For most people, the subject of history is a straightforward affair. In grade school we’re taught that A happened before B, which preceded C. There are some dates thrown around and some names to memorize, but the story is never made out to be terribly complicated.
Of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, history is an impossibly complex weaving of individual stories, most of which are irrecoverable. As the great historian E. H. Carr argued, mainstream history is merely the act of choosing which of these is most noteworthy.
However, every now and then an event will occur that amounts to a confluence of narratives, chapters in the human story that are written by few but affect many: Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the October Revolution in Russia. These were events driven by individuals and yet their consequences still echo today.
Ten years ago, another occurred: the Sept. 11 attacks. That day set the stage for a decade that unfolded in ways that nobody could have predicted even an hour before those fateful events.
Prior to the attacks, the presidency of George W. Bush had been about as bland as one could imagine. He entered office a very inward-looking president, focusing primarily on domestic reforms. But 9/11 changed all that — suddenly, the neoconservative views of Bush and his cabinet were projected beyond the borders of the United States. Without the attacks as a pretext, I believe it’s doubtful the war in Iraq would have occurred and practically unthinkable that anyone would have gone into Afghanistan.
Throughout the 1990s, the world had enjoyed a decade of slowly increasing peace and stability — or at least that’s what many in the West had perceived to be the case, following the disintegration of the Communist threat in 1991. But 9/11 hammered home the harsh reality that not everyone on the planet welcomes the ascendancy of liberal democracy. Extremist Islam became the great new “other” practically overnight, leading to the widening rift between Westerners and Muslims in countries around the world.
Other changes came too: Who in America could have ever predicted the sweeping powers of the Patriot Act ever being passed into law before the attacks occurred?
These changes and events directly affected millions of people around the world. And when one takes into account the more abstract fallout of the attacks — the global “war on terror,” which reached across borders with impunity and blurred the already fuzzy threshold that exists between right and wrong when lives are perceived to be on the line; the cowing and subsequent decline of the United Nations as a forum for a global dialogue; the diversion of military resources that might have otherwise been directed at atrocities like Darfur — those affected begin to number in the billions.
A lot of things happened on Sept. 11, 2001 that had nothing to do with terrorist attacks. In fact, more than six billion people continued their own stories that day, adding to the tapestry of human history. But historians will tell us that a few stories that day mattered more than the others, and they’d be right. That morning, 19 terrorists set out to kill thousands of innocents. They succeeded and in doing so changed the course for countless other lives, some half a world away and only years later. Unfortunately, this is a legacy that will continue to echo for many more years to come.
Greg Sacks is a second-year law student at the U of M.