September 11 again? Personally, I have to remember September 11 at least five days a week, because I work in lower Manhattan and the name of my subway station is still “World Trade Center”. I walk past that big hole in the ground every day.
Do we think about the attacks differently now than we did seven years ago? I think we do. Like many Americans, I myself knew very little about Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda back in 2001, and I was prone to believe in simplistic explanations like the one our President unfortunately repeated in endless speeches: Al Qaeda attacked us because “they hate us”, because they hate our freedom, our way of life.
But after seven years our eyes adjust from the chiaroscuro of current events to the subtler dimensions of history, and things begin to look different. At first we saw Al Qaeda as something new, alien, frighteningly different, impossibly fanatical. But if you read some books and pay attention to the facts, you quickly come to realize that Al Qaeda is primarily a revolutionary political movement, well-organized and practical, similar to many other revolutionary organizations in recent history. This organization’s most immediate goal is to overthrow the corrupt, pro-Western governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and to unite the Sunni Arab community into an oil-rich global military power. The September 11 attacks were designed to provoke a military response from the USA and hopefully trap us into an invasion of a Muslim country (George W. Bush, the fool, was only too willing to oblige).
Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, Ayman Al-Zawahiri is from Egypt, and their primary battles have always been with the USA-supported governments of these nations. Some still believe that religion is at the core of Al Qaeda’s mission, but a closer evaluation of their motivations reveals that the group’s leaders are more interested in power than in religion, and that they mainly use religion as a powerful surrogate for ethnic identity. Finally, Bin Laden and his partners probably do hate the USA, but it’s not likely that they gave us much thought in 2001. We were collateral damage.
For all the hype about a “new kind of evil”, what Al Qaeda really represents is the same tired formula from the 20th Century: stir up a boiling maelstrom of ethnic rage to disrupt the peace and achieve territorial goals. It worked in Rwanda, in Nazi Europe, in Turkey, in Kosovo, in Biafra. It’s working right now in Darfur. Playing one ethnic group off another is the political game that never ends.
I’ve thought about September 11 and Al Qaeda and the Middle East often during the last seven years. The saddest thing about Al Qaeda, I’ve now decided, is how utterly ordinary they are in our modern world.