Monday 24 October 2016

Shock and awe of 9/11 are still with us as US on brink again

Published 10/09/2013 | 05:00

The World Trade Centre in flames on September 11, 2001
The World Trade Centre in flames on September 11, 2001

Tomorrow is the 12th anniversary of 9/11, the events that changed America forever and began a new narrative in world affairs which is still playing out.

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A dramatic cast of characters has loomed large in the 'perpetual Somme' waged since then. Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida; the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi are gone or vanquished.

The 'Arab Spring', ostensibly a popular revolution against despotic regimes has been a mixed blessing with uncertain outcomes. Egypt is in turmoil. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons on August 21 against civilians and armed opposition forces, and the potential response of western powers, is just the latest episode in a long-running saga flowing from that terrible day.

The unprovoked indiscriminate attack on civilian targets by suicide terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon has been transformative.

Not only did more than 3,000 innocent people perish either in the planes or on the ground but hundreds of thousands more have died in military responses to 9/11. The truth is the world is still reacting to the events of that day 12 years on.

Last week I watched a compelling documentary, '102 Minutes That Changed America', on Channel 4. It was a collage of amateur film footage taken by eyewitnesses on that sunny September morning in New York city.

It simply recorded, visually and aurally, the chaotic events as they unfolded from handheld cameras and phones. It was compelling television, capturing the terror and shock of ordinary people.

Most of us can remember exactly where we were when the planes hit the towers. In an incredible coincidence, I was, as minister, hosting lunch in Iveagh House for the newly appointed American ambassador to Ireland and US envoy and diplomat Dr Richard Haass, on his way at the time to Belfast for meetings on the peace process.

Ironically, he is imminently set to chair all-party talks in Northern Ireland later this month to seek resolution and agreement on outstanding issues relating to flags, emblems and 'the past'.

So, 12 years later, Dr Haass finds himself back in Ireland picking over the remains of the peace process in the North. Such is the protracted nature of diplomatic endeavours to end conflict.

As the sun shone through the grand windows of Iveagh House, the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Dermot Gallagher, was briefing our American guests. Suddenly, a young diplomat entered the dining room wheeling a television, which was highly irregular.

Whispers were exchanged with Mr Gallagher. He turned white and consented to the television being switched on. The now iconic image of a smoking tower with a gaping hole in its side flickered on the screen. Somewhat chaotic commentary suggested reports of a plane crashing into the building, apparently an appalling accident.

The elegant luncheon was abandoned as the Ambassador phoned home from my private office.

He was a businessman and Republican supporter, not a career diplomat. He looked desolate. It was his misfortune to be ambassador at the worst moment in modern US history. He was later to be overwhelmed by the reaction in Ireland, including a national day of mourning.

Dr Haass was ashen but totally calm and professional. As policy expert and adviser to the State Department on the Middle East, I expect he sensed it was no accident. His expression was doom-laden.

He dismissed firmly my suggestion he might wish to change his programme, which included a meeting with the Taoiseach directly after lunch en route to Belfast. By the time he reached the Taoiseach's office the second plane had crashed into the south tower and there was no longer any doubt but that terror had been visited on the United States like never before.

US and world politics has changed since September 11, 2001. The so-called war against terror embarked upon by the Bush administration post-9/11 has in some ways been successful in toppling oppressive regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq but those interventions have been bloody, complex and not conclusively completed to any degree of political stability.

In the course of the pursuit of retribution for 9/11 the US abandoned many long-held human rights standards, best represented by Guantanamo Bay and the use of torture including waterboarding.

Arguably this was required in the national interest and to protect American lives and, ultimately, to capture and kill Bin Laden. President Obama has since outlawed such measures.

As America stands on the brink of military strikes once more, it is clear that the passing of years makes no difference; 9/11 is not consigned to history. We are, all of us, still gaping at the TV screens, stuck in the moment, in shock and awe.

Irish Independent

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