Gwynne Dyer

9/11 attacks didn’t change world forever

‘Changed the world forever’ is the most hackneyed phrase in journalism, and if you can get through this week (the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) without hearing it half a dozen times you’ll be very lucky.

It’s a nonsense phrase because various aspects of the world are changing constantly (technology, politics, fashion, and now climate too), while others change not at all (human nature, for example). But it does give us a handy tool for evaluating the real impact of those attacks on the world.

With the benefit of hindsight, how much has the world changed as a result of 9/11? There was virtually no lasting impact on Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, or East and South-East Asia, where even the phrase ‘9/11’ is meaningless to most people.

For Indians, it was just another terrorist attack, although a very large one. The country was already inured to terrorism: attacks by Pakistan-based Islamists and Kashmiri separatists, Sikh separatists, Naxalites and various other disgruntled groups in the decade before 2001 were killing 2,000-2,500 Indians every year.

In Europe, no year had gone by since the 1970s without terror attacks by extreme left-wing groups like the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof Gang or Palestinian operations like the Munich Olympics massacre, although Islamist activity pre-2001 was restricted to a few overflows from the Algerian civil war. No panic there.

Which leaves the ‘Greater Middle East’ (from the Arab world to Pakistan), the United States itself, and a few US hangers-on like the United Kingdom and Australia.

Most Arab regimes were (and still are) absolute monarchies or military dictatorships, and although they doubtless felt a little frisson of delight at seeing Americans on the receiving end for a change, their main concern was for themselves. Would this threaten their own survival?

The main domestic opposition in all of them was (mostly illegal) Islamic parties. Would Osama bin Laden’s spectacular attack radicalise those groups into full-blown Islamists with enough popular support to drive the existing regimes from power? That’s what bin Laden was hoping for, but it turned out that the support for Islamism was still too thin.

The only Arab leader to fall because of the attacks was the unfortunate Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who got invaded and killed by the Bush administration essentially because the invasion of Afghanistan had not slaked the American public’s thirst for revenge on somebody or other.

Saddam had nothing to do with the terrorists (and he didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction either), but he was a murderous dictator and Iraq paid the price. Pity about all the dead Iraqis and their wrecked country, but they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So there were really no big changes in the Arab world as a result of 9/11, and that goes for the rest of the Middle East too. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still the Supreme Leader of Iran, the army still really runs Pakistan (behind a civilian facade), and as of last month the Taliban are running Afghanistan again.

What’s left? Well, America’s NATO allies sent contingents of troops to Afghanistan for a while, and some to Iraq as well, mostly out of a sense that any failure to support the United States militarily now would be remembered in Washington if they ever needed American help in the future. Casualties were low and the commitment was superficial.

The only countries that did it with any enthusiasm, however, were the United Kingdom and Australia – in the former case because Prime Minister Tony Blair made it his personal mission, and in the latter case because the US alliance is the sum and substance of Australian defence policy. If the United States invaded Mars, Australia would send a battalion along.

Even in the United States itself, the damage was relatively modest: almost 3,000 civilian dead on the day, and another 6,800 military deaths in subsequent twenty years while a generation of American soldiers hunted down Iraqis and Afghans the vast majority of whom never posed any threat to the American homeland. They just didn’t like being invaded.

Any other costs? Well, around 900,000 people killed and eight trillion dollars wasted, according to a new report from the ‘Costs of War’ project at Brown University. But most of those deaths were just ‘collateral damage’, and the US military-industrial-academic complex would almost certainly have found other excuses for that scale of spending if 9/11 hadn’t happened.

Did the world change forever? No, it barely budged. 9/11 was a deliberate provocation and the United States fell for it hook, line and sinker, but it still didn’t produce any of the changes the perpetrators wanted – or any other big changes either.

The only lesson we can earn from it is that spectacular, terrible events are not necessarily the same as real changes. Indeed, they usually aren’t.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.