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Utilising The Tragedy

by Joshua Hergesheimer  (13th September 2006)

It sometimes feels like there is nothing that can be said about September 11 that has not already been said before.

Every newspaper, every magazine, every news broadcast, internet website and talk show seems to have breached the 9/11 saturation point and yet carries on.

Waves upon waves of soundbite-sized sentiment wash over viewers who have become not only virtual participants in the 9/11 drama but also virtual audiences for those who wish to appropriate that day and its attendant emotions for themselves.

As the five-year anniversary concludes with floral wreaths, teary-eyed speeches and commemoration ceremonies, Bush, Cheney and others in the administration have once again cited September 11.

They have done so with good reason – because, by now, they have no other choice. They have utilised 9/11 repeatedly over the last five years, not only to justify almost every major policy decision undertaken since September 12, 2001, but to make all those decisions seem self-evident, natural or obvious.

All-encompassing war

The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the existence of detention facilities like Guantanamo Bay, bombings in Madrid, London, Bali, Dahab, the shelling of Gaza and the flattening of Lebanon ... all these are classified under the rubric of a singular War on Terror – a never-ending and all-encompassing conflict that, we are told, could last lifetimes.

This need to constantly refer back to 9/11 has become a central part of the Bush administration's strategy. Connecting the emotions of the population to the exploits of US troops abroad – exploits undertaken with the stated purpose of making Americans safer – has become a cornerstone of Bush's political livelihood, the idea being that people who are proud of their Commander-in-Chief's commitment to their safety do not usually change leaders.

If that tactic fails, alter the rhetoric slightly. Play up the idea that terrorists are out there, plotting away, since scared people do not usually change leaders.

The end result is a truly bizarre concoction of triumphant success mixed with endless foreboding. "Make no mistake," we can imagine the words echoing, "America is winning its war against the terrorists.

But ... it is not safe enough to let our guard down. To close Guantanamo or to even contemplate withdrawal from Iraq is too dangerous to consider. We must prevail by all means necessary, even if those measures seem paradoxically at times to be putting us at greater risk."

Risks obvious

However, the risks of employing this tactic are obvious. By relying so heavily on cultivating this connection between tragedy at home and combat overseas, and by staking all the claims of the last five years on the memories of that single day, the president and his advisers must constantly increase the dosage, repeatedly invoking the horrors of 9/11 to assuage doubts and calm fears.

As scepticism builds up on the home front, fuelled by ever-increasing numbers of American soldiers returning home in body bags or wheelchairs from a conflict that cannot be won, against an enemy that seems to be everywhere at all times and only getting stronger, Bush only has two cards left to play: the tragedy of the past or the fear of the future. Both are now irrevocably anchored in 9/11.

But as much as they would like, the Bush administration cannot claim 9/11 for themselves. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have also appropriated 9/11 and its aftermath.

The day that 19 men breached American security and flew American planes into American buildings, the day that American media and global connectivity beamed images of the smouldering wreckage around the world in minutes – this was the day that America as a symbol of power was violated. No one, not even the world's military giant, was invincible.

This symbol was not lost on the rest of the world, especially in areas chafing under what is perceived as American-sponsored oppression.

Propaganda epitome

But while 9/11 has been seen by some as the epitome of al-Qaeda propaganda, in actuality it was the events that followed 9/11 that have made a name for al-Qaeda in ways its strategists could never have predicted – nor even dreamed possible.

Ironically, though America was able to garner the goodwill of the world and gather support for its ambitions precisely because of the visual resonance of the attacks of 9/11, today the situation has almost paradoxically been completely reversed, with Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri being the ones who profit from almost every image broadcast since 9/11.

It began almost imperceptibly. In the days, weeks and even months following September 11, America had a virtual monopoly on suffering because the images of 9/11 were ever-present.

But slowly, the visual landscape began to shift. Despite sanitised mainstream American media coverage, other news networks didn't shy away from confronting head-on the horrors of being on the receiving end of America's "fight for freedom".

Many Americans didn't want to see images of mangled bodies in the rubble of destroyed buildings. After all, it was Americans who died in the World Trade Centre, and it was American lives the world needed to remember as they witnessed the benevolent work of US troops liberating countries from tyrannical rule, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq.

Ultimate goal

Images of women and children caked in blood and dirt only served to distract people - read Americans - from the ultimate goal of peace and prosperity for the rest of the world.

If some people - read non-Americans - had to die in the process, it was tragic but necessary, since a new world was being made, and America was making it.

Two images changed all that. The photos of smoke pouring from the Twin Towers, which had been used to elicit unquestioning support and loyalty for Bush’s policies, were radically undermined. In both cases, the ultimately irony was that it was American actions that made the images so powerful – and so damning.

The images of orange jumpsuit-clad inmates at Guantanamo Bay must have evoked joyous celebration from those affiliated with al-Qaeda: the Land of Freedom was locking people up without trial, without legal representation, without adequate protection from mistreatment. No recruiting pamphlets were necessary; America was doing al-Qaeda's work for them.

But if inmates at Guantanamo Bay were the images that America did not want to the world to see, then the shocking photos depicting torture, inhuman treatment and abuse at Abu Ghraib were the nail in the coffin.

America's monopoly on suffering was over. To be brutalised, tortured, stripped of dignity and humanity, as the prisoners of Abu Ghraib were, was an abomination – even to American viewers who may have previously lent their full support to Bush and the invasion of Iraq. To al-Qaeda, it was like unearthing pure gold.

This is how the world changed after September 11. Five years on, we live in a world where people remain locked up indefinitely without trial, a world where people are tortured and abused in the name of "freedom". Where people are kidnapped off the streets and disappear into secret jails.

Changed threat

Importantly, five years on, the nature of the threat facing Western countries has changed beyond all recognition. Pre-9/11, we faced threats from organised cells bent on causing destruction, but at least intelligence services had the ability to keep known suspects under surveillance.

Now we face threats from homegrown radicals who, having been inspired by al-Qaeda as a global resistance movement, are only too willing to board subway trains and kill their fellow citizens.

America had a unique opportunity after 9/11 to make the world a better place. The outpouring of goodwill from around the world was unprecedented. It is all the more tragic that such goodwill has been replaced by so much mistrust, anger and resentment.

One thing is certain: five years on, any monopoly on suffering America still believes its has – though undoubtedly bolstered by 9/11 commemorations, news broadcasts and television programmes – now belongs to the distant past.

Joshua Hergesheimer is a Canadian freelance columnist based in the UK. His writing focuses on the implications of political violence in contemporary society.

from Aljazeera

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revised 14 September 2005