Almost every newspaper in the world today is devoting editorials, pages and even special supplements to that infamous event exactly five years ago. There are stories about survivors and families of victims; investigations as to who in the US Government did and didn’t do what to prevent such a catastrophe in the years leading up to the event; articles about whether or not the world is a safer place now than five years ago; background stories on the still little- understood Muslim world; opinion pages calling for strategy change in Iraq and Afghanistan where the war against terrorism produces more extremism.
As I write these words, my own secular daily paper lands on the floor, carrying the front-page headline: ‘9/11’ brings Americans closer to God. The reporter visited seven churches in the heart of Manhattan on Saturday and Sunday and discovered them ‘filled with people for whom 9/11 was too overwhelming without God. They seek comfort, reassurance, relief from pain: if the religiosity of the US was visible anywhere, then it was this weekend in Manhattan.’
All of us can remember exactly where we were at the time we watched- in real time or in replay-the planes fly into the towers. Those horrific moments are permanently imprinted on our memories; along with the unbelievable images of two of the biggest-ever man-made constructions crumbling like sandcastles before a stunned global audience, crushing nearly 3000 people. Instantly, we all felt what was repeatedly said and written in the days to follow: the world would never be the same again.
Osama’s spectacular PR stunt stunned the world, thanks to the globalisation of media. Shockwaves circled the globe at the speed of light. Never before had so many witnessed the deaths of so many live on television. Never had such innocent ‘weapons’-commercial aircraft- been used so lethally. Never had the world been able to watch live such a spectacular and totally unexpected annihilation of such a familiar landmark. (Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and were much bigger in scope of damage and in numbers of victims, but only a few airmen had ringside seats to those dramatic events). And never had America’s vulnerability been so publicly exposed.
All these factors combined to produce one traumatic shared experience for the inhabitants of our global village. In many ways our lives have been permanently affected by ‘9/11’. We have come to accept long lines at airport security checks. Visas for non-westerners to the western world have become much more difficult to obtain. Books and study courses on Islam have mushroomed. Politics in Europe has been profoundly impacted by this event and its consequences. For Tony Blair, it is proving to be the beginning of his end. ‘9/11’-inspired terrorism swung the elections in Spain. Two political murders in Holland and the unexpected rise to power of the current prime minister can also be traced directly to that day five years ago.
America, united in grief on the day itself, is now more divided than ever. Mistrust, suspicion and cynicism has mounted with each new revelation: about WMD’s, Abu Graib, Guant√†namo Bay and secret CIA interrogation prisons in Europe. The atmosphere is ripe for conspiracy theories; nearly one in three Americans suspect their president and government was somehow involved in this tragedy. Trust in the military might of the world’s only superpower to solve complex religious and political issues has simply evaporated, even among four-star US generals. Few expect attempts to install democracy through a war seen to be based on fraud to succeed.
Yet, for all the shock, ‘9/11’ hasn’t changed our world as much as we first thought. Stock markets recovered remarkably quickly. American foreign policy if anything only increased in belligerence, not direction. And just to get perspectives on the casualty figures, it helps to recall that on September 11, and on the 12th, and the 13th, and on every day since for five years, an average of 17,500 abortions has been carried out daily in the US; 10,000 American women have been assaulted and beaten, each day; 16,000 children died from starvation globally each day; 14,400 people were infected with HIV/AIDS on that day and every day since; 8200 women died from gender-based violence and neglect daily around the world; and 2700 children were forced into prostitution daily.
Yes, the threat from radical fundamentalist Muslims is real and present, both to America and to Europe. Yet it may not be the greatest one. In Europe I suspect there is a spiritual challenge that is more subtle and winsome, quietly eroding our foundations while a boisterous radical Islam holds our attention. I’ll write about that next week.