, and social scars of 9/11. Too often we forget that.
I was fortunate enough to visit the 9/11 Memorial in New York City a few years ago, and although it was extremely poignant and moving to see, it felt quite crass and uncomfortable to visit the site of such tragedy as if it were another tourist feature.
Yet, visiting Ground Zero serves as a physical reminder of a tragedy. This reminder is incredibly important, because all too often we find it easier to push such atrocities to the back of our minds, to focus on our own, individual ‘present’.
But it is this action of trying to forget that is crass.
9/11 changed all our worlds forever, it is integral to history as it has and will continue to shape this century’s politics, emotions, and daily life.
When discussing the tumultuous legacy of 9/11, we must mention the US military response to the attacks. As well as how, arguably, we have entered a heightened security age in fear of future terrorist attacks.
The US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq provide a complex but perhaps more tangible way of accessing the global legacy of 9/11. We must also remember these invasions whilst political in nature have their own personal stories and tragedies woven in.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that the mission to invade Afghanistan and Iraq was flawed, there was arguably no set plan or objectives except serving justice for the victims of the 9/11 attacks and have left behind complex legacies. The failings of Iraq interventions have been aired publicly through the Chilcot inquiry, disproving the US and UK’s claim that Weapons of Mass Destruction were in Iraq, and could be used in future terrorist attacks against the West.
There were some hailed ‘military successes’ of the US-led interventions at the time. Saddam Hussein was effectively ‘neutralised’ by Western coalition forces. US forces also killed Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, and captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who allegedly masterminded the 9/11 attacks.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed remains in US maximum-security prison Guantanamo Bay still awaiting trial for his alleged crimes, 15 years later. The US redefined torture, permitting ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ to be used in offshore detention centres.
The murky underworld of US detention facilities is another way of looking at the legacy of 9/11. Civil liberties and human rights were pushed aside. Guantanamo Bay has served a purpose for housing those who attack the United States, but it hardly has the ‘glorious victor’ appearance like the rest of the US ‘war on terror’ narrative. The civil liberties of the rest of the population were compromised through mass surveillance programmes and acts such as the 2001 PATRIOTS Act.
It is also clear that the events of 9/11 created a legacy and momentum for a new form of global warfare. As in the words of President Bush, “we were fighting a war against a shadow state”, replacing conventional nation vs. nation wars.
This is reinforced by the fact that none of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Afghan nationals. Al Qaeda and similar terrorist organisations do not operate within national borders. The aftermath of 9/11 changed global warfare strategies for good.
However, recent events regarding the Taliban retaking Afghanistan, continue to turn the ‘successful’ taste of military legacy rather sour.
The US invasion was justified for 20 years as being necessary to prevent exactly that scenario, aiming for US troops to support building a functioning democracy in Afghanistan with a resilient Afghan military able to withstand the Taliban. With reports of US military technology falling into the Taliban’s hands, the legacy of the ‘war on terror’ is even more dubious, the Taliban and terrorist groups have access to more powerful weapons than could ever have been imagined twenty years ago.
Ever wondered why the US invaded Afghanistan for being an unstable breeding ground for terrorists, despite none of the perpetrators being from Afghanistan? Yet at the same time they failed to chastise Saudi Arabia for their alleged connections to 9/11, or their actions in making Yemen just as vulnerable to terrorists through its own war on the country? Money.
In the end, geopolitics always comes back to money.
It was not simply symbolic that Al Qaeda targeted the World Trade Centre. As Dharshini David points out in The Almighty Dollar, a lot of the strength of the US dollar as the ‘world’s currency’ rests on US interventions in the Middle East, starting back in the 1970s when they made a deal with Saudi Arabia to conduct their oil trading in dollars, thus solidifying the importance of the dollar, and America, to global trade.
As cynical as it sounds, money talks and Saudi has a lot of it. Similar allegations have been made regarding financial motives for the West’s intervention in Iraq, with arguments that the war was fought for oil.
It is clear society still bares the emotional and political scars of 9/11. Its legacy remains painful, messy, and deeply politicised. Yet, even from the scene of destruction, hope and humanity remained.
A pear tree was found to be severely damaged when firefighters were clearing through the wreckage after the attack, but nine years later, after it had been nursed back to health, the tree was replanted inside the 9/11 memorial. Dubbed ‘the Survivor Tree’, it is now seen by the residents of New York as a symbol of hope, rebirth, and renewal – messages that should be written into the legacy of 9/11 too.
Whilst the Taliban retaking Afghanistan is bleak, we need to have hope, hope in humanity and our nations that those in danger will be protected. Hope is often found in the bleakest of times after all, if we do not have hope, then what is left?
Image: Futuredu/ Edunews.pl via Creative Commons.