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The 11th  September, twenty years later

HE 11TH  SEPTEMBER, TWENTY YEARS LATERI take the bi-monthly issues of two Portuguese magazines devoted to history.  One is called Visão História, and the other Journal de Notícias História. Below is an opinion piece by José Pedro Teixeira Fernandes, published in the August issue of Journal de Notícias História.

The main article in the August issue is about death, pantheons and ossuaries (one of which is in the Igreja do Carmo in Faro).  Other pieces in this issue are about Joan of Arc and Artur Virgílio Alves Reis.  Alves Reis was a criminal of the highest order; he tricked a London printer into believing that he was making a legitimate order by the Bank of Portugal for banknotes, and got away with suitcases filled with banknotes correctly printed, but falsely ordered, and numbered in duplicate.  He was rumbled only after a specific investigation:  by chance a bank clerk found that he had in his hand two bank notes for 500 escudos and the individual numbers on the two notes were identical.  The Article bears the title, Alves Reis O falsário que sonhava ser Napoleão (Alves Reis, the counterfeiter who dreamed of being Napoleon). He invites our admiration for his daring and for his imagination.  He was caught and convicted, emerging from prison only in 1945.

As an aside, my daily researches yesterday unearthed a strange fact which I share with you now.  The Great Earthquake of 1755 claimed the lives of many Portuguese in a highly stratified and religious society.  It was decided soon afterwards to hold a sort of public contest to decide which saint should intercede with the Almighty and therefore become the protector against earthquakes. During the campaign, there was much political and religious manoeuvring, particularly by the Jesuits of Coimbra University. The winner of this unlikely contest was St Francis Borgia (1510-1572), onetime Superior General of the Society of Jesus. St Francis Borgia was soon afterwards empowered, if that is the right word, or perhaps installed, at a ceremony attended by the king, D José, who was coincidentally his greatx4-grandson.  I think that there is no demonstrable connection between this saint and any earthquake, although the Roman Catholic churches as a whole recognises his position as the protector against earthquakes. 

The 11th  September, twenty years later
By José Pedro Teixeira Fernandes

The attacks in New York and Washington DC altered the course that the world appeared to be taking, and the distress of the west has become clear.  To a certain extent, the crisis in the liberal democracies is the natural outcome, the daughter of that fateful morning of 2001.

Up until today, the history of the twenty-first century is largely about the 11th September, 2001 (11/S) and about the chain of events unleashed by that outrage.  With the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington DC, Osama bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda broke in on world politics, provoking a major alteration in the course of events.  A decade beforehand, the USSR had disintegrated, and the Cold War, which had dominated world politics since 1945 faded peacefully into the background.  The decade of the 1990s appeared as the beginning of uninterrupted globalisation, of advances in liberal democracy, and of unrivalled US power.  With 11/S, that optimism suddenly drained away.  As well as the shock of the terrorist attack itself, there was also a profound intellectual shock.  Belief in the universal progress of human society was upset by a hideous act in the name of ideas and ideologies which are implausible in the modern world.  Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda were an impossibility coming from an archaic past.

The events subsequent to 11/S are not at all clear.  The US military intervention in Afghanistan (the longest war in US history) was the first and immediate consequence. It was a retaliation against the attacks, which had been planned and directed from Afghanistan by Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda.  They operated under the protection of the Taliban government, which had controlled the country since 1996 after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces. To overthrow the Taliban government, which had refused to hand over Osama bin-Laden, was the easy part.  But Afghanistan, where the population is split into multiple religious and ethnic groups, with no national identity and without any State structures, is ungovernable. We know that in 2021, and after more than 2300 deaths and more than 20 000 wounded, and a financial cost of nearly a trillion dollars, the US is pulling out of this swamp completely.  In the last few days, we have witnessed the chaos of the withdrawal from the country where it appears impossible to create a normal state.  But 11/S had showed that in the globalised world, a failed state is a problem not only for its own population, but also for the whole outside world.

The response to 11/S transformed international politics and international law.  In the UN, Resolution 1373 of the Security Council declared that international terrorism was a threat to peace and security.  In similar terms, later Resolutions cover: the criminalisation of certain behaviours as acts of terrorism; the criminalisation of the forms of financing terrorist networks; the protection of frontiers; the prevention of the improper use of the internet; and the ideological radicalisation of prisoners.  Yet the actions of the UN are less effective than they wish.  The superficial consensus of all states against terrorism hides the many ways in which the the UN uses the resolutions.  For example, the lack of any widely accepted definition of terrorism at the international level is a good indicator of the problem.  Authoritarian governments in particular use similar methods in order to legitimise actions against opposition figures, whether politicians, journalists or defenders of human rights.

Twenty years later, it appears clear that the main beneficiary of the new direction of events is China.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed to the shortening of the interval in which the US was the sole superpower after the collapse of the USSR.  And in concentrating attention on the war against terrorism, the US has diverted international attention away from the rise of China, its newest and biggest rival.  This diversion favoured the authoritarian regimes in general and China in particular, and the greatest losers have been the West/ USA and liberal democracy.  11/S and the following years revealed western weaknesses: security (through many attacks); serious financial and economic crises (particularly that of 2008); the retreat of liberal democracy; and the growing internal political polarisation of many societies.  The actual crisis of the liberal democracies is to a certain extent a by-product of the complex chain of events following 11/S.


In what respect is Afghanistan a failed state?  The rest of the world persists in treating this territory as if it claimed statehood exactly like the states of the rest of the world.  But what if the inhabitants of the geographical area we call Afghanistan do not want to live in a modern state called Afghanistan?  If they want to live in a rag-bag of interdependent warlord territories?  There are other states (the -stans) in Central Asia which do not have the same sense of statehood that we enjoy in the West.  It seems to me that they may look neat on the Western map, and appear to be fully fledged states, but act in an uncivilised way sub rosa.  The author states that Afghanistan is ungovernable, but the Taliban seems have no difficulty in governing this huge territory, nearly three times the size of the United Kingdom.

The Article suggests that in concentrating on the war against terror, the world has lost sight of other issues, such as the rise  of China as a superpower.  I find that viewpoint superficial, since we all know that China has been changing and growing; and that China has been investing heavily in the Belt and Road Initiative.  It is difficult to see how global affairs would have developed differently if the US had not been involved in Afghanistan. Alan Bennett in his History Boys referred to subjunctive history, a term borrowed from the grammar book, and denoting a hypothetical or contingent event. We cannot know what would have happened if NATO had not first invaded Afghanistan.  One real consequence may be that China will be further enthused and empowered in its bid to reclaim Taiwan for the People’s Republic.

There is a saying that in war, truth is often the first casualty.  Over the last twenty years, the credibility of Western governments has also suffered, and the similarly the belief of many western citizens in the good faith of their governments has also been damaged.  Fernandes writes of the shock at the outrage, and I believe that the shock was caused by the fact that the US intelligence network (the CIA has enormous reach) had allowed this attack to happen; and that the defence forces of the USA seemed at that moment to be looking the other way.  How had the world´s greatest superpower been caught napping on its own soil? 

I was at the time astonished that US intelligence so quickly identified the perpetrators of the outrages of 11/S.  And more than that, the steel structures of the two towers had collapsed under the impact, while the third tower, which collapsed as if it were the target of a demolition job, had not been impacted at all.  And on Ground Zero, molten steel abounded for some days afterwards.  There must be an acknowledged cause for these phenomena, but I have never yet found a satisfactory explanation.


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