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.

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Donald Trump has told America it can be great without being good

The inauguration of the new president is so fraught because America sees itself as exceptional. 

I walked through Washington DC on Wednesday. I walked through the Mall, past the Capitol, down to the Trump International hotel behind its three rows of barricades. Excited, well-dressed white people were greeting one another outside, getting ready for the coronation that dare not speak its name. Like a thousand other reporters, I came here for the big story - but the story is, and always has been, America. That’s the point. And that’s the problem.

Outside Trump International, a scruffy, bearded gentleman in a Make America Great Again hat circled a pedicab plastered in American flags outside the grand hotel's Transylvanian facade, ringing his bell for custom. I got in, since everyone else was ignoring him. His name was Michael, and he was an ex-marine, and he was exuberant. “He’s the President now, and that means something,” he told me. “When he makes his statement, ‘Make America Great Again, that means everything about America, all the good and bad that comes with being American, that’s going to be on the up again. We’ve got the right president for the times. We always get the right president for the times.”

This is the sort of conversation I’ve been having all week, Trumpian in register, empty of actual fact, but dripping with the sort of symbolism normally reserved for royal and religious events. When Americans elect a president they are electing at once a politician and a king - and that very knowledge flies in the face of everything America tells itself about itself. America is not, officially, a fan of royalty, unless you count the British royal family, who are somehow a national obsession in a country that still thinks it's important for every child to be heavily armed in case the King of England comes to steal their lemonade.

But the iconography of kingship is everywhere. America is a fundamentally religious nation, and Americanism itself is a religion upon whose principles nobody can agree, a religion whose rituals are inculcated in every citizen from childhood by way of flags and pledges. The election of a President is not just the election of a political leader, but a head of state, someone with enormous symbolic power who holds the heart of the nation in his tiny grasping hands. You only need to observe the difficulty Americans have making fun of the President, whoever he may be. You can criticize him - rabidly so - but the mythos must not be undermined. Can you imagine anyone playing Hail To The Chief as David Cameron came into the room? America had The West Wing and House of Cards; the British have Spitting Image and In The Loop. Americans fire guns at their president, but they don't throw eggs.

America, as Ta-Nehisi Coates observes in his masterpiece Between The World And Me, “believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.” The anointing of Donald J Trump as de facto world emperor is among the most mortal errors in the short and savage history of the barely-United States, but the grand story of American Exceptionalism cannot allow this sort of error. It must, somehow, come right. Even for those who, scant months ago, were declaring the end of the American dream, are clutching for their blankets, hearing the dreadful alarm and hammering the snooze button.

America is the empire of cognitive dissonance. Its continued existence relies on the conviction that it is great in every sense, that as a nation it is uniquely democratic, uniquely just, uniquely free. In order for these ideals to sit alongside its history of genocide and conquest, the daily lived reality of racism, the evil legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, the myth of America the Great has to do a hell of a lot of work. The Obama administration did its best to resolve that cognitive dissonance by insisting that America could be not just great, but good - that the psychic wounds of the past could be soothed with ritual if not actual reparation. The genius of its strategy was to appeal to a vision of peaceful inclusivity that extended rather than inverted the story of America The Just. This strategy was also its failing, because it had reckoned without an America whose great dark fairytale involved a hell of a lot more denial.

On Pennsylvania avenue in the rushing dark, Michael and I had acquired another passenger, Tracy Douglas, a gentleman in his sixties who wanted to go to the White House and invited me to ride with him while he explained how Trump was going to return patriotism to the people. The pedicab pulled in to let a howling motorcade go by. “That’s The President,” said Douglas. He meant Obama. You could hear the capitalisation in his voice. He had no love for the Democrats - he claimed, in fact, to have worked for the Bush administration - but he still pronounced the title with reverence.

This is why so many millions allowed themselves to be persuaded, against every scrap of evidence, that Obama was not American. This is the logic of the birther movement that launched Cheeto Mussolini. It was not enough to label the first black president to be incompetent, reverse-racist or, worse still, a socialist - he was clearly none of those things, but facts have never precisely been invited to the Tea Party. The symbolic violence of the Obamas in the White House, their grace and magnamity, their sheer maddening classiness, created a cognitive dissonance that drove parts of White America quite out of its mind. They had to be Un-American.

Trump does away with a lot of this cognitive dissonance by making it alright for America to be great without being good. Great without good is making deals rather than dealing in diplomacy. Great without good is a playground bully who never gets told no. Great without good is being proud of being white. Great without good is not as discomfiting as it ought to be.

One thing I hadn’t quite clocked before I started this trip was how much the grand story of American Exceptionalism matters to the left, as much as it does to the right. How very much all but the most iconoclastic of US citizens are committed to maintaining that grand story and finding their place within it. It’s not an inherently dreadful idea, but it’s easy to twist, and today the best and most naive instinct of American progressives - their basic faith in the machinations of a democracy that is little more than an auction house for vested interests - are being used against them.

The biggest obstacles to any democratic resistance to Trump are the rituals of American democracy themselves. The pomp and circumstance of confirmation, inauguration, cabinet selection - all of it contributes to the normalisation of what ought never to have been permitted to seem normal. All around Washington DC, someone has been tearing down the signs directing protesters to convene on inauguration day - the neon posters have been clawed half-away, as if in haste.

That is not how you prepare a city for the accession of an ordinary political leader. It is how you prepare for the coronation of a king. This week, in this city, America is about to anoint an Emperor. It will take a great deal for someone to point out that the Emperor not only has no clothes, but is starring in his very own pornographic spoof of the presidential mode that plays perfectly to the auto-erotic tendency in American politics.

Moderate conservatives will be the first to normalise the new imperial nudity.. At the conventions, moderate conservatives were the most miserable people at every party, drinking with the grim dedication of funeral guests . They could summon disdain for Trump for as long as he was turning the Republican Party into his own personal reality-tv foodfight, but now he's President, that instinctive faith in institutional authority is kicking in. They may not respect the man, but they must respect the office, The Congress, The Senate. They must trust in the ritual apparatus of American democracy to save them, or abandon that sense of normality that lets them get up and do their jobs every day, the thing that some people call sanity. This, too, is how it happens. Tyranny happens when the idea of nationhood makes resistance to tyranny impossible.

Nobody is ever finally going to agree about what America is, but there a great many Americans hold in their hearts a half-formed idea of nationhood that is incompatible with racial justice. It must not be forgotten - it must be repeated like a refrain over these four years and more - that it was racism that crowned Donald Trump. Not liberal equivocation, not leftist cowardice, not sexism, not working-class disenchantment - all of these things were and remain real but on their own they would never have stopped Hillary Clinton. White America wanted Trump to restore its pride. White America wanted a king who would pummel through its pain with his tiny entitled fists.

This is why the most heartfelt cry of anti-Trump protesters today is "Not My President". It’s the sort of symbolic denial that would never make sense in Britain - Trump, after all, is the President. I’m very cross with Theresa May, but I’d never try to claim that she’s not the Prime Minister - she is, and that’s the problem. For Americans, though, refusing to crown Trump in their own American story has symbolic value. It’s a way of resisting the unique power of kings.

In folktales and fairytales, the king is connected to the land. A bad, reckless king makes the land sicken, the people suffer, the crops fail; a good king brings rich harvests and success in battle. This is the level on which Americans of every political background understand the presidency. The President is more than a man, more than a politician - he is a little god, and too much resistance in thought and deed is heresy. It is a heresy that Americans will have to contemplate as they stare down the barrel of four years with a vengeful cartoon narcissist, half toddler, half tyrant, squatting in the Oval Office with his evil aviary of hawks and vultures.

As Michael dropped us off outside the glowing temple of the White House. I could not help but recall the group of young activists I met last week. They, too, believed in the story of America, to an extent that surprised me. Their story, however, was different. “Someday,” the young woman who convened the group told me, “someday it will eally have mattered what we did in this time. It will matter that we fought back. That will just matter for the story of America - like, 'did we give up?’ ‘How did we fight back?' ‘Did we say no to fascism, or did we let it happen to us?'"

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.