Mark Steel: The year revolved around a day when nothing changed

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The Independent Online

Almost every review of the year in every publication will agree on one thing, that 11 September changed everything. The Women's Institute yearbook will probably start by insisting that from then on, pickling onions would never be the same again. The quarterly journal for aquarium enthusiasts has, I would guess, an editorial that goes: "After that day, we all looked at our tropical fish in a different light. For if those two apparently impregnable structures could be so easily toppled, how vulnerable were our delicate angel fish, let alone those tiny purple ones?"

Certainly that day's events were extraordinary and morbidly spectacular. And didn't the news channels know it? Over and over and over again they showed it to us, from every imaginable angle, as if it were a classic goal in a football match, and you wondered whether Andy Gray would start drawing arrows on the screen, saying, "With Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers, you just can't afford to give them that amount of room."

Something else that can't be disputed is that everything since then has been blamed on that day. Almost immediately, the international airline industry announced thousands of redundancies. No one flying any more, apparently, so what else could they do? But then redundancies started flowing by the day; most recently 13,000 at British Telecom and 30,000 at Consignia. Yet it's often implied that this slowing-down of the world economy is also a result of 11 September. Are people too frightened to make phone calls? Or fearful that their local post box could be an al-Qa'ida target? The more logical explanation is that, as the Financial Times in October put it, "The terrorist attacks have had less impact than expected. Big business is reeling from the effects of a recession that most executives believe was already under way."

Similarly, the plights of two peace processes are often assumed to have been irreversibly shifted by the events of that day. But it's hard to imagine anyone in the Middle East saying, "Who'd have thought, at the start of the year, that it would end up with Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children, and Palestinians retaliating through suicide bombers?" The child-shooting season did result in an above-average tally of more than 200, while the safe homeland for Jews became the most dangerous place in the world to be Jewish. But that process was in motion from the moment that Ariel Sharon ditched the peace accord, more than a year ago. That process was always flawed; with the promise of a fun-sized Palestine that would, in the words of one Israeli Labour Party document, be "like Luxembourg; without might but with a flag and stamps". And presumably the national anthem would be: "It's 15 pence for second class, or 23 pence for first class, but obviously more for a parcel." But it offered hope that Sharon decided to extinguish.

In Ireland, the IRA's arms-dumping was seen to be a result of the attacks in New York, the common explanation being that now the Americans had experienced their own terrorism, they were no longer willing to finance terrorism in Ireland. Which seems a little unlikely; as if people who had been backing the IRA suddenly said: "My goodness, so that's what it's like when people are killed." While the hard-liners in the IRA were thinking: "Bloody bin Laden, this is the sort of thing that gets terrorism a bad name." It's more likely that the Catholic population senses a mellowing of the discrimination that fuelled the conflict in the first place. So the peace process stumbles from one crisis to another, but after each stage it staggers forward because the enthusiasm for armed struggle has slowed to a trickle. If the Government shot 200 children, that enthusiasm would probably return.

The movement against globalisation reached its peak in Genoa, where 300,000 joined a protest, at which one Italian was shot dead. Over the past three months, several commentators and politicians have assured themselves that this movement has been brought to a halt by the attacks in New York. Which would be strange, when typical of the issues that motivated the protests was that of certain pharmaceutical companies withholding drugs from Aids sufferers in South Africa, for pricing and patent reasons. Or the involvement of the construction firm Balfour Beatty in building a dam that would displace around 80,000 Kurds. In both cases, a sustained international campaign forced the multinationals to retreat.

Far from disappearing, the anti-globalisation campaign in some ways set the world agenda. Tony Blair made a speech that sounded in part as if he were bidding for leadership of the protest movement, singing of the joys of diversity, and aiming to eradicate poverty and injustice across the globe. If anyone believed he meant all this, perhaps Labour would have been re-elected on something other than the lowest turnout ever by the least enthusiastic voters ever, representing the triumph of soullessness, a world historic defeat for passion. The vacant success New Labour enjoyed this year is the political equivalent of the success of Hear'Say, the most popular cultural act of the year. The pair of them, along with divvy electric scooters, are surely destined to appear one day on a nostalgic I Love 2001 programme, with everyone saying, "What the hell did anyone ever see in them?"

When the war against terrorism began, even George Bush's personality was deemed to have undergone a magical transformation. Before, he was derided as an incompetent Reagan without the charm. But from 11 September onward he was hailed as an inspiring statesman and a great orator. Yet there were the same strange pauses between words, the same unsettling semi-smirk. So it was fitting that much could be told about the man, just as before, by his attitude towards the President of Pakistan. Bush had famously answered the question, "What is his name?" with, "Er... General someone." Now General someone was one of his most crucial allies. And, to be fair to George, the bit he'd remembered about his name was the most vital part. For the general whose support was essential in this war for civilisation came to power by using the military to overthrow an elected government. So, if there was one thing this man couldn't abide, it was people who use violence for political ends.

By the middle of December, a US professor, Marc Herold, who investigated every alleged incident of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, could announce that the figure had reached 3,767 – more than the number killed in the World Trade Centre. It would be nice to think that someone had marked the moment the number overtook the New York figure. The year would be more, sort of, complete if when the news had come in that another shepherd had been frazzled somewhere, taking the number of Afghan fatalities to a winning total, Donald Rumsfeld shouted, "Bingo," or, "House" – to commemorate the year that revolved around 11 September, the day that nothing much changed.

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