The Constitutional State in Meltdown
Just a few months after the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and other important government buildings in the United States, the first books on the subject were published, which tried, in very different ways, to describe the events, to explain them, but also to reinterpret them. Alongside anthologies, thrillers, chronicles, and conspiracy theories in the form of more or less serious non-fiction books, there are only a few works that also do the subject justice from a scientific, factual point of view. Chronological proximity has been the main hindrance in recent years to an adequate investigation of the events, one that would go further than merely summarising the sequence of events and reasons behind the attacks and would also take the intermediate and long-term consequences into account. Now – ten years after the attacks – just enough time has gone by for us to be able to include in the analysis the first developments that resulted from 9/11. In March the historian Bernd Greiner, a researcher into the subject of violence, published his book 9/11: Der Tag, die Angst, die Folgen [9/11: The Day, the Fear, the Consequences], in which he provides an ‘initial assessment of the background to and consequences of 11th September 2001’.
The erosion of rationality
Yet Greiner has not written a book about 9/11, even if the title suggests it. This is first and foremost a book about the misuse of power, political megalomania, fear bordering on the irrational, and the resultant gradual replacement of rationality by opinions, feeling and prejudices – expressed in concrete terms in the case of the American and general Western way of dealing with terrorism, which reached its climax on that Tuesday in September 2001 in New York and Washington. The book devotes only the first few pages to the event itself, those few hours (between 07:59 and 10:28) that saw the hijacking of the planes, the crash and the collapse of the Twin Towers. The focus of the investigation is on the American military and foreign policy of recent decades, including financial support running into millions of dollars for the jihadists in Afghanistan fighting the USSR in the 1980s, and the stationing of the American military invasion forces against Iraq in Saudi Arabia during the second Gulf War. Greiner deduces that the 9/11 bombers had not only religious but also secular reasons for the attacks, or to be more specific: their religious justifications were only able to gain a foothold as a result of the specific colonial past and dislike of the West fomented by power-political interventions – interventions that resulted in heavy civilian casualties and which purported to be for the good of the people, an attitude that virtually demanded a response. The response that finally came on 11th September was radical and excessive and contrary to all the laws of reason – but it was a response, a reaction to the conduct of the West.
Language in an age of terrorism
Even after ten years of debates and research into the background to the attacks, an overwhelming majority of the population in America and in the European countries knows – or wants to know – nothing about the part played by provocative Western foreign policies, both past and present, in the terrorist threats. Religious fanaticism and Islam are still regarded as the sole cause; and since the announcement a few days after the attacks that they were masterminded by the terrorist organisation Al-Qaida, and with the uniformly Arab-sounding names of the perpetrators, an image of an enemy was created that is no longer by any means simply a harmless prejudice, and which in the last few years has escalated in many parts of Western society into an Islamophobia that can no longer be denied. Bernd Greiner’s aim is to revise this prevailing opinion. He demonstrates how seldom, these days, the voice of reason governs people’s actions and opinions – and how these developments were introduced at the time of the Cold War, and eventually driven to a crescendo by the Bush administration. The terrorist attacks that took place across the world in the 1990s and which finally culminated in 9/11 ushered in an age in which there are no longer any criteria for evaluation in intercultural and international dealings; instead, the determining factors are mistrust and swift, unscrutinised action.
New paradigms frequently bring with them new terminology, and thus also a new language. Greiner reveals what is hidden behind the rhetoric of American politicians, the shifts of meaning that have taken place. In most cases he says it was fear that resulted in steps such as the ‘One Percent Doctrine’, which makes the mere probability rather than proof of terrorist activity the basis for military action. Yet fear is only the emotional side. Without the long-standing tactic of American government officials such as Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and of course George W. Bush of bypassing the legislature and extending their own spheres of influence; without the establishment of enemy criminal law as part of the infamous ‘Patriot Act’, and without the extremely effective media staging of ‘Permanent Preparedness’, which disguises the unpleasantness of ‘total mobilisation’ in a softer linguistic cloak, the bogeyman of the ‘Muslim’ would certainly not have become so powerful, and so dangerous; and ‘modern Western society’s understanding of the law’ would have a more stable foundation. This is proven not least by the completely untenable arguments that were put forward at the beginning of 2002 by the American government to justify the war against Iraq, as well as by the undermining of, indeed the entirely conscious disregard for the Geneva Convention in the doctrine of pre-emptive war, and finally by the authorisation of methods of torture and interrogation and the resulting establishment of an unlegislated area in prisons such as Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.
And in all this, Greiner explains, history’s law of irony is revealed: the excessive war on terror has actually empowered the enemy, because every person killed leads to the recruitment of more ‘soldiers of God’ by Al-Qaida.
One thing becomes clear: the terrorist attacks of September 11th were a historical turning point. They managed to shift boundaries, and to create new categories and paradigms governed by powerful laws far removed from justice, in which a constant state of alert forms the basis of all foreign policy. The ‘nervous decade’ had begun.
9/11 was written with the intention of enlightening the public about things of which it is, for the most part, unaware; and in order to challenge prevailing prejudices. It does not present any new and groundbreaking insights, but it does give authoritative voice to facts that have been ignored by the majority of the population in the West. Its merit lies in the abundance of information it presents, its communication of complicated facts in an easily comprehensible manner, the ordering of the war on terror as part of a succession of events in the ‘over-extension of the power of the executive’ in US politics that was already being practised in the second half of the twentieth century, and finally in the intensification of the theories about the dangers and repercussions of the loss of rationality. A book with an educational purpose, which with its serious, scientific groundwork and the detailed argumentation and presentation of the facts is able to make a useful contribution towards revising prevailing opinions and – as redundant as it may sound – to giving rationality, this ‘relict of a lost epoch’, a somewhat greater role in assessing facts.
is a journalist and translator based in Cologne.
Bernd Greiner: 9/11: Der Tag, die Angst, die Folgen [9/11: The Day, the Fear, the Consequences]. C.H. Beck Verlag 2011, 280 pp, hardback.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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