We will never forget 9/11. But it has not shaped us

What happened was huge, but the neocons have gone, and the Middle East and the west are not engaged

9/11 changed nothing. Obviously for the victims, and their families, it changed everything, for ever. But in geopolitical terms it was not a transformative event. The kaleidoscope was not shaken. The pieces never were in flux.

We're not supposed to say that, of course. The tenth anniversary of that appalling day requires appropriate commemoration, and, sadly, fan-fare. As such, it cannot simply be a footnote. It must be nothing less than the frame upon which the 21st century rests.

But the historic vantage point of September 11 is illusory. The fall of the twin towers were nowhere near comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The US invasion of Afghanistan was itself not even as significant as the invasion conducted by the Soviet Union two decades earlier. Bin Laden's killing will not outlast the impact and resonance of the death of figures such as Che Guvera, Steve Biko or Mohamed Bouazizi.

9/11 was the day that was supposed to have re-shaped the United States, transformed the Middle East and irrevocably altered our world. It did none of those things.

In the US we were promised, or threatened with, the dawning of a neo-conservative century. White Anglo-Saxon America would retreat behind a wall of steel, venturing forth occasionally to subjugate the hapless natives with another brutal lesson in shock and awe.

In fact, the neo-conservative century lasted another three years. Then hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, followed shortly after by the banking crash, and White Anglo-Saxon America realized you just can't build your walls high enough. Republican war hero John McCain was defeated by a black community activist named Hussein Obama, and Dick Cheney retired to begin work on his memoir In My Time.

Those who predicted change in the Middle East proved more prescient. Just. The toppling of Saddam was supposed to light a beacon of freedom that would illuminate the region. Until we stumbled across the descent into barbarism that was Abu Ghraib.

At the same time, Bush and Blair's reckless adventurism was supposed to have locked west and east into a new dance of death. Then the states of the Arab League gave NATO their blessing to impose a no-fly zone on Colonel Gaddafi, and cheering crowds in Tripoli's Green square celebrated his overthrow by waving the French tricolor.

Yes we have had our glimpse of the Arab spring. But not because of the actions of Khalid Mohammed or Blackwater Security. None of the freedom movements in Tunisia or Egypt or Libya were born on that clear, crisp New York morning.

And whilst much has changed, much has stayed the same. The Palestinians are still without a homeland; the Israelis without security in their own. The richest area of our planet is still ruled by faded monarchies and religious zealots and petty dictators. Their world, and the world of their people, hasn't turned.

Nor, in truth, has ours. The war on terror has touched, but not shaken us. Al-Qaeda have had less lasting impact in Britain than did the IRA, or ETA in Spain, or the Red Brigade in Italy. The fear they instil amongst those who still remember the Stasi is minimal. In Scandinavia, they watch for demons closer to home.

Of course there are tensions. Undercurrents. If you are a Muslim, suspicion and fear are companions. But the fact is those tensions have always been present. Thirty years ago, the signs read: "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish". Today, Muslims and asylum seekers would take their place. Except today, even after 9/11, such signs would be illegal.

Despite the apocalyptic premonitions, we do not live in a constant stage of siege. There are no bomb detectors at our tube stations, or five hour check-ins for our flights. There is a new terrorist hot-line, but hardly any of us have ever called it. Attempts to extend detention without trial have been, and gone.

Inevitably there have been those who have attempted to build a legacy out of the horrors of the previous decade. Nick Griffin was one, until last week, when the bailiffs arrived to repossess his Skoda. His party will soon follow.

Another was Stephen Lennon of the EDL, but his members can no longer march, and he can't walk the streets of his own city unless he is in disguise. Islam4UK never did make it down to Wootton Bassett, or to Luton, where the local Muslim community leaders informed them there presence wasn't welcome.

None of this is to diminish the enormity of what happened ten years ago this September. Or belittle the suffering of those who were directly involved, or touched by its aftermath.

But the neocons have gone. The Middle East and the west are not engaged in a new holy war. Repression and authoritarianism have not cast a long shadow over our society.

9/11 was a day none of us will ever forget. But it has not shaped us. The kaleidoscope still sits, and waits.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism