September 11: Collateral Damage

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.

17 Responses

  1. Not saying much for our world
    Not saying much for our world is it, when a murderous, religio-political faction that kills innocent people to achieve their goals is considered “ordinary”?

  2. Today, before 8:50, a woman
    Today, before 8:50, a woman came in from the office into the pool and was saying something that I couldn’t hear and said to turn down the blaring Fox News Channel on the big screen TV and when everyone was quiet, I almost asked the third mate I’d been with what was up and then she thanked us, and I then said, what was that?and he said it was a moment of silence; and then I told him about Antietam, and Shiloh and the Battle of the Wilderness, and was it Tarawa or Okinawa? where the seas were red with blood and thousands died in tens of minutes but that’s out of living memory and on the TV all they had were memorials instead of–in the 7 years that have passed–a new building at “Ground Zero”, new college campuses, schools, and clinics in Afghanistan, etc.
    It’s ordinary not to remark about the Native American genocide or slavery and Zinn’s People’s History of the USA is just a prop in an episode of the Sopranos rather than being on the lips of every school kid who does know every popular rap of Snoop Dog.
    Neither is anyone I heard today saying that the USA can and will do better and I listened to both televised speeches of W. in DC and his replacement in Spanksville, PA because it is sacriligious and anathema to do so until, as in a very bad B-movie, revenge has been extracted, as if the USA is supposed to be the only place where it is everytime. Come to think of it, in my whole life, I never have heard the word transcendence spoken unless it was used in the context to describe the properties of space and time. America can do better and must or wind up toast.

  3. Well, stevadore, maybe not
    Well, stevadore, maybe not entirely ordinary, but certainly garden variety; they have nots vs the haves,the same conflicts we’ve had for millenium.

    Yet my world changed after 9/11/01. I watched while the Patriot Act was passed, as people in my community were charged with “making terrorist threats”, I couldn’t bring a bottle of KY jelly onto an airplane, I went through metal detectors at the Holocaust museum, a nephew of mine became a sky marshall.
    A budding police state will soon be in full bloom.
    Ok, hyperbole aside, there wasn’t much I was afraid of before 9/11. Now I find myself afraid often

  4. I like that photo because it
    I like that photo because it reflects the recent trend where a lot of people are nowadays wearing hats. I like that trend, a trend that’s been attributed to Pete Doherty, which I doubt because he’s not that big.

    But there’s trickle down influence so maybe it is due to Pete Doherty that the pretty gal in the foreground of this photo is wearing a stylized pork pie/fedora.

    And who influenced Pete Doherty? Maybe it was his childhood friend, Tubby. All because of candy-loving Tubby from the sticks in England, fashion girl at the WTC New York City subway station is wearing a hat. Looks nice on her, thanks Tubby.

    Before 911 I’d been trying to translate Li Bo poems to English for fun. I was trying to retain the same 5 or 7 syllable (character) structure of the poems. That’s very hard for these types of ancient Chinese poetry. An example of one of Li’s most famous poems, Drinking Alone in the Moonlight, at the Wikipedia entry shows this well. The first line has five characters, hua jian yi hu jiu. The translation given by Arthur Whaley is: “A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;”

    That’s 11 syllables based on the poem’s original five. I was trying to translate five syllables of Chinese characters to five syllables in English. Not so easy, but it was fun, a lark.

    After the attacks when I sat down with my notebooks I stopped with the Chinese poems and Chinese-English dictionary and wrote about current events. Just for posterity really. Details can disappear from memory. I will always remember how that night it was eery how silent was the sky. We usually don’t notice how busy the sky is. An addition to the stars there are always moving lights in the sky, red, green, white, sometimes blinking. And the flying machines make noise which we hear without noticing because the sound blends together with distant freeway noise and other distant noises which all melt together. That night the sky had no lights and was silent – if it weren’t for the ban on air traffic I’d never have ever noticed just how much background noise there is in the sky. So when there was a jet flying over that night, very high in the sky but the sound clear and strong, it made an impression. It was a fighter jet circling the region, as was done over all metropolitan areas that night. The news ran a scroll stating that this jet was a fighter jet, so no one needed to worry.

    Someday I’ll go back to these immediate post-911 notes and someday I’ll go back to my Li Bo translations, sooner than I ever go back to the 911 notes.

