The Arab World Geographer
Forum on 11 September 2001 Events

Ashes and Aftermath

Neil Smith
Center for Place Culture and Politics, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 5th Avenue, New York, NY  10016, U.S.A.

Two days after the hijacked jets sliced into the World Trade Center, I was able to walk down to ground zero. It was night and I could get in because our flat lies just south of Houston Street. The scene from Chambers Street, four blocks from what used to be the World Trade Center, was truly otherworldly. For blocks and blocks on the way south the streets were almost empty and completely dark, the usual bars, boutiques, and delis closed, shuttered, and flanged in ash. The closer I got to the destruction, the more its immensity became obvious. Instead of darkness, the smoking “pile” was emblazoned in high-powered lights, as bright as a sunny day, so that rescue workers could dig. The most awful thing was the look on the faces of rescue workers, nurses, and firefighters coming out after many hours in the rubble. Their faces were gaunt, expressionless, eyes sunken, shadowed by ash. No one said a word.

As I walked back north I struggled to comprehend how this could have happened.  How are we to explain this? What could anyone have been thinking to cause such mayhem, horror, and loss of life? The news media treated the destruction of the trade towers and the plane crash at the Pentagon as local events yet simultaneously national affronts — an attack on America, CNN labelled it after an hour of coverage — but what connected these different scales of response? Why were attacks on two cities construed as a national attack? Of course the symbolic choice of targets by the hijackers was neither random nor the act of madmen; the towers were prime symbols of worldwide U.S. economic domination and military power. Before they were manufactured as a national event, therefore, these attacks were simultaneously local and global events.

Still, the xenophobic and nationalist hysteria in the immediate aftermath was in many ways understandable. Somehow, through nearly a century in which the U.S. rose to global hegemony, the actual territory of this nation never witnessed any of the brutal deaths in war that occurred elsewhere— 20 million in World War I, more than 30 million in World War II, and many tens of millions in other wars on four continents. No other country has been so immune to the terror that made the 20th  century the most violent in history. Nowhere else does a populace have the luxury of deluding themselves that geography is salvation, that geography protects power. That fantasy has been punctured forever. A certain kind of global parochialism, peculiar to a country that prides itself on its cosmopolitanism, has been exposed, and the result is not pretty.

But why the rush to judgement? With or without evidence, Bush and the media have screamed for revenge on Osama bin Laden, the Saudi multi-millionaire who has dedicated himself to a religious war against those he sees as the enemies of Islam. The same screams for Arab blood erupted after the Oklahoma City bombing when in fact it was Timothy McVeigh, trained by the U.S. Army, who planted the bomb. Osama Bin Laden and Afghanistan’s Taliban government were also trained and funded by the U.S. defence establishment—the CIA to be specific. Why did the U.S. government fund and endorse people in the 1980s that it now reviles as the world’s worst terrorists? The answer is simple. Influenced by the Cold War, the U.S. prized bin Laden’s terror as the work of a “freedom fighter” as long as his target was the Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Any blanket U.S. condemnation of terrorism is therefore disingenuous. The U.S. government, like most governments around the world, has historically made a distinction between “good” terrorism and “bad.” “He may be a son-of-bitch,” President Franklin Roosevelt once said of the brutal Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, “but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” Vilified by the U.S. government since the end of the Cold War, when he turned his focus on U.S. attacks against Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere, bin Laden’s main crime was that he chose to cease being “our son-of-a-bitch.”

As I crossed Canal Street on the way home I remembered a conversation with a friend earlier in the day. “They are worse than animals,” he said. “We should kill all these people.”  “Which people”? I asked. “All of them,” he shouted. “Bomb all these countries.” The abstract anonymity of the people he wanted dead was stunning, but so was the geographical anonymity. This otherwise very intelligent man, who had friends missing in the tragedy, wanted like so many others to take revenge on unnamed but very identifiable people. It was never said but it was quite clear who “they” were.  Just hours earlier the news media frantically reported that various suspicious “Arab nationals” were stopped at New York airports. What, I pondered, does that make the rest of us: Caucasian nationals? Confucian nationals? Latino nationals? Hindi nationals? Judeo-Christian nationals? Geographical ignorance melds with cultural ignorance with dangerous global results. Within three days of the tragedy two men, one a Sikh, one a Lebanese Christian, had been shot and killed in Arizona and California simply because of their supposed “Middle Eastern appearance,” and dozens of others were attacked. After McVeigh’s terrorism, where were the calls to kill Christians? Where were the revenge shootings of “Christian-looking men” in the street?

But the original question kept coming back: Why would someone commit such horrible acts? How could 19 hijackers be convinced to carry out such a suicide mission? Perhaps it goes back to the disjunction of global and local and the extent to which ongoing global struggles remain largely unseen in the United States even when the U.S. is centrally implicated. If we were to compile a list of countries which the U.S. government had bombed or attacked, or of repressions of popular uprisings that the U.S. had supported in the last 15 years, say, and if we were to use this list as a means of gauging common people’s reactions to the actions of the United States government, what would it look like? Top of the list would have to be Iraq, which the U.S. has bombed, intensely at times, since 1991, and where thousands of children and poor people have died as a result of the embargo on trade. In Colombia thousands of U.S. troops are fighting popular rebels under the cover of a war on drugs. In 1998 Bill Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, owned by a member of the democratic opposition there, a bombing which not only killed civilians and wiped out that very poor country’s domestic source of vital anti-malarial drugs and antibiotics, but also dealt a death blow to the movement opposed to the ruling National Islamic Front.

