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Understand 9/11 in its full historical context

The fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States and its aftermath are generating much analysis and discussion throughout the world, but most of it is sadly incomplete. We hear of many ways in which the world has changed since 9/11: Terrorism is worse today, the world is fighting terror groups more efficiently, American-led militarism has generated a strong counter-wave of anti-American resistance, and freedom and democracy are promoted abroad while their core operative values are eroded in the US and UK.

These are not useful analytical approaches, because 9/11 has been elevated to a place of pivotal global history that is not supported by its true dimensions when measured on a worldwide scale. This week's remembrances should remind us to remain discerning in separating issues of deep national trauma in any single country from trends of truly global and historical significance for all countries.

In this respect, the American-led war on Iraq was probably historically more significant than the 9/11 attack itself, though it was also a response to 9/11. There is an irritating chicken-and-egg element to this issue. In remembering 9/11, we should keep in mind a simple but crucial question: Did Al-Qaeda-like terror trigger Anglo-American militarism ("the global war on terror"), or did Anglo-American unilateralism and triumphalism provide the political and psychological nourishment that helped feed the growth of Al-Qaeda and its twisted worldview? The corollary question is: How much of the current wave of Islamist political militancy in the Middle East is a response to Anglo-American-Israeli militarism, and how much is a home-grown form of activism or extremism? We must go beyond seeing 9/11 as a single, barbaric event whose perpetrators must be fought with all available means. We should analyze it as part of a wider process, in a deeper historical context. Remember that Al-Qaeda terrorists once tried to blow up the World Trade Center years before they succeeded. This is a strong reminder of the older cycle of tension, assault, anger and retribution between some Al-Qaeda-type terrorists and some elements of Western state and society. That cycle goes back to the early 1990s, a decade before 9/11 happened. This is why the much more meaningful date we should ponder in terms of world-changing history was the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union and its empire in 1989-1990. That triumph of Anglo-American-led Western capitalism, freedom, democracy and militarism contributed to three key trends in the Middle East since 1990, within which 9/11 is more accurately analyzed.

First, this region remained strangely impervious to democratic change at a time when the rest of the world was democratizing, allowing autocratic regimes to reinforce their grip. Second, the end of the Cold War loosened ideological ties that had kept the Middle East frozen, and thus allowed some regimes and non-state groups to pursue new adventures that had not been possible in Cold War days (Iraq into Kuwait, Syria out of Lebanon, US-UK into Iraq). Third, the Anglo-America-Israeli worldview that relies so heavily on belligerent force of arms dominated policy-making in the Middle East, bringing in the current era of pre-emptive regime change.

Since 1990, the Middle East has remained mired in a legacy of local and global extremism, terror, and military violence. The Anglo-American-Israeli politicians who seek to define the Middle East for the rest of the world have simplistically framed this trajectory of violence as a straightforward war against terror that was triggered by the odious crime of 9/11. The reality is not so simple. It is, rather, that 9/11 was a particularly criminal and inhuman act along a continuum of anti-American attacks by a relatively small band of terrorists whose passions did not resonate deeply among Arab public opinion - which is why they operated from the remote mountain valleys of Afghanistan, rather than from the cities of the Levant and Arabia.

To understand 9/11 in its full meaning and consequence today, we must be more historical, comprehensive, and linear: We should start around 1990; trace the rise of these small, isolated criminal terrorist bands; grasp why they could not appeal to Arab publics in the way that Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood have done; see the symbiotic interaction between their deeds and the fury of Anglo-American-Israeli militarism in the region; and follow the larger story of countries and political systems in the Middle East that remain stressed and distorted because of the cruel combination of their own extremism and chronic foreign military interference.

Al-Qaeda was spawned by this ugly legacy, and contributed to making it even uglier in recent years, in part through the dynamics surrounding 9/11. To date, we have four high water marks of the modern sickness of militarism that demeans and often destroys our societies: 9/11, the Anglo-American war in Iraq, and the Israeli wars on Gaza and Lebanon. If these and related issues are not understood as part of a single historical process, they will not be understood at all. In that case, all we will experience this week of remembering 9/11 is an overload of analytical and emotional entertainment that is politically meaningless because it is so narrowly constructed and viewed - until we are jolted by the next attack, war or regime change.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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