Stuck in the Trauma of 9/11

World Trade Centre, 1970s, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It is probably true – everyone remembers where they were 15 years ago when they heard about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was in the sixth grade and just came home from school. I dropped my backpack in the hall, went to the living room, turned on the TV and rushed to the kitchen to prepare lunch – a quick sandwich, I believe. Coming back to the living room, I wondered, why they showed a burning tower. Initially, I thought that an accident must have happened somewhere and didn’t bother. But the burning tower was on every channel. Then they showed what had happened – a plane in a slight curve crashed into the World Trade Centre. What was the World Trade Centre? I was confused. Then the second plane hit. I slowly realized that something extraordinary was going on.


In the next hours I was stuck in front of the television. The news anchors announced that more plane crashed had been reported. The images which followed are still etched in my memory: a close-up shot of a man who jumped out of one of the towers, attempting to escape his hopeless situation after being trapped by smoke and fire. What was he thinking during his seemingly endless fall? Jonathan Safran Foer later used images of this moment in his novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”.

The commentators were overwhelmed, they didn’t have any information about what had actually happened while they perplexedly commented on the footage – screaming people running through the streets of New York, firemen entering the building and smoke, more and more black smoke. In the late afternoon my parents came home from work. The expressions on their faces were full of disbelief. I asked my mother what was going on, but she only replied “I don’t know, dear, some bad people attacked New York.” It didn’t take long until it happened: “Oh my god, oh my god, a tower is collapsing!” – the panicked voice of the news anchor expressed what probably everyone thought in this moment. More people running in the streets, this time entirely covered by heavy dust. At some point later, the somebody thought it would be a good idea to combine the footage with Enya’s song “Only Time” – it still gives me chills and takes me back to that coach at my parent’s place. On that evening George W. Bush addressed his citizens:

Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.

Now I’m sitting in Berlin and it’s a hot late summer day, children are playing on the football yard. The events that took place 15 years ago fortunately seem far away, but actually they aren’t. I argue that we’re stuck in the historic, political and social aftermath – I believe both in the US and in Europe. Understandably – these terrorist attacks caused a national trauma in the US and a societal one in “the West” in general. We’ve managed to learn lessons, make mistakes and use 9/11 for justification (not only in terms of war in Afghanistan and Iraq). To be a little more concrete:

  • Patriotism and nationalism: Once it was clear who was responsible for the terrorist attacks and that hate against the USA and the West were the underlying motivation, the intuitive reaction was to express more patriotism, which consequently in an accumulated, twisted way reached the level of nationalism. It was “us against them”. It still is. However, for a long period of time, in public debates there was no clear definition of the enemy – undoubtely, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida, but what was the deal with the Afghan and Iraqi people and Saddam Hussein? The emotional need to create security and to feel protected within a state was surely one of the seeds in the minds of Europeans, which allowed right-wing parties to rise across the continent.
  • The Clash of Civilizations: In 1993, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published his famous book “The Clash of Civilizations” (COC) as a response to Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man”. Fukuyama argued that with the end of the Cold War, the Western democratic models sets the end to the sociocultural evolution, since capitalism would triumph as a stable system in the world. However, Huntington develops the idea that the West will clash against the rest of the world due to economic disparities and severe cultural differences. Instead of arguing about his theses, some have entirely adapted the logic and believe that the world is facing the aforementioned COC. Frankly, when looking at the number of casualties of Islamic terrorism from 2011 onwards, most people have died in Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria. Islamic terrorism and related conflicts mainly hit people within one “civilization” (I’m skipping the debate on culture and types of civilization on purpose). Cynically put, there is a broad belief we’re in a religious war – the Islam vs. the rest, which can be connected to the COC. This leads me to the next point:
  • Islamophobia: Let’s face it – islamophobia is a thing in Europe. Madrid, London, Paris and Brussels have been attacked by terrorists and not a single country has actually managed to establish a fruitful dialogue with its Muslim associations. Instead of looking at the bigger picture, French and German politicians are currently attempting to forbid the Burka and the Niqab. Sometimes it appears to be a desperate try to cover the missed opportunities of the last years and the careless approach to the topic. Several mistakes were made in the past – in 2012 former German Minister of Interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich, launched a campaign containing Arabic-looking people. People were asked to be alert, because one could never know who carries extremist potential. The campaign was cancelled abruptly for obvious reasons. With such public examples, I am not even surprised that people feel insecure, but I doubt that perceiving every single Muslim as a suspect will help to fight security issues and fears. I rather find it puzzling that some people still believe that Muslim and Islamist are the same thing.

