When US President Donald Trump recently ordered troops to Afghanistan, people remarked that some soldiers will be too young to remember September 11, 2001.
Everyone else knows where they were on that day, and what they felt. Fear is exhibited differently person to person but I desperately wanted to see a country of adults, not five-year-olds. Instead, all I watched was a lot of crying and sadness. Where were the fists banging on podiums? I was told anger wouldn’t prevent it from happening again, but I'll take my chances.
The attacks were the only time the 24-7 news network worked at full steam. Every single day since then has been a desperate attempt to recapture that moment of constant and important coverage. It might have been a clear blue sky, but the fog of war blanketed the US that day.
Even today, it’s still difficult to parse what happened. The Oklahoma bombing was simple: a right-wing neo-Nazi did it. We have always found it difficult to classify Islamic violence. The attacks are dismissed as “they attacked us,” with little analysis or introspection before the camera quickly pans to capture the victims and the sadness.
Everyone knows Timothy McVeigh, but who can name even one of the 19 hijackers other than Mohammad Atta? Mr Atta was called the ringleader because his was the only name the media could pronounce. We don’t even know what to call the attacks other than “9/11.” A date allows us to remember how we felt. To wrap it around back to us, me. No analysis required, just self-indulgence.
Sixteen years later, the puzzle of the attacks is a bit clearer. Supertankers full of ink have been spilt to understand why, when the world was finally calm after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of Arab men could be so angry to lash out. It seemed so disconnected.
Wise professors said the strike came from a latent grumbling stirred to a crescendo by centuries of Western imperial oppression. Like the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back, the hijacker’s reaction was expected, and anyone who disagreed with this analysis was deluded and parochial. At the same time, the wise professors expounded about the importance of championing human rights.
Not once did they stop to ask if human rights are, actually, universal. Not once did they pause and consider, that maybe – just maybe – the Western story isn’t the only narrative floating around the third rock from the sun.
Western history described the 20th century as two interlinked questions: what should be done about a unified, industrial Germany? And which form of democracy should be preeminent across the world? The questions caused perhaps a hundred million deaths and the final answer was only found in 1989 – some would say it remains unanswered.
In 1989, the final democratic competitor collapsed, leaving only the American version standing. In the closing decade of that bloody and radioactive century, everyone who mattered assumed no further obstacle blocked the way to global peace and stability. History was over. The story of the world entered its denouement. But they were wrong.
On 9/11, the West violently discovered that its narrative of history was not alone after all. All those centuries of Western infighting and rivalry, we forgot that Islam had its own story. Then with a roar, Islam emerged from that blue sky, acting with full agency in the pursuit of its own global goals. It moved confidently as if it, not us, was the main character of its own movie.
The skyscrapers fell, but sixteen years later few parochial ideas held by Western elites are damaged. From a power perspective, it is perfectly acceptable to say the 19 hijackers were reacting to Western imperialism because at least this sets up the default assumption that Western imperialism exists and is dominant.
Yet it is another thing entirely to deny Islam its own narrative and to say it is utterly dependent on Western actions, to deny its agency. The lesson of 9/11 is that Muslims see themselves as acting and the West reacting, not the other way around.
Following the attacks, the French newspaper Le Monde ran a headline saying: “We are all Americans now.” Even then I knew this was precisely backwards. The attacks proved we are not all Americans, and that no amount of narcissistic projection of Western desires and parameters for the good life will create that reality.
Mohammad Atta is the only hijacker anyone remembers because no one cares about supporting cast. We continue to treat Islam as the “crazy ex” in the West’s own movie. The attacks had meaning, but it wasn’t ours alone. The meaning was shared with Islam’s specific apprehension of the world, a narrative totally hidden from our eyes and ears by ourselves.
Mr Atta’s photo is known by many readers, but who has read a biography of the man? The symbol he represents ceases to be a symbol the moment he violates his own symbolism – it disappears the moment you get to know him as a person. The attacks of 9/11 showed us all that an entire religion was being treated as supporting cast to the West’s story of history, just like Mr Atta.
The truth is, we are all skyscrapers, living in proximity but not connection. Not even tumbling towers and 3000 dead was enough to convince us we aren’t alone on this planet. What will it take? Change is only possible when you say: "I want to stop making everyone cry." Change is only possible when you stop treating others as supporting cast.