    For now I must say that as for this:

    “Al Qaeda attacked us because “they hate us”, because they hate our freedom, our way of life” and “Al Qaeda is primarily a revolutionary political movement, well-organized and practical, similar to many other revolutionary organizations in recent history.”

    I don’t see any contradiction between the two and in fact think they are part and parcel of each other. Both are true and are part of a holistic dynamic on their part. It’s a nasty, racist hateful holistic ideology that encompasses hatred of us, the Arab regimes that don’t hate us as much and deal with us. Revolution and destruction comes naturally from this.

    So unlike Bill, I don’t think what you’ve said is so clear in terms of the point you mean to make. I understand, in that it is frustrating.

    Getting back to the 911 events, I stopped reading Li Bo and also began to read about al Qaeda and the like. They are definitely a revolutionary force (or wannabe revolutionaries). One of the more interesting (but trivial and unlikely) things I read was how bin Laden read Asimov’s Foundation as a buy and based some of his modus operandi on that. Foundation was translated as al Qaeda in the Arabic translation, meaning base or foundation. Someone likened bin Laden’s release of videos to one of the plot lines in Foundation. Interesting and feasible that a teenage bin Laden could have been influenced to some degree by this science fiction book and called al Qaeda after that. True or pure speculation, it seems emblematic of the conflict bin Laden must have felt growing up in a huge and hugely wealthy family with all the amenities of the modern western world including partaking of the freedoms and open-mindedness of western culture when at the same time being under the influence of and actual pressures of ancient Arab/Islamic ideals and ideologies.

    I also of course came across the idea that the idea of 911 was to goad us in to invasions of Arab or Muslim nations that would in turn gin up a united front against the Crusaders and Jews. There are also theories that the attack was meant to show the opposite, the weakness of the Crusaders and Jews in that they (we) wouldn’t retaliate, thus showing our weakness and the counter-attacks we did was not what bin laden wanted.

    Thanks for linking to your 911 write-up. I remember for sure that day wondering about you, Levi, as you are one of two people I knew who lived in New York. It was good to see you finally make a post, either later that night or the next day, I don’t quite remember.
    From the same Li Bo poem, Drinking Alone in the Moonlight

    永結無情遊 yong jie wu qing you

    This line comes near the end of the poem after the writer has been drinking in the moonlight and dancing with his shadow, they then go their separate ways, the poet and his shadow.

    Whaley translated the line as:

    May we long share our eternal friendship,

    But really it is more likely translated something like this:

    Forever tied to this merciless rambling

  5. Plump, one question in
    Plump, one question in response to your post: Why would you want to bring a bottle of KY jelly onto an airplane? On second thought, don’t answer that!

  6. Our/US military stationed in
    Our/US military stationed in Saudi Arabia; bin Laden didn’t like it. Prior to 9/11/01, I was rather apolitical

  7. suheir hammad has a great
    suheir hammad has a great piece on you tube about the attacks that she performed just a couple weeks, or a month after. she’s from brooklyn, she’s beautiful. she speaks for many arabs, many americans, and peace seeking people in general.

    i wrote out a long winded couple of paragraphs i was going to post but decided not to, in hopes you will instead do a search for youtube of her name, you will find it, i think she has a couple you tube vids, but it is from def poetry.

  8. Regarding Levi’s explanation
    Regarding Levi’s explanation of 9-11, what I meant was, after reading and hearing many opinions and theories over the past few years, I had formed a general understanding of what I thought 9-11 was about, but I was unable to sum it up the way Levi did, so I think he did a good job of summing up my take on the overall picture.

  9. Kind folks and gentle people,
    Kind folks and gentle people, Al Qaeda is unusual in that they succeeded in bringing down the trade towers, st al, in the financial section of New York. Their use of passenger jets as missles was a stroke of nefarious genius.
    I think Al Qaeda knew exactly what they were doing and I think they collectively must pay for it in money as well as lives. If we follow the
    money trail Bin Laden left, we will eventually be
    successful in freezing the assets of those personally responsible. Wahabists, in general, are the responsible party. We need to go after the leaders of this movement.

  10. TKG, I’d like to try to
    TKG, I’d like to try to explain why I think it’s an important point that, whether or not Al Qaeda hates the USA (and I’m sure they do), their hatred of the USA was not their reason for attacking us on Sept 11.