    Greg Jordan (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
  • A reshaped understanding of terrorism: I wonder if people were as tense as they are nowadays back in the 1970s and 1980s – the bloodiest period in Europe after WWII. Left-wing terrorism was on the rise: RAF in Germany, ETA in Spain, IRA in Ireland – there have been numerous deadly cases of terrorism in the past, but our understanding nowadays mainly focusses on Islamic terrorism. An interesting collective shift to a one-sided understanding of a certain type of violence, especially among the young generation!
  • New scientific definitions of asymmetric wars: Political scientists have learned a lot – the term of asymmetric wars was coined to provide a better and more precise understanding of strategies and new challenges. How are troops organized? How is battle organized when a state military is fighting against a transnational group instead of a state? How are hierarchies and networks established within such (terrorist) groups? Which are the aims of these battles? Mary Kaldor, London School of Economics, has already written about changing patterns in 1999. In theory, there are more analytical tools to investigate violent behavior. However, this knowledge seems to remain in a small academic bubble.
  • Conspiracy theories: 9/11 triggered conspiracy theories, especially against the US-American government. There are plenty of explanatory approaches which claim that 9/11 was an inside job and US politicians secretly knew what was going to happen. In his one-sided documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”, Michael Moore used evidence to portray the shady relationship between the Saudis and the Bush family. Since then, trust in political institutions has eroded even more, politicians are labelled as “the establishment”, which is only interested in secret deals. Being suspicious is a healthy trait in a democracy – no leader should be naively perceived as a fully benevolent person. However, looking at the current conspiracy theories prior to the US presidential elections, it seems like the thin line between positive civil protest and the destructive search for mistakes, lies and betrayal could almost threaten social peace. In the end, the only thing we surely know, is that we don’t know anything.
  • Diplomatic solutions: In the wake of 9/11 and the deadly, exhausting and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I hoped that intelligent diplomatic solutions would finally reach a higher level. Unfortunately, global politics has changed drastically in the recent decade and leaders have missed the chance to rethink new models of conflict solution and are still stuck in the ineffective Security Council of the United Nations Organizations.
  • The image and role of “the West”: Another aspect which the Western societies have missed to understand is that the liberal way of life, which was the target of the 9/11 attacks, is not the perfect model to everyone. According to the democratic peace theory, democratic states are more peaceful among themselves – scholars call this the “mutual democratic pacifism”. Promoting this particular system and liberal values therefore seems reasonable, but can’t be imposed on illiberal and undemocratic states in a landslide. This attempt has failed over and over again. Building a democratic culture takes time, a long-term vision and will.
    Moreover, the West has missed the point to reflect that a liberal system can be perceived as a threat to identity and culture in some regions of world, especially when it goes along with exploitative capitalism. Understanding that the values in Europe and the US aren’t as desirable as we believe, is key to comprehend aggression.
  • Messy strategies in the Middle East: If you type into Google “US trained” the first four hits are: “ISIS”, “Osama Bin Laden”, “Syrian rebels” and “Taliban”.


    Of course, it’s not as easy as one would assume, but political and military involvement often lead to a backlash. One thing leads to the other, skills, knowledge and equipment don’t disappear after a mission is being completed. In the case of Afghanistan, the CIA financed Jihad warriors between 1979 and 1989 as part of the “Operation Cyclone”, which was embedded in the Cold War and aimed to weaken the USSR and Marxist groups in Afghanistan. While some critics believe that this support led to the rise of future Anti-Western Jihadists, the case – however it is being interpreted – is one example of how external influences (both from the USSR and the US) can lead to destabilization. Multi-ethnic and democratically fragile regions in the Middle East have had a potential risk to erupt in a conflict for decades. External intervention, if not planned carefully, creates unforeseen externalities. 9/11 could have been the starting point for a new approach, but considering the complex conflict in Syria, I doubt that any lesson has been learned in this regard.

In spite of the feeling that 9/11 is a part of the past and not present in our lives anymore, we are deeply stuck in its aftermath. Of course, millions of people remember the same images that I have described, we have observed what followed and we are right now dealing with the consequences. It is crucial to understand that history is path-dependent – nothing emerges out of a vacuum, but reflecting on achievements, losses and lessons, it is possible to avoid more mistakes. It might appear as if the solutions to the aforementioned challenges were solely dependent on high politics, but I claim that in terms of society, culture and political stability, it is up to the citizens to take action. Islamophobia, lacking trust in the governmental institutions, nationalism, a twisted belief in the Clash of Civilizations are aspects that are based on the dynamic of a society. Therefore, it is worth to think about the current consequences of 9/11, especially due to the fact that the events were emotionally disturbing for many and triggered unexpected reactions.