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Larry Donnelly: 9-11 sparked a global war on terror that ended with American isolationism

Our columnist looks back at the events of September 11 and the impact that day on the world.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

DESPITE ALL THAT has taken place in the lives of those of us who watched the horrific events unfold in Manhattan on 11 September 2001, the two decades since have flown by in a blur. What brings it home most for me is that I now teach university students who weren’t born on 9/11.

One of the striking things as an American, when I cast my mind’s eye back to that long ago Tuesday, is that I was then a very recent arrival in Ireland and on the campus of NUI Galway.

I was totally preoccupied with learning the ropes in a new job and a new, albeit familiar, country when a colleague told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I immediately presumed it must have been a tiny aircraft that lost its way and sought to get on with my work.

In the following minutes, however, it became apparent that happenings immensely more dastardly were in progress and I retreated to the bed and breakfast I was temporarily staying in where I endeavoured to absorb the unfathomable. The common theme in the media coverage, in the wake of an unprecedented attack on American soil, was that “this changes everything.”

All was changed

And the commentators were correct. By way of personal anecdote, I experienced the extent of the impact 9/11 had on my first trip back to Boston a few months later. I was invited to my former law firm’s Christmas party, which was being held at a restaurant on the top floor of a downtown high-rise. I was in and out of these buildings routinely both as a law student and during my brief stint in law practice.

As such, I strolled into the large lobby wearing a suit and, after nodding casually to the individual behind the front desk, strolled over to the elevator. I then heard a loud voice – “HEY, YOU, STOP!” I didn’t think he could have been talking to me and waited without turning for the elevator to arrive. Two large men then emerged from a side room and interrogated what I was doing.

Post-9/11, the oft-ignored rule that guests should sign-in was being strictly enforced. Moreover, identification was required. I explained that I had been out of the country and was unaware of the stringent regulations for entry. Begrudgingly and somewhat disbelievingly, the two men let me proceed after I complied. Still rather shook, I recall thinking as the elevator went up: “Wow, this really is different.”

Examining developments more broadly in the intervening period mandates initially revisiting a temporarily stunned New York. On 14 September 2001, as he stood in the midst of the wreckage, clasped his arm around a firefighter and was surrounded by a crowd of first responders chanting “USA!” repeatedly, President George W Bush exclaimed to rapturous applause that “I hear you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon!”

Unleashing unholy war

Americans, understandably in my estimation, yearned for revenge against the evildoers who murdered thousands of their fellow citizens. Yet although the US quickly determined that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network were behind the hijacking of the airline jets that flew into the twin towers and the Pentagon, President Bush decided by 20 September that the mission would be bigger – that there would be a global “war on terror” waged.

This ill-defined and hence open-ended war was much desired by the neo-conservative movement and elements of the military-industrial complex. The former was animated by the notion espoused by some right-wing intellectuals that America had a duty to be the world’s policeman and to export American-style democracy to every corner of the planet. For whether these far-flung women and men knew it or not, they truly wanted and needed this type of governance which, regardless of its flaws, is the best there is.

And it is not excessively glib or conspiratorial to point to the fact that the latter could count on enormous profits into the future from the sales of the inordinately expensive weapons of war and the huge resources that were poured into the heightened provision of domestic security. The bottom line is that $8 trillion has been spent since 9/11.

The US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Going into Iraq was justified by the Bush administration on the basis that Saddam Hussein’s regime had “weapons of mass destruction.” The purpose of the war in Afghanistan, concluded chaotically in Kabul last month, was to “get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again” in the words of President Joe Biden.

There were no such weapons in Iraq. Even the late Senator John McCain, a hawk’s hawk, ultimately acknowledged it was a mistake. And if the war in Afghanistan had two objectives and America was not there to nation-build, why was the US in situ 10 years after it had accomplished its alleged goals? Falsehoods abound in this milieu – and the consequences of the “war on terror” have been devastating.

Two of these are especially pronounced. First is that any moral authority the country of my birth retained at the dawn of this century was squandered. The world stood with America on 9/11; that support has eroded rapidly and drastically.

A changed America

Second is the rise of isolationism in the US. Americans have witnessed young soldiers come back in body bags and with physical or emotional wounds that will never heal. They have seen many thousands in the Middle East killed and tens of millions displaced as a result of interventions. They also know that old allies increasingly view what our civic religion teaches us is a “shining city on a hill” with scepticism and as a threat to international stability.

The ascendant philosophy, if you can call it that, is “we’re taking our ball and coming home.” America First, in other words. That sentiment – which engendered the presidency of Donald Trump and now leads President Biden to disappoint the oldest, dearest friends of the US – can be traced back in an admittedly crooked line to 9/11 and, specifically, to the largely regrettable course of action that was embarked upon in response to it.

The infamous date’s geopolitical legacy has proved complex, incongruous and profound. Indeed, everything has changed, utterly, and not for the better. Putting aside that unfortunate reality just for today, and notwithstanding the quite detached lens through which lots of Irish people see America in 2021, it is simultaneously important and comforting from my perspective to see 9/11 widely and solemnly remembered here.

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Several times this week I have heard the voices of the survivors of the victims of a barbaric atrocity. It is incredibly moving to listen to them. Twenty years may have passed, but those lost on 9/11 are clearly missed as much as ever by the people who loved them. May they continue to rest in peace and never be forgotten.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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