Colin Talbot: Remembering 9/11

Twenty years on, the reverberations of the terrorist attack still shape the world. The extent of the threat is different from what preceded it that day, and must be analysed as such
NYC fire fighter carries a fire hose over smouldering fires and wreckage at Ground Zero, Sept. 18, 2001. World Trade Center, New York City, after September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Photo: Alamy

By Colin Talbot

10 Sep 2021

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on 9/11?

I remember vividly, both because the events themselves were so shocking and because of my circumstances.

I was in South Africa at a conference at Stellenbosch University, near Cape Town. During a break I’d gone into town to have look around. As I wandered through a small shopping mall, my sister unexpectantly rang from the UK. My heart sank – I’d had an unexpected call telling me about the death of my brother some years before and I feared it was something similar.

It was indeed a tragedy – but on a much bigger scale. My sister asked if I’d seen what was happening. She said two planes had flown into the Twin Towers in New York. After a brief discussion, I looked round for a TV. I found a group of people in a bar watching the live feed from New York in quiet shock.

It was really hard to take in. The pictures looked like a scene from a disaster movie – they couldn’t be real, could they? Then there were horrific reports of people jumping from the upper floors.

And if that wasn’t horrendous enough, as we stood watching, the first tower came down.

I spent the next few days endlessly discussing what had happened, how it had happened and why. On the long flight back from Cape Town to London I started an article – Tough on Terrorism, Tough on the Causes of Terrorism – which was later published in the US public administration magazine PA Times.

My thoughts were partly shaped by having been in post-apartheid South Africa at the time of 9/11. Both the ANC that now ruled, and their apartheid predecessors, had at various times been called "terrorists". Yet they had compromised and miraculously achieved a peaceful transition to a multi-racial democracy.

But it seemed to me the forces behind the 9/11 attacks were nothing like the ANC, even though there were some similarities in the use of force.

"The pictures looked like a scene from a disaster movie – they couldn’t be real, could they?"

I came to two conclusions.

First, I wrote at the time that we “must reflect on what exactly is the terrorist menace we are confronting. We need to distinguish here between two distinct types of terrorist activities and terrorist organisations”.

Terrorist organisations of the previous few decades, like the IRA, ETA (the Basque Euskadi ta Askatasuna), the Irgun, Al Fatah, and even the ANC of South Africa are, or have been, terrorist organisations fighting for causes democrats could legitimately support. Whether Irish unity; Basque independence; founding Israel or replacing it with Palestine, a case could be made for the aims, if not the means. No liberal, conservative or social democrat could possibly support the aims of Al-Qaeda.

Recently, Tony Blair has added what I think is an important point about the aims of groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS and others. Their ideology is so incompatible with ideas of human rights and liberal democratic values that it is legitimate to compare their threat with communism (and I would add, fascism).

The second difference was more subtle – it was about methods. All these organisations were prepared, like Al-Qaeda, to use illegitimate violence to achieve their aims. But the scope of their violence – although often breaking what would be regarded as the usual "rules of war" – was always in some ways limited.

Al-Qaeda, with its global ambitions, saw no such limitations – it was clearly intent on inflicting the biggest possible atrocities it could find a way to enact. The destruction of the Twin Towers, the attack on the Pentagon and whatever the third target was for Flight 93 (which was brought down before reaching its target) showed the scale of Al-Qaeda’s depravity. No other "terrorist" organisation in modern history had done anything like this (even though many of them could have).

I thought, and still think, these are important distinctions. First, because the aims of many ‘terrorist’ groups are at least semi-legitimate there is scope for negotiation and possible peace settlements – as in South Africa or Northern Ireland. Second, because the terrorist methods (and global ambitions) of Islamist fundamentalist groups make them such a huge threat.

This defines the nature of the struggle. It is existential – this Islamist fundamentalist movement will never peacefully co-exist with liberal democracy (or even secular autocracy). And they will constantly seek new ways to inflict further atrocities like 9/11.

This may not be a "forever war" but it could well go on for generations. The struggle between liberal democracy and communism has already lasted for four generations and there is no sign of it being over yet. The modern struggle with fundamentalist Islam is barely a single generation old, possibly two if you include the Iranian revolution. We may have a long way to go yet.

Read the most recent articles written by Colin Talbot - Opinion: How does Boris Johnson plan to reform government without Dominic Cummings?

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