September 11, empowerment and folly


When the United States came under attack on September 11, 2001, it was immediately clear that the new century would be different to what we had expected. The triumph of capitalism, the popularization of sophisticated technology and the charms of liberal democracy did not contribute immediately to the march toward collective prosperity and peace. The attack on the symbols of America’s economic and military might that bright autumn morning 14 years ago signaled that, along with its undoubted benefits, the new age provided new weapons of war.

For the first time, battle lines were drawn not between tribes, nations and alliances of states, but between a small, dedicated group empowered by technology, and states capable of using technology to control vast masses of people. The pattern that has emerged since is that a tiny number of people – sometimes even one – can disrupt the lives of many, prompting a response that, once again, enforces further restrictions on the masses. The more dangerous the individual can be toward the group, the more pressure is placed on the group to control every individual.

Edward Snowden’s revelations of America’s effort to become omniscient and the current turbulence in the world suggest that the effort to know everything does not lead inevitably to omnipotence. As greater numbers of people submit willingly to being monitored (primarily through their embrace of smart technology), and as states and supra-state alliances enhance their methods of control, we would expect “enemies” to be eradicated inexorably. To a great extent, this has occurred, with surveillance being credited with preventing some attacks. Surveillance has also failed to prevent the conquest of large parts of countries – notably Syria and Iraq – by small armies empowered both by technology and by conventional weapons. The so-called Islamic State combines unbridled savagery (in the guise of piety) and great skill in exploiting technology to gather support, unite its followers and terrorize victims and rivals. New weapons serve primal instincts.

In the years since 9/11, the US has sought superiority in communications and military technology and yet failed to shape the world in its own image. Potential rivals have developed their own capacity for electronic warfare, while parts of the planet slide into despotism and savagery.

The problem is not technology but bad decisions. The misguided invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the dismantling of its institutions set off developments leading to today’s chaos. In the US, the chain of events after 9/11 contributed to extreme partisanship, the oversimplification of complex issues and ever greater difficulty in reaching consensus. This is a greater danger to the world’s most powerful democracy than any terrorist attack. And it proves that though events may change the world, people stay the same.