On the morning of 9/11 my late wife Anne was working in Leinster House as a parliamentary personal assistant. She rang me to tell me to turn on the television. She had an intern from New York working with her. As the Twin Towers collapsed on global television, the intern was devastated, not knowing whether any of her family or friends were among the 3,000 people murdered. Many of the mourning families will never see the bodies of their loved ones.
The atrocity had as big an impact on Anne and me as it did on millions around the world. Even though we had campaigned against terrorism in Northern Ireland, an attack three thousand miles away seemed as real as anything we had faced at home. We did not know exactly how, but we knew that this atrocity would dramatically change global politics. And it did, as the US invasion of Iraq was followed by the rise of ISIS and more.
9/11 was far from the world’s first religiously-inspired political atrocity. Christians were responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisitions and witch trials; the European wars between Catholics and Protestants; and the genocide of Native Americans. Islamists were responsible for conquests of the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Spain. The Mayas, Incas and Aztecs sacrificed people, including children, to their gods. The Holocaust of the Jews is within living memory.
So what gave 9/11 so much impact, apart from its recency? One factor was that it was broadcast on television. That made it much more real in the minds of a media-driven generation. Also, it happened on Western soil. That gave it countless times the impact in the West than a more recent atrocity, in which ISIS murdered 1,700 unarmed Shia and non-Muslim army cadets at Camp Speicher in Iraq in 2014.
9/11 happened soon after the Internet began its growth to ubiquity. The world could discuss the atrocity beyond geographical boundaries. Crank websites with the illusion of authority spread conspiracy theories, feeding into the ‘post-truth’ politics of today. The ‘war on terror’ became a real-life soap opera, with people staying up late to watch the invasion of Iraq on television and online. ISIS would later use the Internet to spread videos of them beheading captives.
9/11 happened during a period of political instability in USA, with the melodrama of the attempts to impeach President Clinton, followed by a Presidential election in which the validity of George Bush’s victory over Al Gore was strongly contested. 9/11 marked a turning point that allowed many Americans to stand together. By today’s standards, those divisions seem almost quaint, but a politically unstable State is always a tempting target for terrorists.
Today the United States and the United Kingdom are even more politically unstable than the US was eighteen years ago. Donald Trump and Brexit have caused deep divisions and mutual mistrust within both countries. The UK in particular is in the midst of what has become a constitutional crisis. In recent years there have been terrorist attacks in several Western States, by Islamist and national domestic terrorists.
In this atmosphere, democratic intelligence and security agencies from every State must work together to identify and quash future terrorist threats. We as democratic citizens and immigrants must not allow extremists to prevent us from living together as equals. And democratic States must react to terrorism in ways that protect us as people, without feeding more terrorism by destroying democracy in order to save it.