The lessons we failed to learn from September 11

Only fools and Republican neo-cons believe the world today is a safer place than two years ago
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The Independent Online

This column is not an easy one for me. I write to reflect on September 11, because I feel I must, to balance the excesses and exaggerations, the merchandising of sorrow, the exhortations that will appear in our media at this time, and will doubtless be replicated in many other countries.

This column is not an easy one for me. I write to reflect on September 11, because I feel I must, to balance the excesses and exaggerations, the merchandising of sorrow, the exhortations that will appear in our media at this time, and will doubtless be replicated in many other countries.

This is the week when the world feels pressured to reassure America that it was more cruelly and unforgivably violated than any other nation, before or since. This is a travesty, a dreadful negation of all that anguish suffered by all those nations through recent history. By writing about the event close to the anniversary, I unavoidably place myself among the many who will be rushing to place their offerings on the table of American grief, which will not give way.

Nor will the poisonous hate of those Muslims (a small but chilling minority) who rejoiced when they heard of the attacks. On September 11 this week, some of them will remember the "Magnificent Nineteen" - the suicide bombers responsible for the mayhem. They are not alone in wanting to desecrate the memories of the people who died. An article by someone called Michael Santomauro (does anyone know who he is?) has been put on the internet. He feels no sympathy for the people who died because they were "typical Americans who never cared about the lies and destructive policies of US governments. So what? Who cares? Bomb them all. In God's eyes this generation of Americans will never be missed."

Two years on from those savage attacks which killed so many and assaulted the optimism that was the US's, have any really useful lessons been learnt by that country or its sworn enemies? Are we now more secure than we were? A resounding "No" to both questions.

Only fools and the Republican neo-cons today believe the world is a safer place than it was two years ago, or that its colossal arms and arrogance will protect the hyper-power from further attacks. Only fools and Islamic fascists still believe they can bring down the US to create a Muslim global haven .

The rest of us know only deep unease. Where is the self criticism, the honesty, the overhaul of politics and religion which should have followed September 11?

There was a moment when the waves of anguish, anger and unexpected vulnerability did make the US (all too briefly) think about the backdrop to this violence that came on a bright day, killing women, men, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, lovers, friends, of all backgrounds.

A few months ago Al Gore, reminded the US of that moment of self-interrogation which he rightly said was squandered. Incurable self-pity, vengefulness and aggression washed away the trembling sorrow and questions Americans were finally asking themselves and their vainglorious government. The legally dubious victory of George Bush Jnr et al ensured that such soul searching was swept off the stage of public discourse.

Today, apart from the usual chorus of honourable dissent - Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Edward Said - and others such as Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, the US is grimly reinforcing the worst aspects of its politics and culture, and stamping out all that made and makes that country admired by billions.

And right-wing groupies of the US still cannot see the truth. Just read Geoffrey Wheatcroft's absurd twitterings in this months Prospect. The left failed to support the official line; they didn't fall down on their knees to Ground Zero; they defended Islam and were guilty of "Western self-hatred". Even more worthless is the analysis of the sort propagated by the Princeton professor, Bernard Lewis, who still claims that September 11 was the most vile, the most wicked thing ever to have happened to a country which is only ever benign.

The land of so-called freedoms has spies in libraries, offices and neighbourhoods. Foreign nationals are held without charge, (numbers unknown, and we are doing this here, too) and deported to places they do not know. They can be Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, anyone swarthy. Nuns and parents of soldiers trying to reach anti-war demos are stopped from getting there.

Blatant cowardice has infected the most liberal of journalists, and partial stories are thrown out for the public to guzzle. For a nation which prides itself on always being suspicious of too much government, how do they let Mr Bush and co get away with so much? Some critics of Washington policy now claim that 11 countries warned Mr Bush about probable attacks on the US. Nothing was done about these. Where is the fury of the American people?

In his searingly courageous new book, What Next? the black American writer Walter Moseley asks the questions the US has stopped asking. Written for African-Americans (who have to deal with the confusion of having two of their own leading these policies of self destruction) he writes: "We know our nation's foreign policy is dedicated to imperialist gain, not the spread of democracy. If many everyday people in America know these things why can't they change the tide of world events? I want to argue against the powerful urge for us to dominate our enemies. I want to go beyond our fears and prejudices."

In order to do that the US will have to learn to value lives which are not American. It seems pathologically incapable of that kind of human empathy. It is awful that Americans are dying in Iraq for a foul war; but what about the 38,000 Iraqi civilians who have died, several more dying each day? These people have no names; they now don't even have numbers. Even the Red Cross is not given these figures.

Astonishingly, still, across the world people are torn between admiration for the US and resentment against its unchallenged power. A British Council survey in Muslim countries revealed both views were alive among the young. But time will kill the goodwill unless the US wises up.

No better news on the other front either. Yes, Muslims around the world did wake up to the fact that their faith was being corrupted by intolerance and fascism, and that they had to reclaim their religion. But we are finding ourselves more powerless than ever as these ideas ensnare our young.

Too many intelligent, educated Muslims, living in the West (like most of the hijackers) are withdrawing from the best that the West has given us. Some of us talk quietly about the need for a reformation, the transformations we need to thrive in modern times, our complicated allegiances which can never only be to Islam. But our vices are drowned out by the shrieks of the militants. Muslims, so long disconsolate, lacking in pride and strength are now in the grip of a sickness, ravaging minds and souls says Abdelwahab Meddeb, the French Tunisian poet, in his new book, Islam and its Discontents. September 11 has only made them more sick.

In that sense Osama bin Laden has won. He has created global chaos and much loathing; he has distorted the minds of Muslims and destabilised them; he has enabled the US to behave ever more monstrously.

Remember that as you watch the sentimental bunting which will be hung out on Thursday.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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