The 9/11 attacks are linked to a wider moral malaise

September 9, 2011
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This article was published in The Times on 9th September 2011 (the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11)

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Two things have haunted me since 9/11. The first is the pain, the grief, the lives lost and families devastated, the sheer barbaric ingenuity of evil. The scar in our humanity is still unhealed. The second is our failure to understand what Osama bin Laden was saying about the West. We did not hear the message then. I’m not sure we hear it now.

After the shock and grief subsided, two theories began to be heard. The first was that this was an event of epoch-changing magnitude. The terms of international politics had been transformed. The Cold War was over. Another war had begun. This time the enemy was not the Soviet Union and communism. It was radical, political Islam.

The second was the opposite. 9/11 was terrifying and terrible but it changed nothing because acts of terror never do. Terrorist campaigns have been aimed at other countries. Britain suffered similarly from the IRA in the 1970s. The most important thing is not to overreact. Terror may bring dividends in local conflicts but it never succeeds in its larger political aims.

There is something to be said for both theories. But there is a third, no less consequential. Why did al-Qaeda attack America? Because it believed that it could. Because it thought the US was a power past its prime, no longer as lean and hungry as it believed it was.

Robert McNamara said that the first rule in politics is to understand your enemy’s psychology. As I struggled to understand 9/11 I began to suspect that the answer lay in the events of 1989. That is when the narratives of the West and the rest began seriously to diverge.

In the West, 1989 was seen as the collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The Western narrative was triumphalist. It saw those events as heralding the victory of its values without a shot being fired. The free market and liberal democratic politics had won for the simplest of reasons. They delivered, while communism did not. They would now spread across the world. It was, said Francis Fukuyama, the beginning of the end of history.

There was, though, another narrative that few were listening to. It said that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 not because of the triumph of liberal democracy but because of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier that year. It had invaded in 1979 and was forced to withdraw, not because of superpower politics but because of the determined resistance of a small group of highly motivated religious warriors, the Mujahidin and their helpers. That, historically, is the event that captured the imagination of Osama bin Laden.

According to this account, that one event, the humiliating retreat of the Soviet Army, set in motion a series of internal crises that resulted, months later, in the fall of a great power. If one of the world’s two superpowers was vulnerable to asymmetric warfare — the war of the few against the many — why not the other, America itself? What 1989 represented was not the end of history but the end of a history dominated by the twin superpowers of communist Russia and capitalist America.

Both were vulnerable because both were overripe and about to fall from the tree. Much excitement was felt in the West by the failure of communism. Less attention was paid to what Daniel Bell called the cultural contradictions of capitalism.

Throughout this period there were voices that few seemed to be listening to. First and greatest was the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1981 masterwork, After Virtue. He argued that the moral discourse of the West had broken down.

The “Enlightenment project” of a purely rational ethic had failed — not because there was no such thing, but because there were too many. They clashed inconclusively and people were left with a sense that morality is whatever you think it is.

His minatory warning was: “The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” That was a scary thing to hear from one of the world’s great philosophers. I soon began to hear it from other leading intellectuals also, such as Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch and Robert Bellah. That is what I heard in the echoes of 9/11: that all great civilisations eventually decline, and when they begin to do so they are vulnerable. That is what Osama bin Laden believed about the West and so did some of the West’s own greatest minds.

If so, then 9/11 belongs to a wider series of phenomena affecting the West: the disintegration of the family, the demise of authority, the build-up of personal debt, the collapse of financial institutions, the downgrading of the American economy, the continuing failure of some European economies, the loss of a sense of honour, loyalty and integrity that has brought once esteemed groups into disrepute, the waning throughout the West of a sense of national identity; even last month’s riots.

These are all signs of the arteriosclerosis of a culture, a civilisation grown old. Whenever Me takes precedence over We, and pleasure today over viability tomorrow, a society is in trouble. If so, then the enemy is not radical Islam, it is us and our by now unsustainable self-indulgence.

The West has expended much energy and courage fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad and defeating terror at home. It has spent far less, if any, in renewing its own morality and the institutions — families, communities, ethical codes, standards in public life — where it is created and sustained. But if I am right, this is the West’s greatest weakness in the eyes of its enemies as well as its friends.

The only way to save the world is to begin with ourselves. Our burden after 9/11 is to renew the moral disciplines of freedom. Some say it can’t be done. They are wrong: it can and must. Surely we owe the dead no less.