    I hear that Sarah Palin has been repeating a mantra about “Islamic terrorists are hell-bent on destroying the USA” in interviews such as the recent one with Charles Gibson. This mantra must be comforting to her, and it probably connects with the feelings of extreme anger and the desire for revenge that many Americans feel towards Al Qaeda. However, it’s simply not true. There is no reasonable evidence for it. Islamic terrorist organizations, like virtually every terrorist or violent extremist organization throughout history, are focused on their own regions. Al Qaeda is evil and murderous, etc. etc., but they are intent on dominating the Middle East, not on dominating North America. The idea that they have designs to actually invade or take over the United States in any way cannot be taken seriously, given the balance of power between the USA and Al Qaeda.

    I find it very disturbing when US presidents and presidential candidates spread false information to a trusting American public about our enemies. We should recognize and fight Al Qaeda as what they are — an increasing influence in the Middle East. Some Americans think we need revenge for Sept 11, and some think we need to reassert our military dominance with some display of victory over Al Qaeda. I think those goals are highly suspect, but at least these goals are grounded in a realistic assessment of what Al Qaeda is.

    However, to fight Al Qaeda as an existential threat to the United States — “hell bent on destroying our nation” — is a nonsensical and fanatical excuse for military escalation and never-ending war.

  11. Thanks Levi.

    There’s a
    Thanks Levi.

    There’s a fellow named Flagg Miller who is an Arabic scholar at UC Davis who’s been translating and studying recordings of bin laden and associates obtained from al Qaeda’s hiding place in Afghanisan. They were initially obtained by CNN.

    I think these recordings are staight from the horses mouth and will go far to answer the sort of questions you’ve brought up, which I am familiar with.

    He’s going to have his first article published on them in Language & Communication.

    There were a number of news articles on this the other day. Google news Flagg Miller if one is interested.

    I do wonder, though, if this initial article he’s set to have published in October will answer these sort of political questions. One thing he talked about in the articles was bin Laden’s use of poetry and language. The first article may be about that, given that he is an Arabic scholar.

    I will definitely read the article when it comes out.

    I was like you after 911 and began reading about bin Laden and al Qaeda. I used Lexis to get the oldest articles I could from a variety of sources. I started reading this after work rather than Li Bo poems.

    I didn’t read any of the books you mention, but Looming Tower seemed interesting. Your mention of it makes me think I’ll go pick it up to read.

    Here is their 1998 statement on Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews at FAS web site.

  12. And a PS or two.

    Here’s a
    And a PS or two.

    Here’s a bit more info on Flagg Miller.


    Last night I printed out your 911 piece (it’s 9 pages, 12 pt Times) and read it. That was my sort of 911 rememberance.

    It was good. I remember reading it five years ago after I got into it, but after so long it was like reading it for the first time.

    I’d probably have done the same thing in your shoes — want to go down there and see.

    I wanted to know (and want to know) what happened when you got back to your place? Was it back to Did everyone stop caring about that? Did that give you more time? Did the LA record companies care much and still want dead deadline met (yeah we know New York is in flames, but we promised bobbys web site on the eleventh)?

    Good As I Been to You is one of the great albums of all time.

  13. The information on Flagg
    The information on Flagg Miller and the 1998 Statement on Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews is very enlightening. It makes one think, maybe we should have gotten the fuck out of the Arab Peninsula a long time ago. I’m not saying it justifies 9-11, don’t get me wrong, but someone once told me that ever since WWII, we’ve been acting like we own the place.

  14. Iran, the Arab Peninsular
    Iran, the Arab Peninsular States and indeed Venezuela are one product economies — Oil. In one fashion or another they all loathe the USA.

    Despite the rhetoric they all sell oil to the USA and her allies. If they didn’t they’d go down the tubes, pronto.

    The USA is dependent on the oil to sustain the diversity of its economy. If all of these countries lived up to their rhetoric they would cease to exist as economic entities. If the current administration in the USA lived up to its rhetoric it wouldn’t exist either.

    America needs oil, oil needs America. Unless that is, the USA refuses to buy the oil and risk a massive economic recession, triggering a global recession of unknown consequence for the economies of the entire planet.

    It’s stand off time. I hope the next president of the USA knows how to play poker.

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