Ronald Cass: Interpreting the targets of terror

From the Royal Geographical Society lecture given by the Boston University professor, in London
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Americans woke on 12 September 2001 to a world that was profoundly different from the world we knew on 10 September. The events of 11 September produced one of the largest losses of life on a single day in American history. The only bloodier day in American history was 17 September 1862, when more than 3,600 Americans died on the fields of Antietam during our fratricidal Civil War.

So why did the terrorists attack? What were they after? What goals were served by these atrocities? The answers to these questions are found in the identity of the targets. From what we know, there were three targets for the attacks.

One was the Pentagon, the largest government building in the United States, home to the major offices of our Department of Defence. The second target was the World Trade Centre, with its twin towers that dominated the skyline in New York. These towers were the largest buildings in the largest commercial centre in the nation, the epicentre of American commerce, symbol of American economic might and engineering attainment. Even more fitting, these towers and that complex were the symbol of our economic engagement with the world and, as such, of special importance to those outside the United States who are concerned with our economic performance.

Finally, investigators have determined that the target for United Flight 93 was another Washington, DC landmark: the United States Capitol building, home to the US Congress, an icon of democratic self-government.

This, then, is the trinity of the terrorists' obsession: the symbols of American military might, of American economic achievement, and of American political legitimacy.