Or take Palestine, where the U.S. has resolutely supported the Israeli government’s mounting policy of assassination aimed at the leaders of a people who were brutally displaced from their land in 1948 and again in 1967. In the two days after the World Trade Center tragedy, the Israeli government cynically used the “opportunity” to kill 21 Palestinians, thereby intensifying state terror in the West Bank. Even more disgusting, there is credible evidence that the CNN footage of Palestinians seeming to celebrate the WTC attacks was a hoax; the footage may have been ten years old, taken by a Brazilian scholar in Kuwait in 1991.

For many people in these places around the world, the U.S. is involved in campaigns of state terrorism that have already amassed many more victims than the World Trade Center tragedy. The ongoing U.S.-sponsored embargo on Cuba is needless yet devastating for ordinary people; non-intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina enabled the mass slaughter of Muslims spearheaded by right wing Serb nationalists; interventions in Haiti and Somalia dispatched political foes but left local people worse off than before; the post-colonial massacres in Rwanda and Burundi were allowed to continue at the cost of between 1 and 2 million lives. Or there is Afghanistan, which Bill Clinton bombed in 1998 in a failed strike at bin Laden. If that bombing is to be justified in the name of revenge for the monstrous bombing of the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies, then the question needs to be asked: To what monstrosities were the World Trade Center attackers responding?

None of this is to justify in any way the diabolical murder of perhaps 6 000 people in the 11 September attacks. It is, rather, to warn that revenge is not an appropriate policy for guiding foreign and military policy and that no act of terrorism comes out of the blue, without explanation, context, or background. The history of terrorism did not begin on 11 September and neither free-market nor state terrorism operates outside the tangle of longstanding and complicated political and economic relations across the globe. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and its people no more deserve to die because of what its government did or did not do (or who its friends are or are not) than workers from many countries in the World Trade Center deserved to die because of the U.S. government’s bombing of Afghanistan, or Iraq, (or because of its friendly support for Israel).

The intense connections between local and global events expressed in this tragedy also suggest the limits to national geographies. The 19 hijackers lived multinational lives between Florida and Riyadh, Boston and Beirut. And the nationalist hysteria following the attacks quickly gave way to a greater sobriety as television stations and radio talk shows that had been whipping up anti-Arab sentiment in the aftermath began to recognize the incoherence of such racism. Many of those being attacked on U.S. streets were U.S.-born or were just as patriotic as the next person. Nationalist appeals were certainly powerful but their flimsiness was never far below the surface. Even Bush the younger eventually came on television to say that the millions of Muslims and Arabs and Iranians in the country were “good Americans” and that attacks on them were as despicable as the terrorist attacks. The definition of “America” and “American” has altered dramatically and has been significantly destabilized in the decade since Desert Storm and the beginning of the U.S. war against Iraq.

Getting back to the safety of Houston Street, a good mile away from “the pile,” the streets remain deserted and cordoned off from traffic. The new geopolitics of Lower Manhattan, with its barricades, dark zones, speeding emergency vehicles with sirens, ground zero, no-go zones, armoured vehicles and troops with machine guns, seem the local expression of a new global reality — boundaries drawn hard and fast amidst global martial law. I remembered an e-mail I had received earlier in the day. It recounted the observation of John Maynard Keynes that the vast majority of the world’s wealth was owned by a very few people and that the main job of economics would be to devise ways of making that inequality justifiable and palatable to the have-nots. But inevitably, as the Black Panthers used to say in the 1960s, the chickens sometimes come home to roost. Certainly one thing is clear: A myopic response that sees only a “War on Terrorism” and not the interwoven threads of global injustice from which these events sprang, will intensify rather than compensate for the murder of innocents. Maintaining, inequality, exploitation, and intense oppression, much of it made in America, is the single deepest cause of terrorism — on all sides.

I walked up the stairs to the apartment and turned on the TV. There was a completely unhinged Newt Gingrich, previously speaker of the House of Representatives advising that “we should go bomb all of these nations” in order to show them that “western civilization is superior.” I changed channels. My hackles rose again, finding James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, and major target of the anti-globalization movement, pontificating about the new global order wrought by the attacks. How ghoulish, I thought, to be vaunting the prerogatives of global capital amidst this.   But I was wrong. The events seemed to have affected him profoundly too. “Conquering poverty,” Wolfensohn concluded, “is the conquest of justice.” Well, I thought. If only we could organize our politics up to the level of that rhetoric, the horrors of private-market and state terrorism would find themselves without any rationale.

September 16, 2001

(Submitted 11 October 2001)
© The Arab World Geographer

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

Top of the page  |  Index-page (no frame) | Back to homepage
Contact:  |   Last update: 5 November 2001