Essay: Italian journalist Gianni Riotta, who lived through 9/11 in Manhattan, recalls how radically everything can change, and yet how it all still manages to pass. Or almost all.
We believed in a free market that could enrich poorer countries like China, India and Brazil, without impoverishing us, the wealthy Europeans and Americans of the West. We believed that technology was friendly, the Internet a sunny square for making conversation, doing business, falling in love.
President Clinton had created more than 10 million new jobs. The euro was invulnerable. Greek bonds were worth as much as German bonds. We believed that war was over. The silent and vicious Cold War had lasted for two generations, and separated Western peace from the poverty and the dictatorships of the rest of the world. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we believed in a new international order. President George H.W. Bush had unified Italians, Germans, and Arabs under the UN flag to fight Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. We believed in this international coalition as a warning against all tyrants. For the first time, democracies were the majority at the UN General Assembly.
We believed all these things through Sept. 10, 2001. But our excitement for a new millennium, free from the ghosts, ideologies, and hatreds of the 20th century, was hiding the signs of danger. In 1995, there was a terrorist attack against the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the summer of 1998, al Qaeda members bombed US targets in Africa. But we were not paying attention, too enraptured by the affair between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. We did not see.
It's a common mistake. We live in the future. We bet on the future, thinking that it will bring peace, wealth, and integration. China was joining the World Trade Organization, engaged in business rather than revolution. Then, Osama bin Laden’s men attacked.
It was a perfect act of an asymmetric war, like David against Goliath. They destroyed the Twin Towers which had stood gently against the backdrop of Manhattan’s blue sky. They hit their enemies' military headquarters, the Pentagon. They missed a third target -- maybe the White House -- only because the passengers of the last hijacked plane rose against the kamikazes and crashed the plane in a field in Pennsylvania. The short season of hope ended that day. After the Cold war (1945-1989), the dawn of the new century was one of rage and fear. "How did we not see it?" Robert Oakley, former head of the State Department's counter-terrorism office, once said to me. How?
Without seeing, we arrived at the day that changed our lives, Sept. 11, 2001. But then, there are some, like Richard Hass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who say that Sept. 11 didn't really change the world. They say that other events were actually more important: the 2007 economic crisis, China becoming a super power, online social networks. The Clash of Civilizations, which Samuel Huntington said would have seen the Western world face off against the Muslim world, didn’t happen.
Time of tolerance, days of hatred
"Everything passes," says the Russian writer Vasily Grossman, who witnessed the siege of Stalingrad, the Nazi extermination camps and the Soviet Gulags. Everything passes, but still, it changes us, forever. Ten years later, we still remember the dust falling on downtown Manhattan. We remember the pieces of concrete, of paper, and of human corpses on Sept. 11, 2001. That day has become a mirror in which we see our image: the good and the evil of our society, unmasked.
After that day, there was the time of tolerance, when President Bush sought dialogue with Muslim leaders, when President Obama spoke at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. There were the days of hatred of Abu Ghraib prison. There were the days of unity, when the French newspaper Le Monde proclaimed “We are all Americans.” There were the days of division, when Washington, Paris, London, Rome, Berlin and Madrid were fighting over the coming attack against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, when French demonstrators smashed the windows of McDonald’s, and American drinkers tossed away their Champagne. There were the days of mourning when the terrorists attacked in Nassiriya, Madrid, and London. There were the days of courage: the international peace force has been in Kabul for ten years now. There were the days of opportunism, of Guantanamo and of blackmails for oil. The mirror of Sep. 11 shows the image of our strength and our ideas, of our weakness and mediocrity. It has changed us forever, for better or worse.
Our enemies looked into that mirror too. It petrified them. Osama bin Laden dreamed of a caliphate that would have erased any conciliation between Islam and modernity, denied rights, democracy, freedom, and supported the racist notion that Muslims and democracy are incompatible. He failed, long before his death in Pakistan. In 20 days, with the help of digital social networks, Arab youth overthrew regimes that al Qaeda had tried for 20 years to overthrow.
The road is still long. There is no agreement on what really happened that day. According to a poll released by the University of Maryland, the majority of Muslims do not believe that al Qaeda was behind the attacks. President Obama’s appeal is declining.
The real and radical clash of civilizations has taken place between tolerance and intolerance, in the Western world as much as in the Islamic one. Instead of recruiting more kamikazes, Al Qaeda has isolated itself, killing 12,000 Muslims with suicide attacks in Iraq. Ten years later, “we” are dealing with a finance crisis while “they” are dealing with new democracies and the decline of tyrants, in Syria and Iran. Al Qaeda members are still looking for a nuclear arsenal, thinking that democracies will not last.
Ten years ago, I was walking my daughter to her first day of nursery school, along with another little girl and her father. Today they are two teenagers, two young women. But the father who was walking the other girl, chatting with me, died that day in the World Trade Center, in the offices of the Cantor Fitzgerald investment firm.
The road to the future does not change. Dialogue and tolerance are still the only weapons against the diehard terrorists. Everything passes, everything but the pain for those we lost. “In our own despair” wrote the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, “against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”