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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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood