The Fifteenth September 11

The Council on Foreign Relations convened a panel of experts to review what the 15 years since September 11, 2001 have brought — besides what they are now calling the “Forever War.”  There is the temptation to regard the years since as bootless — 15 years of strategic defeat, dishonesty and humiliation, as Newt Gingrich put it — but there is no denying they have also served an an extended period of recon by fire.  We know more, if nothing else. The failures and success in those 15 years have revealed power arrangements the public never knew existed.


America began that autumn day in a state of innocence.  The man in the street knew next to nothing about the Middle East or Islam, subjects about which he since learned a great deal (both the good and the bad). The average commuter took for granted the idea that governments would loyally represent their population. He has since discovered the extent to which that is and is not true. Citizens bought the papers and thought they told them something.  Now they understand the limits of that.  And the public did not know its own heart.  It has since searched its corners, both and good and evil.

In a word, we know where we are.  That is why this Sept 11 feels different from every one since the first.

Events since September 11 showed that the globalized world is unwilling to resolve conflicts involving major financial and economic factors by responding with conventional military and diplomatic instruments. Even a challenge like September 11 would be ignored if it were bad for business. Any attempts to resort to these methods will be vetoed.

The end of the Bush era marked the rejection of these former methods and with them signaled the apparent decline of national action, indeed of the nation state.  In its place would stand the transnational institutions. In that sense Bush was the “last president” in the old mold, just as Obama was to be the first of the new, one of a different type; a perfect representative of the successor order, a child of the world with no particular loyalties except to some vague arc of history.


The Obama era was an attempt to supersede the old methods with a system where only negotiations between the power elites were permissible to resolve problems. That was the theory at least. Unfortunately this method too is failing. It has failed to secure the future of the EU. It has failed to secure the Middle East, even the safety and existence of Saudi Arabia. It threatens to fail catastrophically in Asia. It has failed everywhere.  It did not restore the anticipated stability.  All  it gave us was the Forever War.

Now, as the Obama era ends, it is apparent that the exhausted system is wholly out of ideas. It is an impotent failure which can prevent neither another future September 11,2001 nor indeed a future September 1, 1939. The press denies this, but the public has learned about the press.  The last 15 years have not been wholly without result.

The publics of the world are now subconsciously aware that peril is near to them and are reacting by attempting to partially dismantle the globalized world as manifested by the Brexit and Trumpism. They are doing this because the ordinary person realizes far more astutely than the purblind political class that the current arrangements are much more fragile than described and are retreating to older forms in an attempt to survive.  They know, even if their rulers do not, that the storm is not over; far from it.  They are battening down the hatches against the gale which must come.


Whether or not they succeed remains to be seen but at least they will try unlike sophisticates who insist that there is no way back and are resigned to the consequences come what may.  In times past those assurances may have swayed the public, but cultural and political elites have been wrong for so much this last decade and a half they may well be wrong about the future too.

On this September 11, Ground Zero has become Square One.  The Twin Towers that rose once so proudly are distant memories now.  But perhaps they have broken their silence at last, for memory has a way of speaking belatedly, as T.S. Eliot once observed, and those who would must listen.

Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire. …

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate …

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

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