But it will take decades to assess whether 9/11 compares with the events that brought the world wars of the 20th century
As people in the United States and elsewhere reflect on what the fifth anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 might mean, I am reminded of the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai’s frequently quoted 1950 quip about his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution: “It is too early to tell.”
The obvious question for anyone, historian or not, is whether the events of 9/11 were transformative of world politics in the manner in which, for instance, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on June 28, 1914, was in sparking the political cataclysm wrought by the First World War; or the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 was in setting in motion the long struggle between liberal democracy and communism; or the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor was in bringing the United States into World War II.
But we do know, surrounded as we are by the instant television images from around the globe, that in some measure our world changed in the days after 9/11 from what it was the day before. We have become acutely aware of terrorism, despite the fact it is not a new phenomenon. It was, after all, a terrorist, the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, who unleashed a world war by delivering his fatal shot in the summer of 1914.
Historians will wrestle in their explanations with the many threads of politics, economics, culture, religion, and psychology of grievance, envy, anti-Semitism and hate that came together in bringing individuals to plan and execute the terrorist strikes on New York City and Washington—and since then in a roll call of cities from Madrid and London to Mumbai.
Then there is the war against terrorism—now described more accurately as the war against “violent Islamic radicalism” as U.S. President George Bush did recently—precipitated by the events of 9/11. This war has generated as much unrest globally as the fear of Islamic radicalism or fascism itself, with its unconscionable violence of suicide bombings directed indiscriminately against civilian populations.
It will take decades, once the dust settles from the storm unleashed by the suicide bombers of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida global terror network, to assess whether 9/11 may be placed alongside those events that brought our world the world wars of the 20th century.
Yet in my view, there are two positive unintended consequences to note resulting from the events of 9/11.
First, that Moammar Khadaffy, the Libyan dictator, was made to abandon his secret program to build nuclear weapons.
Khadaffy’s survival instinct saved his regime from pressures that would be brought by the U.S. and its allies, and in the bargain the clandestine network for smuggling nuclear technology built by the Pakistani metallurgist, A.Q. Khan, was fully revealed and busted.
The Libyan episode indicates the worst nightmare of the international community still looming on the horizon: Nuclear weapons seized or acquired from a rogue state, such as Pakistan, by the network of al-Qaida terrorists and detonated in a city somewhere.
Hence, in the context of 9/11, allowing Iran to follow in the footsteps of North Korea and Pakistan in becoming a nuclear weapon state is unacceptable.
The second unintended positive consequence of 9/11 has been the immense and necessary pressures from outside that have been brought to bear on the Arab-Muslim world to change its ways, and move in the direction from being “fear” societies to becoming “free” societies, as Natan Sharansky discussed in his remarkable book, The Case for Democracy.
For the first time in several centuries, the reform of Islam—not unlike the reform of Christianity over a long, turbulent history—is not simply a matter only for reform-minded Muslims to think about and engage in with all its attendant risks, but it has also become essential for the world to purge itself from the pathology of violent Islamic radicalism, much as it did with Bolshevism and Nazism.
How Islamic reform will proceed into the future is anybody’s guess. But like the nuclear genie, the program for Islamic reform can no longer be pushed back into the bottle of a massively shaken Arab-Muslim world of dictators and monarchs.
The events of 9/11 and the war against terrorism that followed, it might be stated with some certainty, precipitated the Arab-Muslim world into an unprecedented convulsion. Out of this, through many twists and turns, it will likely emerge sufficiently repaired to enter the world of freedom and democracy, with the support of countries such as Canada.