Twenty years after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington DC via four hijacked planes, Australia’s interactions with the rest of the world remain forever changed.
Never forget: The World Trade Centre in New York City on September 11, 2001.
From the introduction of harsh and wide-sweeping counter-terrorism and security laws, to Australia’s involvement in decades-long conflicts in the Middle East, to a rise in anti-Muslim racism, the event triggered, legitimised and intensified a range of existing social and political powers.
Three Macquarie University experts weigh in on some of the impacts 9/11 had on Australia.
Coming of age in the War on Terror
“An entire generation born around 2001 have experienced a world they’ve only ever known to be engaged in a ‘war on terror’ and who have been socialised in a climate of widespread Islamophobia, surveillance and suspicion,” says Dr Randa Abdel-Fatteh, an author and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University.
Abdel-Fatteh’s book, Coming of Age in the War on Terror, published this year, includes interviews with teenagers who have grown up with the rise of neo-nazi white supremacy movements, the normalization of hate crimes and speech and the growing polarisation of politics.
Abdel-Fattah says that her research for the book grew out of conversations she had with school children when she visited schools around Australia delivering talks about her novels and running writing workshops.
“A Year 10 student from a school in southwest Sydney with a majority Arab student population told me during my visit, ‘School used to be the one place I felt safe’ adding he now worried that his comments about the Middle East might be taken the wrong way,” she says.
Conversations: Dr Randa Abdel-Fatteh (pictured) says moral panics about young people being ‘groomed by ISIS’ were far removed from young people’s lives.
Government-led initiatives labelled as ‘countering violent extremism’ had been introduced into schools following the murder of NSW government employee Curtis Chang by a 15-year old boy.
Her interviews with more than 60 teenagers from both Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds explored their fears, political consciousness and experiences and trust levels.
One student told me, ‘I’m not afraid of terrorism, I’m afraid of being accused of being a terrorist’.
She found that most Muslim students reported that their everyday lives were affected by the wider political and media discourse. Following years of narratives about violent extremism, these students felt pressure to self-censor their political and religious expression at school.
Moral panics about young people being ‘groomed by ISIS’ were far removed from young people’s lives, she said; their main concerns were about how they were portrayed in wider society.
“One student told me, ‘I’m not afraid of terrorism, I’m afraid of being accused of being a terrorist’,” she says. “By contrast, almost all the non-Muslim students said that they were largely unaffected in any direct way.”
Missed opportunity to shut terror down
Macquarie University politics lecturer Dr Vince Scappatura notes that 9/11 was a ‘grotesque international crime’ against the US – which should have been treated as such, but instead, sparked a decades-long ‘war on terror’ against an ill-defined enemy, but focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, in which Australia played a significant role.
Terror to come: On the lookout in Afghanistan in the months following the September 11 attacks … the US resuscitated the jihadi movement by invading and occupying Muslim lands, says Dr Scappatura.
“The US could have responded to the 9/11 attacks by capitalising on the immense outpouring of global sympathy and solidarity that existed at the time, including widespread in the Arab and Muslim world, to undertake international policing operations, perhaps even limited military strikes against what was a tiny faction within a jihadi movement that was already on the brink of defeat,” says Scappatura.
He says that the resulting war on terror played into the hands of the small band of extremists. “The US resuscitated the jihadi movement by invading and occupying Muslim lands, and carrying out all the associated horrors that have come to define the war on terror: drone strikes, torture programs, night raids and death squads.”
Scappatura says that the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a report last month noting that the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan included no post-war mission strategy and no intention to undertake proper reconstruction.
Australia achieved a level of military intelligence integration with the US that is vastly deeper than any stage during the Cold War.
“Economic assistance in Afghanistan was kept to an absolute minimum, while security was expediently outsourced into the hands of brutal warlords, who could be more savage than the Taliban,” says Scappatura.
He adds that when the US military couldn’t defeat a resurgent Taliban, they instead directed vast amounts of money to private defence contractors, with little oversight.
The event did, however, strengthen Australia’s military alliance with the US, prompting then-Prime Minister John Howard to invoke the ANZUS alliance for the first time.
Implications: Dr Vince Scappatura (pictured) says Australia should stop and reflect on the war on terror before committing to a new path of military confrontation in the Indo-Pacific.
“After two decades of fighting the war on terror, Australia achieved a level of military intelligence integration with the US that is vastly deeper than any stage during the Cold War.”
The Australian government’s new announcement this week of the new AUKUS alliance with the US and the UK involving nuclear-powered submarines, is in some ways an extension of this relationship, as the US looks to Australia to play a larger strategic role in the Indo-Pacific.
“Australia should stop and reflect on the implications of the rush to follow the US into the war on terror before committing to a new path of military confrontation in the Indo-Pacifc,” says Scappatura.
Viewing 9/11 as an isolated incident misses the point
Dr Govand Azeez, a political economist who is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University says that it’s important to recognise that 9/11 was not an isolated incident or a phenomenon.
Always remembered: Flowers and photographs are placed into the inscribed names of the victims during 20th anniversary commemorations at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.
“The act should be seen as a part of a connected, integral social and historical whole, which intensified already entrenched processes and relations,” he says.
In Australia, one of the most obvious everyday impacts occurred in international airports, with the introduction of biometric screening (in the form of facial recognition and body scanners) and heightened security.
Azeez says that in exchange for people giving up various rights and freedoms, the authorities promised to keep them safe – making airports the emblem and insignia of ‘a new transnational apparatus of capital and power’.
Azeez says that the 9/11 attacks followed decades of US repression of communists, intellectuals and secular forces in other countries, where international relations were maintened via warlords, dictatorships, foreign occupations and invasions.
The result: an integrated system of opposites; on one side is the ‘decadent’ digitalised capitalist system, with liberal and multicultural ideals, where wealth and property is ever more concentrated and where the shrinking middle class is disaffected and the working class further alienated. On the other side sits the global unemployed and peasant populations who are increasingly desperate, where religious conflict and ethnic hatreds abound.
Connections: Dr Govand Azeez (pictured) says the September 11 attacks should be seen as a part of a connected social and historical whole.
“The root-cause of these opposite extremes is not geographical, cultural or religious, but in the global monopoly of private property, political power and ideas which has led to the exclusion of around three billion people, some of them here in our own backyard,” he says.
Twenty years after 9/11, Azeez says that increasing areas of lawlessness are the source of ongoing violence.
“These are historically butchered geopolitical sites devoid of sovereignty, parts of Syria and Iraq, parts of Mexico, El Salvador, north of Nigeria, all of these are dead districts of capital, experiencing ongoing emergencies and wars, where there is suspension of government and politics is reduced to rights over life and death,” he says.
Despite this, corporations continue to exploit cheap labour and extract resources; but where militia and armed gangs don’t co-operate with the economic expectations of the global system, the response is often assassinations, invasion and occupation – followed by savage retaliation from small terror groups.
“In order to really understand 9/11 – we have to place it within this global systematic schema,” he says.
Dr Randa Abdel-Fatteh is the author of Coming of Age in the War on Terror
Dr Vince Scappatura is the author of The US lobby and Australian defence policy