Each generation has its collection of ‘where were you?’ moments. For mine they run like this: ‘where were you when the Berlin Wall came down; where were you when Princess Diana died and, most of all; where were you on 9/11.
The attack on the World trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11th September 2001 was, even for those of us living far away on the other side of the world, the moment when everything changed. When the world we thought was safe and permanent turned out to be fragile and threatened.
My own small memories of that awful day consist of walking into a room in the place where I worked at the time and being momentarily surprised by the horrified looks on the faces of my colleagues. Then I heard coming from a radio set on a shelf somewhere behind the door a shocked announcer interrupting the programme to say that what had at first seemed to be a terrible accident had turned into a terrifying attack.
Before 9/11 it seemed that people in the west lived for the most part in a bubble of wealth and good fortune. Bad things happened, just as they always had; but they happened to other people living in places that were far away. Afterwards we seemed to inhabit a world that has grown more paranoid and fearful with each passing year.
In offices and shops on both sides of the Atlantic people solemnly rehearse bomb drills, even though as the footage of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks shows the best laid plans tend to crumble when exposed to chaos. A single rumour on a possible attack can ground flights for days and turn airport security into an Orwellian farce.
At the time of the attacks there was a lot of talk about this being an event that would snap the west out of its post Cold War complacency; in fact quite the reverse happened. Our delusions about the world we inhabit became more firmly entrenched.
Britain and the United States entered into two wars that could not be won. One in Afghanistan motivated by the understandable desire to catch the man responsible for ordering the outrages committed on 9/11; almost a decade later when justice finally caught up with Osama Bin Laden he was hiding in a small town in Pakistan and had probably been there since before the attacks. The other, in Iraq, was launched on the basis of information about weapons of mass destruction that later proved to have been ‘sexed up’. Blood, treasure and national credibility were expended for no appreciable return.
At home we allowed an already reckless capitalist system to become even more so in the process widening inequalities that encouraged extremism at home and abroad. Remember the perpetrators of the London bombings in July 2005 were all born and raised in Britain but had become alienated from a culture that seemed to them to be shallow and greedy.
It is right to remember and mourn the lives lost in New York on 9/11 along with those lost in Madrid, Bali and London in the years since then; it is also right to honour the bravery of the fire fighters who ran into the burning wreck of the Twin Towers because they saw their own lives as a price worth paying to save those of people they had never met and in doing so demonstrated the true meaning of heroism. Commemoration though must, to have any real meaning, be matched by a demonstrable learning of hard lessons.
Ten years of intervention in the Middle East have achieved nothing, where change has come thanks to the ‘Arab Spring’ it has been achieved largely without the help of the west, which tended to turn a blind eye to the activities of despots so long as the oil kept flowing. We need to look at the sorry state of our own society before attempting to bring about regime change in other countries.
The involvement of the UK government in extreme rendition and using information extracted through the use of torture, more details of which are emerging thanks to the uprising in Libya demonstrates that Britain needs the ‘ethical foreign policy’ Tony Blair talked grandly about establishing during his salad days. No diplomatic or economic advantage should be allowed to trump defending basic human rights.
At home we need to build a society where freedom and strong communities are just as important as free trade and fluid markets; we need to be citizens working in a shared cause as much as consumers gratifying our individual desires. Most of all we need to recognise that the best defence against extremism either in its political or religious form is the banishing of inequality at home and abroad.
If we don’t do these things, many of which will be difficult in the short term, we might come to see the frightening decade we have just passed through as marking only the beginning of our troubles.