11 September, 2006

Waking up

I must have been one of the last people to fly in that innocent age when thoughts of disaster tended more towards mechanical failure than being used as a missile. Early on the morning (UK time) of 11th September 2001, my long-haul flight from Singapore was flying in over the centre of London to land at Heathrow. I had just spent the summer travelling around the world as a post-graduation present to myself. I arrived back home in the early afternoon, and switched on the TV. I can't swear that my memories have not been melodramatised over time, but this was at about the time that the second plane hit the World Trade Centre. The next few hours seem unreal even now, with my jet-lagged brain recoiling from the sheer nightmarish horror of what unfolded.

Cut to five years later, and in a very real sense the dust from that day has yet to settle. Like many others, I'm not sure I'm liking the shapes of the new world which are starting to poke through the haze, partly a result of our leaders' delusion that you can declare war on, and beat, a noun (and an illegitimate proper noun to boot - I know what 'terror' is, but 'Terror'?). But given that more than enough is being written about the (mis)deeds of Bush and Blair, I find myself instead wanting to consider a slightly different notion: the idea of 9/11 as a 'wake-up call'. I am wondering, what exactly should it have woken us up to?

The obvious answer is the one our leaders give, and our media amplify: that there are scary people out there who want nothing less than the destruction of our entire way of life, and are willing to murder thousands of innocents to achieve it. This is true, but amoral sociopaths existed before five years ago. A more chilling realisation is the fact that in certain parts of the world, these peoples enjoy an alarming degree of support in the general populace, to the extent that the attacks on New York and the Pentagon were, and are, celebrated as the acts of heroic martyrs. That is dwelt upon, but perhaps less than it should, because it is a step on the slippery slope to thinking about the causes of that hatred.

I should probably add at this point that I utterly deplore any act which deliberately leads to the loss of innocent life - to discuss the causes of something is not to condone it. However, the necessity of that disclaimer is telling; it says that we are uncomfortable with questioning our unpopularity in the Middle East, and elsewhere. We would prefer to think of it as unreasoning and baseless. We're the good guys, surely? Our societies are free and tolerant and peaceful. No one could have any rational reason to hate us.

Unfortunately, our ignorance does not mean that such reasons do not exist. The advantages of liberal democracy, our freedom to live our lives the way we see fit, relatively free from disease and poverty, do not come without costs. The problem is that in our increasingly connected world, we are increasingly able to export those costs to the fringes. We have laws regulating working hours and the minimum wage, but we buy cheap clothes and trainers from countries that do not. Our supermarkets stock affordable fruit and vegetables imported from all corners of the earth, but those that grow it are not always given a fair price. Much of our meddling in the Middle East is linked to our need to secure cheap energy.

It is easy to ignore what we are not forced to see. We are vaguely aware of these issues, but being insulated from them we see the postive aspects of our society much more clearly. To those on the outside, however, where the negatives can impinge much more directly on peoples' daily lives, it is no suprise that their views are somewhat more ambivalent. If they feel that they are suffering to support our priviliged lifestyles, and if our immigration controls and trade protectionism appear to be preventing them from joining the party, then it is only a small step to the conviction that it is all intentional, that we are out to destroy them. And you can always find people - fanatics, power-hungry manipulators, weak despots - willing to help others make that step. Perhaps what we should have woken up to five years ago is that we have helped, however inadvertantly to make it a disturbingly small step for a disturbingly large number of people. Instead, by buying wholeheartedly into the 'Us versus Them' framing of Al-Quada, we have if anything made that step even smaller.

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