The Arab World Geographer
Forum on 11 September 2001 Events

The Law Of Unintended Consequences
Reflections on Some Global and National Changes Following the Events of 11 September 2001

R.W. McColl
Department of Geography, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 66045, U.S.A.

11 September 2001 has become the defining event for the 21st century—It changed the political and geopolitical nature of the world, perhaps forever. We may never know the details. However, we can identify a number of consequences, many of which are a surprise to everyone—Americans, Europeans, and most assuredly, the perpetrator (s) of the attack. The “law of unintended consequences” has already confounded even the best-laid plans of whoever perpetrated the attacks on the U.S. World Trade Center and Pentagon. What happens may well become their worst nightmare.

The following are (in no particular order) some of the immediate consequences of the event. At this point it would be foolish to speculate in any detail on long-term consequences.

1 The United States is not a “paper tiger.” It can and did respond immediately, forcefully, and effectively. All civilian air traffic in the United States was stopped. Every civilian plane was told to land within 30 minutes. All border crossings were sealed—instantly. No one wondered what to do. What needed to be done simply was done and a protective shield of fighters was airborne. The president and vice president were protected, along with members of Congress. There was a magnificent, nation-wide show of control and discipline.

2 Americans were seen as not cowardly or selfish. There was no national panic, no thrashing about or reflexive physical attack on anyone or any place. The United States showed complete and utter control of itself, its government, and especially its emotions. The entire country rose to aid the victims. There was no mass panic, looting, or even widespread price gouging. In fact, civility among individuals and businesses reached new highs.

3 The United States put pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to solve the problem or at least end all attacks and local acts of individual violence, especially against civilians. The Israelis were told not to use the event as a cover or justification for increased attacks in the occupied territories. And on 1 October President Bush and the State Department came out in favour of a Palestinian State. Thus America put great pressure on the specific country to which the fanatics, as well as many others have felt we were subservient. Simultaneously the United States opened new dialogues with many formerly pariah Arab states and began a reassessment of the policy implications of greater Arab engagement in the post-Soviet world.

4 The American people were shown not to be self-centred. Most immediately lined up to give blood, money, and aid. They also appear to be ready willingly to accept tighter controls of personal freedom in all areas of life. Most political party and individual differences were dropped in a common commitment to national protection. And, while there were isolated instances of anti-Arab actions, most communities came to the aid of Arab-American and Moslem members of the community, protecting them from any kind of social or economic backlash. Positive actions far outnumbered negative ones. All industries dealing with economic readjustments, but especially travel and air travel, were given shock treatment that included the removal of redundant or unnecessary employees and of financially weak companies. The attack on the towers immediately reduced the on-going debt of many companies that had expanded too fast. They simply declared bankruptcy. All these economic consequences were events that would have meant strikes and political rhetoric and great gnashing of teeth under normal circumstances. Those that come back will be stronger. The economy will be stronger, faster. In fact, there already has been a massive infusion of federal dollars into the military and into any industry or study that addresses issues of national and personal security. Entire new industries and inventions will emerge focussed upon the widest possible range of potential terrorist threats. Many will be of help in environmental monitoring and public health in general.

5 The American administration took foreign policy took stands that would have been politically impossible either internally or internationally prior to 11 September. Many countries saw the world's support, American resolve, American anger, and the movement of significant military assets and determined it would be better to co-operate than to recriminate or object.

6 An essentially unknown, self-important figure and leader of what is de facto a very small movement and group suddenly took centre stage and gained more attention than any head of state. Continued news coverage adds to this image.   More people know the name Osama bin Laden than the name of any other world leader or president. He clearly has become a focus for many anti-American sentiments and groups around the world—not just Moslems.

7 Russia developed close military ties and coordinated its actions both with the United States and with the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and its own former Republics. This will cause serious problems for all insurgent movements in the 'stans and the Caucasus and will create major and immediate material support for anti-Taliban forces everywhere. The Northern Alliance almost immediately began to attack, hoping to push into and control Taliban areas.

8 Iran gained a significant opportunity to change its status as a pariah state in the eyes of the United States. As a Shiite-based country, Iran could become a major focus for opposition to the Sunni Taliban.

9 Continued piggyback threats and demonstrations such as those by Islamic radicals and insurgents in Indonesia and the Philippines are now vulnerable to an immediate, internationally coordinated, and sanctioned suppression. This is not necessarily good, but it is a fact. Anti-American and pro-bin Laden demonstrations will simply identify people for later use by national security forces.

10 Americans, and many Europeans, will now actually study and have a deeper understanding of Islam, its basic philosophies, its tenets, its divisions and the nature and geographic distribution of its followers. By 1 October there were special reports defining and explaining Islam on CNN.

11 Many Islamic countries that have had to accept the riots and terrorism of internal dissidents now will find justification for significant acts of repression and the assertion of national political control. Many local rebellions will be declared “terrorist training camps” with no holds-barred repression as a consequence.

12 Many followers of Islam are now forced to face the moral consequences of minority radical movements. They cannot merely accept their acts as irritations or as justified by the situation in Israel. They have to acknowledge the de facto role of the United States in defending people (including Moslems) in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, etc. They also have to compare American treatment of Moslems within the United States with how Americans would have been treated in their own countries under similar circumstances. They may become our best counter force to radicals hiding among them.

13 What had been a complex international network of terrorist training camps and coordinated links among groups ranging from the IRA to the Colombian narco trafficantes must now be closed or face international suppression. No longer can any government provide even benign support without facing probable international condemnation. And the American plan for a national missile defence system may not be necessary if the world agrees to strike at terrorist countries or groups without waiting for such an attack on themselves.

14 It appears that many in the press have begun to mature. Some have begun to realize and report just how few Afghans support bin Laden or even the Taliban and their philosophies. The press seems also to have decided not to report every bit of military information that it receives, recognizing that such information may compromise actions or even threaten lives.

15 The closing of the United States' borders and increased security generally have already substantially, and negatively, affected drug smuggling. Illegal money transfers will also be identified and stopped, whether they are terrorist-related, drug-related, or not.

16 Huge sums of money are now being expended both on direct measures to increase security and counter biological threats and on research in these areas may limit personal freedom; most research will prove to offer significant human advancement, especially in the areas of medicine and epidemiology.

Like it or not, the world changed politically and geopolitically following 11 September 2001. Aside from the immediate tragedy, many of the consequences seem to be positive. The question is how long will this change last and what are its lasting consequences? Those are questions to be studied for a long time. Regardless, 11 September 2001 has become the defining event of the new millennium and for an entire generation.

(Submitted 11 October 2001)
© The Arab World Geographer

Flint (Intro) / Smith / Agnew / Abu-Nimer / McColl / Nijman / Marston & RouhaniFlint (conclusion)

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