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Ten years after 9/11, the true threat is not a super-villain skulking in the desert, says Laurie Penny

We have been starved of the meaning and context of global disaster.

In answer to the obvious question, I was in double biology, cutting up potatoes for my GCSE coursework. There was a television in the school science labs, and in students rushed, in ones and twos and in hushed astonishment, as the twin towers burned and then fell. One boy rushed to call his father in New York. The normal hierarchies of age and status were suspended temporarily as sixth-form footballers and geeky kids in Year Ten shared a packet of biscuits someone had produced. We all munched away silently, watching the world change for ever.

Memory is a funny thing, particularly collective memory. Once or twice in a generation come events so seismically significant that they seem to resist analysis, and all we can do is remind each other what we were doing when we found out. The baby boomers remember where they were when Kennedy was shot; my parents remember where they were when the Berlin Wall fell; today, we remember where we were a decade ago when Islamist terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. As the footage of human beings jumping to their deaths from the blazing towers rolled and re-rolled, a tacit understanding grew that to attach meaning or context to these attacks would be unthinkable, impossible.

Amorphous war

Unfortunately, meaning and context were precisely what we were starved of over the next ten years, as western leaders appeared to deem this atrocity so numbing to debate that anything could be done in its name. Even language became warped in the wreckage of the towers: tens of thousands of Iraqi children became "collateral damage", outsourced torture became "extraordinary rendition", and the bombing of nation states became an amorphous war on "terror". The legitimate grief and shock of those who lived through the 2001 attacks were co-opted to sanction a decade of cruelty, misinformation and war, and, in the west, a generation grew up understanding that politicians cannot be trusted.

Even ten years on, we refer to the events of that day in superstitious shorthand. When we say 9/11, everyone knows that we don't mean the mediocre mid-1990s boy band. Fear of a name, as Dumbledore teaches us, increases fear of the thing itself, and fear is just what leaders on both sides of the war on terror were counting on.

There are some political realities so ponderous that only fiction can understand them. In Ken MacLeod's 2008 novel The Night Sessions, the race to stop a religious terrorist cell from blowing up two skyscrapers and killing millions is thwarted when it is discovered that everyone has been looking in the wrong place. Instead of the planned attack, the fundamentalists destroy a major piece of economic infrastructure, causing a global downturn.

Caught and interrogated, one terrorist coldly explains that even though no one has died, millions of lives will be shortened and made materially harder as a result of the coming recession - and hence the human cost of this piece of global sabotage will be far higher than any one dramatic act of mass murder.

The remarkable prescience of this chilling little book, published a month before the toppling of Lehman Brothers, has stayed with me since. Because it turns out, ten years after history appeared to be rewritten in plumes of smoke across the Manhattan skyline, that we have all been looking in the wrong place. It turns out that the grand story of the early part of the 21st century is not the clash of civilisations, of Islamist terrorism versus western democracy, but the struggle of the financial and political elite against their own people as the free market buckles under its own weight, a new bankruptcy hastened by two desert wars and years of cheap post-9/11 credit. The greatest threat to democracy is not external attack, but internal collapse.

Ten years after 9/11, the world has moved on. Realisation is dawning that the great danger to western democracy was never a shadowy super-villain skulking in the desert, but inequality, alienation and economic collapse. The main threat to our collective way of life is not sudden and brutal, but gradual and callous: it's the wearing away of everything that made ordinary life decent and bearable, the slow erosion of civil society into something mean and desperate. And that truth is far more terrifying than any dirty bomb.

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

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution