The 9/11 Legacy

James Denselow
James Denselow

Next week marks the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that set off a chain of events that would change and shape the modern world. The direct actions of 19 individuals have perhaps never been so impactful on the lives of so many millions. The anniversary itself will be a huge moment of reflection across three concentric circles of those affected by the events; the first circle is the most intimate those who lost friends and families on the day. The second circle is what the attacks did for the wider American public’s psyche and its body politic. The final and widest circle is those affected by the subsequent American foreign policy decisions of the past twenty years.

Unsurprisingly the first circle is where there is most focus. All the stories of those who lost their lives or loved ones have an essential humanity that it is impossible to escape. Now a generation on we see the images of small children with the parents they never got to know who are grown up and can reflect on the lives that could have been lived. So many of the stories are around small life moments and decisions that could have changed everything. A train that was missed, a decision to call in sick or to run errands that saved a life. United 93, for example, the flight where the passengers fought back causing it to crash into a field, was initially delayed allowing those on board to hear what had happened to the Twin Towers and take action.

Documentary makers have had the time and license to interview and get full honest reflections from the key players in the UK Government. Former President Bush explained to the BBC how when being told by aides that America was under attack, he decided to continue reading stories to children not to panic them whilst gathering his thoughts. His movements on that day are a reminder of the chaos and fear that gripped the country that day. The President was on a defenceless Air Force One worried that he was going to be targeted whilst Americans fled their offices in Washington terrified that any aircraft above may be about to crash into them.

In terms of the second circle – everyone knows where they were on 9/11. Listening to oral histories they often start with the weather. People remember the surprisingly hot September morning, the clear blue sky that would contrast so devastatingly with the all-enveloping dust that would cover the New York a few hours later. Bush administration officials would reflect that he was a relatively new President who was focused on a domestic agenda. 9/11 would take him in an entirely different direction and it is in American foreign policy that the largest numbers of people were affected by that single day.

Without 9/11 it is inconceivable that the US would have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Would the Taliban have remained in power in Kabul and Saddam Hussein in Iraq? It is hard to see an alternative at least in the short term. Instead, the ‘War on Terror’ was launched and has metastasised over time with vast cost and consequence. Brown University’s Costs of War project reveals the cost since September 11, 2001 exceeds $8 trillion and that wars have directly killed an estimated 897,000 to 929,000 people.

Former President Bush defended his decisions arguing that there hasn’t been a major attack on the US homeland since 9/11. Yet the original ‘Bush Doctrine’ was set out against States that support or harbour terrorist groups. Today the Taliban is back in power in Kabul and the central Middle East is still recovering from the territorial ambitions of ISIS, arguably the most resourced and dangerous terrorist entity of the modern age. America no longer has the ambitions to ensure that ungoverned parts of the world can’t be used by terrorist entities. Yet it has subsequently developed the means of remote warfare to conduct surveillance with lethal options in the forms of drones that give it a standoff presence in all corners of the planet.

The moment of 9/11’s twentieth anniversary will understandably focus on the most immediate circle of those have been affected, yet it is non-Americans who represent the single largest cohort of those whose lives were changed by what followed the attack and their voices are marginalised at these moments of remembrance.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,