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The Terrorist Attack in 2001

Life Goes On, Twenty Years Later

The New York skyline in 2021, with the skyscraper on the location of the old World Trade Center. Photo: Ed Jones/AP.

The conflict in the Middle East can be resolved, and the West has to meet new challenges, mainly from China...

We all remember where we were when we received the big, unexpected and shocking news that terrorists had attacked New York and Washington DC, killing thousands of people. I was attending a regional meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international academy of classical liberal and conservative scholars, on whose board I served in 1998–2004. The meeting was held in Bratislava in Slovakia, and on Tuesday 11 September 2001 I had arranged to have dinner with a friend, Dr Warren Coats of the International Monetary Fund, preceded by drinks at the hotel where we both were staying. But soon after three o’clock Warren called me and said: ‘Watch the television news. There is a terrorist attack on New York!’ Stunned, I asked: ‘You mean, like in a film?’ Warren replied: ‘Yes, but this time it is not a film. It is reality. Terrible reality. Come up and watch it with me.’ I went up to his suite, we poured ourselves some much-needed drinks, sat down and watched in silence and horror as it was reported and shown on the television screen how four American aeroplanes had been hijacked, two of them crashing into the so-called Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan and one into Pentagon, while one aeroplane was unaccounted for. We saw the Twin Towers collapse in real time, on the screen. It was chilling, surreal, unbelievable. It later emerged that passengers on the fourth aeroplane had heroically fought with the terrorists, diverting it from its target, probably the White House, with the result that it crashed in a Pennsylvania forest.

The Symbol of Global Capitalism

It soon became clear that the attacks were planned by the Islamic fundamentalist group Al-Qaeda, led by a wealthy Saudi Arab fanatic, Osama Bin-Laden. It was to be expected that the group chose as targets the Pentagon and the White House, two potent symbols of American power. But why the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center? The answer is suggested by the very name: World Trade Center. It was a symbol, not of American power, but of global capitalism, which is essentially a framework for individuals to make choices about their own lives, guided by the principles of limited government, private property, and free trade. Small fanatical sects which want total control over people are bound to hate global capitalism. It was the Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand who best explained how a New York skyscraper exemplifies the creative powers of capitalism, man’s ability to subdue nature. In a conversation between the press baron Gail Wynand and journalist Dominique Keating in The Fountainhead, Wynand exclaims:     

I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage.

In a recent book I argue, in a chapter on Rand, that she may have been wrong about the incompatibility of capitalism and Christianity. But she is clearly right about the incompatibility of capitalism and fanatical sects such as Al-Qaeda which refuse to make any distinction between secular and religious affairs, between the private and the public spheres.

The Terrorist Attack was Not about Israel

On the surface, it could be argued that the terrorist attack on the United States in 2001 was provoked by the longtime American support of Israel, a Jewish enclave in the Arab community of nations, a state founded by force, at the cost of the Palestinians. But this would be a highly misleading argument. In early twentieth century, the Jews faced two alternatives, countries wanting them out and countries not wanting them in. Many Jews consequently and understandably became Zionists and decided to return to their ancient homeland where they did not seize land violently but rather bought their plots of land from others or settled in uninhabited areas. When they founded their state in 1948, on guidelines set by the United Nations, prescribing a division of the British Mandate of Palestine between Arabs and Jews, the Arab League refused to accept the guidelines and attacked Israel. While Israel withstood the attack, a massive transfer of populations took place: 700,000 Palestinians fled almost immediately from Israel to the Arab countries, and 800,000 Jews fled from the Arab countries to Israel (over a longer period).

But the problem was that the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries were welcomed and fully integrated into Israeli society, whereas the Arab refugees from Israel were not integrated into Arab societies, instead kept in camps for decades without any hope of bettering their condition by hard work. Unsurprisingly, such refugee camps became breeding grounds for extremism. The situation has inspired widespread hostility in the Arab countries towards Israel’s staunch ally, the United States, and resentment towards the West in general. Al-Qaeda is one manifestation of this hostility. It is not motivated by love for the Palestinians, but by hate of the West, and of what the West stands for, individualism, the rule of law, human rights, capitalism, trade, choice, diversity, tolerance. Women should be treated as cattle, and stoned if they violate any religious codes, gays should be thrown out of windows in high-rise buildings, and Western journalists should be beheaded under the merciless glare of television cameras.

Conflicts Can Be Resolved

Of course the conflict in the Middle East could be resolved without war or terror, as history demonstrates. After a war, in 1923 Greece and Turkey implemented a massive exchange of populations. In 1945 Germany received no less than ten million German-speaking people from Central and Eastern Europe and integrated them into her society. In 1962 France evacuated 800,000 people from newly-independent Algeria, the pied-noirs, and integrated them into her society. Why did the Arab countries not behave in the same way towards Palestinian refugees? One obvious answer is that they did not accept the existence of Israel. They wanted to drive the Jews out into the Mediterranean Sea. Slowly however some Arab countries have changed course and recognised Israel, notably Egypt and Jordan, but also lately, encouraged by the Trump administration, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco. But the obvious solution of the Palestinian problem would be, first, that the Arab nations integrate into their societies the Palestinians who are still languishing as refugees—that they accept them as brothers not only in word, but also in deed—and second, that the Palestinians remaining in Israel become autonomous, as they already largely are. History shows that this can also be done peacefully. The Swedish-speaking inhabitants of the Aland Isles wanted for a while to join Sweden, but they have been granted special rights and are now content to be Finnish citizens. The same applies to the German-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol, ceded to Italy after the First World War. They have largely accepted their Italian citizenship.

The terrorists will probably never change. But they could slowly fade away while economic opportunities would be created for the new generation in the Arab world. Israel and the Arab countries would all benefit from a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the Middle East. The Israelis have already shown how they can transform their desert into a land of milk and honey and they could export knowledge and technology to the Arab countries and utilise the cheap labour available there, enabling the Arab countries to tread the path of post-war Japan or post-Mao China: both countries benefitted greatly from trade with the West, first on the basis of inexpensive labour, later through technical expertise and ingenuity. It is still true what the economic liberals of the nineteenth century observed: Your propensity to shoot at your neighbour diminishes, if you see in him, or her, a potential customer. If the Arab world could perform the same function as China did in the last quarter of the twentieth century, producing cheap goods with its ample supply of labour, then two other problems might be resolved: the pressure on Europe by Muslim immigrants might lessen, and so might the dependence of the West on China. We would catch three birds with the same stone.

China Has Started a New Cold War

Probably the Al-Qaeda terrorists were as surprised by the swift and forceful reaction of the Americans to the attack on 11 September 2001 as the Japanese were after the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. It was necessary, I submit, to enter Afghanistan to root out the terrorists although the American Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, may have been right that the Americans should have promptly left after the end of that mission, instead of trying to establish a liberal democracy in those mountainous regions. The emancipation of Afghanistan has to be achieved by the Afghans themselves. What is important is that today Al-Qaeda is only a shadow of its former self, although Pakistan seems to be playing a strange game, accepting generous aid from the United States, while assisting both the Talibans and what remains of Al-Qaeda. But life continues. A new skyscraper has been built on the location of the old World Trade Center, standing proud as the tallest building in the United States. The West is confronting new challenges, mainly the decision of the Chinese communists to start a new Cold War and to invade Taiwan as soon as they can. Together, the Americans, the Europeans and their allies have sufficient resources to meet these challenges. Perhaps our optimism in the period leading up to the terrorist attack in 2001 was excessive, but pessimism about the future of the West is just as questionable. What we need is the will to defend ourselves, and to be ourselves, identifying with the only civilisation in history which has produced both liberty and prosperity.