The Fruits of the Whirlwind

by Aleksandra Priestfield

September 17, 2001

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Barely two months ago I was in Manhattan, playing the tourist; I have a heap of photographs. One of them is a panoramic shot of the New York City skyline. Another is the Brooklyn Bridge with the World Trade Center towers in the background.

That photograph now reflects a world which no longer exists.

I have now seen it a dozen times, in TV replays, in still photos on webpage reports, eyewitness descriptions. It's still difficult to believe that what I saw was two commercial airliners fly into the New York landmark towers, that I saw them collapse and implode, that the skyline of the Manhattan that I saw simply isn't there any more.

America is in shock, and in mourning. Comparisons have been drawn with Pearl Harbor, but this is different, very different. Pearl Harbor was a military installation, and the targets were military - American warships. Any civilian casualties were "collateral damage" Americans have read about the concerted bombing of Europe (by Germans or by the Allies) or watched wartime newsreels about it; but never, until 11 September 2001, have American civilians been exposed to direct attack. And it is an experience many Americans are finding it hard to take in. Four hijacked aircraft used as flying bombs had a total of more than 200 souls aboard, all of whom lost their lives. And the casualties on the ground in New York City, in and around the World Trade Center at 8:45 in the morning just as people were starting their working day, have as yet no figure attached to them, but the preliminary estimates in the Pentagon alone reach as high as 800, and the New York authorities are reporting that only about 2000 people who were in the towers at the time of impact can be fully accounted for. A small city existed underneath the twin towers - banks, subway stations, fast food places, newspaper vendors. There may be survivors in the rubble down there, but it is unlikely that they will be found in time for rescue services to be of any help. The scale of the tragedy is appalling.

There are people out there talking about retaliation for this unprovoked attack, talking about war; but the "enemy" is a little nebulous at this point. It is understandable that the wounded country is roaring its outrage and screaming for retaliation; the immediate conclusion most have jumped to is that this is what Osama bin Laden, the "arch-terrorist" with whom America has danced this tango of death before, meant when he threatened large scale "terrorist" attacks against this country -- and the scale doesn't come much larger than this. But is it bin Laden? How does one prove his instigation of this atrocity, or even his complicity in it? And what when and if such involvement is proved? The USA has already attacked what it said were bin Laden bases in Afghanistan; with very little eventual success since their quarry was not in his lair when it was hit. Let America lash out at Afghanistan again, and watch the Taliban start a jihad of their own. Watch the Muslim world stand up and applaud. Watch America coming to its knees when the supply of oil starts drying up, or its price is driven so high that it will prove impossible to afford the fuel America needs for its jet fighters to keep flying, let alone the fuel for the vast domestic maw of private cars, public transport, and industry. Would America, COULD America, go to war with Saudi Arabia, with Kuwait, with every oil-rich nation in the world, and survive such a war?

And what if it wasn't bin Laden? The Muslim world is not the only one where America had meddled, and made enemies. What of a cabal of Colombian drug lords whose profits were being threatened by the US? There are any number of people out there with both the money and the grudges to justify their involvement in attacking the United States. The US may not have "provoked" this attack in any literal sense of the word, but it has been stepping on too many toes, pulling rank on too many people, and meddling in too many situations where it had no legitimate concerns for it to claim complete innocence. It has started, fueled, supplied and taken sides in too many wars for any single "enemy" to be identifiable. That is to say, its power mongers have been doing this; it is now the American people who are being called on to pay the price for the arrogance of the new Empire.

America survived the Second World War powerful and intact for the exact reason that Europe came out of it wrecked and wretched -- America had never, not once, fought the war on its own soil. The GIs who came over to Britain brought unbelievable luxuries -- stockings, chocolate -- which the American populace had never had to do without, and could not conceive having to do without. American soldiers died, sure, but they died in theatres of war far removed from their native shores -- the Pacific, Asia, Normandy.

Today, American civilians are at war -- and for the first time, perhaps, it may be possible to make them understand what American planes have done to other nations, to the people of Iraq, of Yugoslavia, of Sudan. There, too, the bombs fell on civilians, just like those who fled the shrapnel of glass and concrete in Manhattan. People, just like those who jumped screaming from the 30th floor of the burning towers to escape the inferno.

Someone said that war is something declared by rich men and fought by poor boys against hungry women and children. Those in power should keep this in mind. The dogs of war are easy to unleash and notoriously hard to herd back into their kennels. What happened today is an outrage, but all that it was, in a very basic sense, was modern war finally finding its way to the soil of the United States.

What of the consequences?

Air traffic is indellibly changed. The day of flight stoppages across the United States, and the diversions of international flights to the United States, will have chaotic consequences in and of itself, and it will take weeks, perhaps longer, for the system to return to something resembling functional normality. But this takes no account of the psychological consequences. The coordinated hijackings of four separate aircraft at three different airports and the apparent ease with which this was achieved is possibly the most staggering individual issue of the whole traumatic event - how, HOW, was this possible in the modern world? We all thought, staunchly believed, that hijacking was so 'Eighties, so 'Seventies, even; not something that could happen with such insouciance today. Quite aside from the inevitable tightening of security restrictions the question has already been asked, by several people closely associated with the industry: "After what they have seen, who would want to board an aircraft again?" The easy, smug confidence of the international air industry has been smashed, and so has the reputation of the USA as a "safe" destination -- and, if this could happen in America, then there is no safe destination left at all. Casual tourism may be a thing of the past already. Inasmuch as this is truer today than at any time before the morning of 11 September 2001, the "terrorists" have already won.

There have already been frightening comments made about how any response by the US may have to include the "tightening" of civil liberties -- something that the very premise of the country depends on. America, whatever its response to the atrocity inflicted upon it, will never be the same again.

There is the very real possibility of a backlash against people of the wrong "ethnicity" within the United States itself, with police guarding mosques and other Muslim gathering places.

Where to from here? Calls have been going out for a response that includes nuclear retaliation. No empathy for the innocent civilians on the other side can be seen in the people who have been voicing such calls, something that is staggering in the wake of the tragedy of the loss of so many civilian lives in America. Nobody seems to appreciate that this kind of reaction would make the US no different, in essence, from those who sowed death in New York City on a calm fall morning.

Nothing good will come from this. Retaliation will breed retaliation; war is easy to escalate and hard to rein in; the death toll that it will be easy to attribute to the World Trade Center bombings can only spiral upwards. One hopes that cool heads will prevail, but we have already seen, in the preliminary reactions, that the current American President may rely a shade too much on the words of the last adviser who happened to have the chance to whisper in his ear. A stronger president would have taken control through taking the obvious action of returning to the nation's capital immediately, to coordinate whatever federal efforts at assistance and whatever national efforts at investigation and retaliation were being made from right there on the spot. Instead, President Bush was ferried from military base to military base, trotted out to provide platitudinous speeches, and no other senior members of the Government were immediately visible or, apparently, able to provide any sort of support to a shocked and stricken nation.

This was a carefully coordinated and well planned out attack. I fear that the US response may be a lot less well planned, a violent lashing out born of anger and fear and pain, and that such a response is all that is required to push us all over the edge of the abyss.

World Trade Center, Manhattan, July 2001
World Trade Center, Manhattan, July 2001



Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Aleksandra Priestfield 2001. All rights reserved.

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Published September 17, 2001
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