The death of implausibility: politics in the 21st century
Note - This piece originally appeared in this month’s edition of Madison magazine.
The official toll from the September 11 terrorist attacks stands at 2752 but there was another casualty that day – the death of implausibility, as a scenario that would have been dismissed as unbelievable by the most coke-addled Hollywood producer unfolded in real time on our television screens.
Almost 10 years on it is still a stretch to process the imagery. One passenger jet and then a second gliding into the glass and steel of the World Trade Centre, a third plane hitting the Pentagon, a fourth crashing in a Pennsylvania field, the first tower falling, the second following, the defining (and at the time, self-censored) image of The Falling Man, his identity still the matter of conjecture, who exited this hell by jumping some 100 floors to his death, frozen forever in a serene upside-down repose.
The enduring incomprehensibility of the event is best captured in our collective water-cooler take on what it had just witnessed – and how many times have you heard people say this – “We were sitting up watching TV and thought it must have been a film.”
British author Martin Amis chooses the term “horrorism” over “terrorism” to convey the cinematic character of the horror of that day.
Distressingly, it’s a term which has had application throughout the first decade of this new century as terrorist events, be they executed or planned, continue to horrify the civilised world.
The ghostly image of a dazed woman wearing a felt burns mask over her face outside the London Underground.
Bodies and body parts strewn over the sleepers at Madrid’s Ochoa railway station, as if in some twisted detail from Picasso’s Guernica.
The methodical room-by-room execution of guests at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel, many of them cowering in their closets reporting their pending demise via Twitter, their killers not being part of an elite terror cell but a young, ragtag bunch of al Qaeda franchisees who simply loaded up their rucksacks with grenades and guns for a day out mimicking their murderous heroes.
Perhaps saddest of all, on the one-year anniversary of the 2004 Beslan school siege in which 186 of the 334 dead were children, families making a monument out of water bottles in angry remembrance of the terrorists’ tactics in denying the children anything to drink as they wired up the basketball stadium with semtex.
And, of course, Bali.
It’s indicative of our need for mental self-preservation that we have managed to sublimate this carnival of horrors into the background.
The arrests of men who planned to blow up planes with their shoes, to highjack not four but seven passenger jets and detonate them above the Atlantic, the plot to bomb the 2005 AFL Grand Final, to blow up the Australian Tax Office, an alleged plot to strafe the Holsworthy Army Base….somehow, the civilised world has continued as if it is all now kind of mundane, as unremarkable as the request our six-year-old daughter got from a security guard at the Sydney Airport this September to take off her tiny shoes and walk through the checkpoint again after triggering the buzzer.
A request which we chose not to explain to her.
This world is a world away from the one which existed 10 years ago.
In Australia at least, the first decade of the new century had started with a sense of optimism, happiness and security which our country had never experienced before.
The Sydney Olympics were not only a nation-defining moment but a moment of unadorned joy for a planet which at that point had no need for escapism. There were no major global conflicts underway.
The Cold War was a memory, trade was becoming freer, travel cheaper, digital had made the world smaller than it had ever been before, and with a chuckle we had seen off the one apparent threat to global civilisation, the Y2K bug, which in retrospect seemed like nothing more than a con-job by IT firms which needed a new revenue stream after the dot.com bust.
In what was possibly the only brilliant speech to come out of September 11, British Prime Minister Tony Blair – who, next to the linguistically-handicapped George Bush, was the true brains of the gang in the so-called War on Terror – delivered an address to his party one month after the attacks where he spelled out just how much the world had changed.
“In retrospect, the Millennium marked only a moment in time. It was the events of September 11 that marked a turning point in history, where we confront the dangers of the future and assess the choices facing humankind.”
Barely a year after Blair’s speech, on a typically wild Saturday night on the Kuta Beach nightclub strip, Australia marked a turning point in its own history when 88 of its citizens were among the 202 slain by Jemaah Islamiah in the Sari Club attacks.
And with the age profile of the victims – dozens of them members of footy clubs on their end-of-season tour – it marked the first time this particularly carefree and untroubled generation of affluent, mobile, happy young Australians found itself in the centre of an act of war.
The event had profound long-term implications for our nation. John Howard, who had already been returned for a third term in a November 2001 election dominated by national security, became an even more emboldened member of what George Bush with trademark clunkiness had labeled The Coalition of the Willing.
Just three months after the Bali attacks, Australia joined the US and Britain in the invasion of Iraq, a war which initially looked like a walk in the park. CNN beamed the live feed of Hussein’s statue being toppled and slapped with sandals by a joyful crowd. Mission accomplished, Bush declared. But the conflict quickly collapsed into a mano-a-mano quagmire from which the US has still not extricated itself.
Critics denounced the war as the greatest recruitment tool al Qaeda could have hoped for. The assessment ignores the compelling central point of Blair’s October 2001 speech – this is a war against civilisation and radical Islamists will try to destroy us regardless.
Voting, watching TV, listening to music, reading books, letting girls get an education, believing (or not believing) in a different God – these are the things we do which offend radical Islam, and Blair was right to acknowledge that we are hated not for what we do but what we are.
But the pretext for the war in Iraq also failed the moral test which Blair had established in that same speech – where he said that, from his conversations with the families of September 11 victims, it was clear that “They don’t want revenge, they want something better than that in memory of their loved ones.”
What they got instead was a war which, in retrospect, looked more the result of flimsy intelligence as to Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass distraction, and an act of familial payback by George Bush Junior for his father’s unfinished business with Saddam.
As a result not only of its pretext but aspects of its conduct – the bastardisation at Abu Ghraib prison, furious debate over Camp X-Ray and water-boarding – the allies in the War on Terror weakened their own moral armour.
And the scepticism or even shame which other western nations subsequently felt over this war has undermined collective effort in the much more important war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the true power-base of al Qaeda.
The end of the Bush era and the victory of Barack Obama may have helped restore America’s standing in much of the world. Despite sometimes lapsing into symbolism and sentiment, it was correct to report the election of America’s first black President as the final step in the long march to civil rights. It was a testament to the self-improving powers of democracy.
But the challenges facing Obama are the same as the rest of the civilised world, Australia included, for the decade ahead.
To help restore the function and credibility of capitalism after it very nearly collapsed on itself through mismanagement and greed.
And to do so in a global environment where, as we learned in Australia on the night of September 11, 2001 when we were innocently channel surfing before heading to bed, nothing is implausible any more.
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