The Al-Qaeda attack on the USA on September 11, 2001 was a landmark event. It and its aftermath will be discussed by historians for centuries. No doubt every faction will develop its own mythology and these myths will obscure the sober appraisal of exactly how the twenty-first century kicked off with such a bang. Fourteen years into "The War on Terror" I would like to reflect on how successful were those 19 hijackers (mostly Saudi nationals).
Of course no-one can doubt their immediate military success. From the point of view of those who supported the attack it was the stuff of heroism against overwhelming odds - hundreds of times more successful than, say, the British "Dam Busters" drama which so caught my own schoolboy imagination.
In some ways though the success of the aftermath is even more interesting.
Immediately after the attacks there was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy and support around the world for America and its citizens. In my opinion, the greater Al-Qaeda victory was turning around world opinion until today America is the most feared and hated country in the world. What went wrong for the Land of the Free?
The answer is that it had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda and everything to do with the American reaction. Their enemies had the inestimable advantage of a hopelessly inept American administration whose knee-jerk response was as bad as it could possibly have been. They began by retaliating against the wrong country, they woefully misunderstood that war against a minor military enemy state was much more more than having greater firepower, and they expended trillions of dollars that could have been used to repair their own domestic social fabric. But that is by no means all that went wrong.
The US administration have co-opted the word "Terror" as a convenient catch-all to justify a raft of policies that would have been once unthinkable. They have enshrined the word in their criminal justice system as an excuse to trample on the civil liberties on their citizens. They have used it to snoop on their own nationals (to say nothing of foreigners) in a way that uncannily recalls Orwell's 1984. The "War on Terror" has such a nebulous enemy that it can never be won in the same way that Oceania could never defeat Eastasia. And if "Terror" really is something against which war can be waged just ask the average American how safe they now feel: a poll last year showed that about half of all Americans feel less safe than immediately after 9/11.
Think of that! 19 men robbed the USA of a vast amount of their national wealth, caused them to lose their moral credibility and international respect, and made their citizenry permanently anxious. Can you describe that as anything other than a victory?
So what should America do to climb out of the pit of defeat? It won't be quick and it won't be easy but the rest of the world has an interest in helping them do so. I would like to propose an approach that addresses one of the fundamental problems underlying the American disaster. The world should make every effort to make Americans engage with nationalities beyond their borders. Ignorance breeds fear and suspicion and it is significant how few Americans hold passports to travel. These efforts can be made at all levels but every city outside the US could do its bit by twinning with a city within the US. The twinning protocol should offer funds for a handful of people in an American city to visit their twinned counterpart for a month say, living with local families. In this way, over time, there would build up a nucleus of Americans familiar with some culture beyond their own. They would see that other nations have cultures that are perfectly acceptable alternatives to their own and that "American Exceptionalism" is a myth without foundation.
Maybe that is too naive a proposal. Does anyone have a better one?