Something happened to Time and our concept of War over the past decade. The Second World War, which still fascinates children today, saw global power shift one way and then the other; a clear victory over Axis (of Evil) power. It seems to be the measure against which the British and US Governments formulated policy and military operation.
But in a span of years, almost twice that of 1939-45 we seem frozen in time. There is no measurable visible victory. In news terms an anniversary is traditionally regarded as proof there isn’t really a story. But the 10th anniversary hangs over us precisely because there has been no closure.
The news cycle in which we journalists operate starts out as a tight one – The early days were struggles to deal with the day to day crises of anthrax attacks in Washington, as we still didn’t know the Who and Why. Impressive investigations saw journalists uncover the trails to Pakistan and elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl became one of the most tragic victims of that attempt to uncover the Who and Why.
Over the next 2 years there was an attempt to contextualise. Within a year I had been commissioned to travel the Muslim world filming the Channel 4 documentary Islam Unveiled, inspired by the discovery that in his will, Mohammad Atta – the chief 9/11 hijacker who’d apparently hated women so much had requested no women at his grave.
Day to day life went on among the educated urban middle classes in Cairo, Tehran, Istanbul and other cities I visited. Looking back from today, the pre-Ahmadinajad Iran I visited, where cautious reforms were starting to make a real change for the better, is one of the greatest losses in the post 9/11 world.
Over the longerterm documentaries and docudramas — notably The Path to 9/11 with Harvey Keitel attempted a worthy, journalistic chronology of authority failings and individual bravery, including several smart female cops who foiled terrorist attacks. But with that narrative well explored, the wider world changes proved harder to pin down.
Over the years we coined the new term Islamophobia . While some Islamist groups were keen to stir up trouble of their own ( the Danish embassy protests or disrupting the repatriation of dead soldiers at Wootton Bassett) and thrived on the attention when the news media rose to the bait, an equally ugly rise in racist intimidation was also evident. Incidents of women in headscarves being attacked, desecration of mosques and Jewish synagogues. At a lecture I gave about reporting terrorism at the London School of Economics, one German in the audience even compared the bullying atmosphere to the anti-semitic hatred coalescing at the end of the Weimar Republic.
Over this weekend the most moving reflections on 9/11 have been the factual accounts of people who were there or who were bereaved. Particularly moving has been the accounts of children born after their fathers died on 9/11 about their missing parent.
New York novelist, Paul Auster told The World Tonight on Friday that he feared America had turned inward and closed itself to understanding the wider world. Certainly the desecent of Pakistan into chaos is something we watch at a distance now. And yet it’s the nation, most comparable in the impact of extremism and violence, to the experience of European nations invaded by Nazi Germany in the 30s with murderous attacks not just on a Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, but on worshippers at mosques, on a visiting cricket team, on liberal judges and politicians.
In Afghanistan too, where Action Aid has been researching the views of women, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the NATO military campaign, a generation of young girls have grown up, encouraged to believe they could attend school and aspire to achieve in their own right. One wonders what happens to their hopes when their NATO “liberators” withdraw over the coming months?
What I hadn’t guessed at is how a generation of children would grow up with a background of constant war, but a war that was increasingly unreported. When my son went to his first Bonfire night party he thought the fireworks were bombs, thanks to the nightly news coverage of the coalition operation in Afghanistan launched at the end of 2001.
But British audiences tired of it. With no measurable progress to report in these campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, we found news audiences began to drop massively; notably after the initial weeks of the Iraq invasion.
10 years on, the news coverage has reduced to the deeply moving, but very brief, ritual naming of the latest fatality; a snap shot and a testimonial about their character from family and commanding officers. The lack of a conscripted army is crucial of course. But, it seems strange that our political coverage operates along separate paths – newspapers raise funds for Help for Heroes – while politicians debate equipment budgets and longterm strategy as if they are unconnected. Vocal opposition remains. Brian Haw’s camp on the doorstep of Parliament was a symbol of it. But he’s gone. And it remains possible for mainstream society to ignore this invisible war.
And day to day we have normalised the fear and the inconvenience – removing our shoes, and belts and bottles of water to go through endless security checks. Govenrments and civil liberties’ groups fight over control orders, “Prevent” anti-extremism programmes in our communities and breaking up bomb plots using fertilisers, and chemicals on airliners.
The self-infecting virus of Islamist radicalism, has forced us to confront the uncomfortable reality of ordinary people, dabbling in terrorist activity, inspired by newscoverage and what they can find online. There was the WH Smith shop assistant, who downloaded weapon making manuals off the internet and worked airside at Heathrow convicted of terrorism. Among the evidence — the Jihadist doggerel this self styled “Lyrical Terrorist” wrote on till rolls about beheading infidels. Her conviction was subsequently quashed on appeal. Only on Friday 9th, 54 year old Munir Farooqi, a Pakistani born British citizen was given 4 life sentences at Manchester Crown Court for radicalising and recruiting for jihad in Afghanistan.
In Oct 2007 the head of M15 Jonathan Evans told the Society of Editors conference of the 2,000 suspected plotters under surveillance. The dilemma for our security services was that success would be the absence of attacks, the deterrance of plots — something that doesn’t make news headlines. Indeed the Farooqi trial made only the inside pages of the newspapers today.
Chris Morris’ masterful Four Lions – recognised the inexplicability and the frightening stupid cruelty of the mass murder of 9/11 and 7/7. He spent weeks in the Old Bailey watching terrorist plot trials as part of his research. It’s the film that should have won the BAFTA when the Academy chose to wallow in more comfortable nostalgia with The King’s Speech.
He, together with the Glaswegian airport worker, John Smeaton, who had a go at one of the terrorist attackers who rammed into the terminal building, reminded us all of a deeper and better truth – a connection, perhaps to the Blitz spirit of the Second World War and the subversive Ealing Comedies that followed. Perhaps time is returning to normal, but without the satisfying arc of invasion, counter attack and decisive victory. Perhaps the smartest thing is indeed, to keep calm and carry on.
Further reading: The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi (Immaculately researched and sourced analysis of 9/11 news coverage and its parallels with the Frontier War against American Indians)
Tony Blair BBC interview from the Today programme 10th Sept: The 27 minute full interview is really worth listening to.
Them by Jon Ronson (Travels with extremists and global conspiracy theorists)