Immanuel Wallerstein statement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Sep 14 20:23:52 MDT 2001

Comment No. 72, Sept. 15, 2001 "September 11, 2001 - Why?"

On September 11, 2001, the whole world watched a human tragedy and a
great drama, and everyone was fixated on it. In the U.S., four
commercial airliners were hijacked in the early morning. The
hijackers numbered 4-5 persons in each plane. Armed with knives, and
having at least one person among them capable of piloting the plane
(at least once it was in the air), the hijackers took over the
planes, ousted (or killed) the pilots and directed the planes on
suicide missions. Three of the planes hit their targets: the two
towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in

Given both the amount of fuel aboard and the technical knowledge to
know at which height the planes should hit the buildings, the
hijackers managed to destroy completely the two towers and carve a
big hole in the Pentagon. As of now, there are probably more than
5000 dead (no one has an exact figure) and many more hurt and
traumatized. The U.S. air network and financial institutions have
ground virtually to a halt, at least for this week, and untold
short-range and middle-range economic damage has been done.

The first thing to note about this attack is its audacity and its
remarkable success. A group of persons, linked together by ideology
and willingness to be martyrs, engaged in a clandestine operation
that must be the envy of any secret service agency in the world. They
obtained entry into the United States, managed to board with knives
four airplanes, which were leaving from three airports almost
simultaneously, and all of which were heading on transcontinental
flights and therefore had large amounts of fuel on board. They took
over the planes, and managed to get three of them to reach their
targets. Neither the CIA nor the FBI nor U.S. military intelligence
nor any one else had any advance notice or was able to do anything to
stop this group.

The outcome was the most devastating such attack in the history of
what we call terrorist attacks. No previous attack killed more than
400 or so persons. Even at Pearl Harbor, to which the analogy is
being widely made, and where the attack was conducted by the military
forces of a state, many fewer people were killed. Furthermore, this
was the first time since the Civil War (1861-1865) that warfare
occurred within the boundaries of the continental United States. The
U.S. has since been engaged in many major wars - the Spanish-American
War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam -
(not to speak of "minor" wars), and in all of them the actual
fighting occurred outside these boundaries. The fact that warfare
occurred in the streets of New York and Washington constituted the
biggest shock to the American people of this attack.

So, the big question is why? Virtually everyone is saying that the
person responsible for the attack is Osama bin Laden. It seems a
plausible assumption, since he has declared his intention to carry
out such acts, and perhaps in the near future U.S. authorities will
produce some evidence substantiating this assumption. Let us suppose
this is correct. What would bin Laden hope to achieve in attacking
the U.S. in this spectacular way? Well, this could be seen as an
expression of anger and revenge for what bin Laden (and others)
consider the misdeeds of the U.S. throughout the world, and
particularly in the Middle East. Would bin Laden think that, by such
an act, he could persuade the U.S. government to change its policies?
I seriously doubt that he is so naive as to think this would be the
reaction. President Bush says he regards the attack as an "act of
war" and possibly bin Laden, if he is the perpetrator, thinks the
same. Wars are not conducted to persuade the opponent to change his
ways, but to force the opponent to do so.

So let us reason as though we were bin Laden. What has he proved by
this attack? The most obvious thing that he has proved is that the
United States, the world's only superpower, the state with the most
powerful and sophisticated military hardware in the world, was unable
to protect its citizens from this attack. What bin Laden, again
presuming he is in fact the force behind it, wished to do, clearly,
is to show that the U.S. is a paper tiger. And he wished to show it,
first of all, to the American people, and then to everyone else in
the world.

Now this is as obvious to the U.S. government as it is to bin Laden.
Hence the response. President Bush says he will react forcefully, and
the U.S. political elite of both parties have given him their
patriotic assent without any hesitation. But now let us reason from
the point of view of the U.S. government. What can they do?  The
easiest thing is to obtain diplomatic support of condemnation of the
attack and justification of any future counterattack. This is exactly
what Secretary of State Powell said he would be doing. And it is
reaping its rewards. NATO has said that, under Article 5 of the
treaty, a military attack on the U.S. (which they consider this to
be) requires all its members to give military support to the
counteraction, if the U.S. requests it. Every government in the
world, including that of Afghanistan and North Korea, has condemned
the attack. The sole exception is Iraq. It is true that popular
opinion in Arab and Muslim states has not been as supportive of the
U.S. but the U.S. will ignore that.

The fact that the U.S. has achieved this diplomatic support, perhaps
later a U.N. resolution, will hardly make bin Laden quake in his
boots. The diplomatic support is going to seem to be thin gruel for
the American people as well. They will demand more. And more almost
inevitably means some kind of military action. But what? Whom will
the U.S. Air Force bomb? If bin Laden is behind the attack, there are
only two possible targets, depending on further knowledge about the
evidence: Afghanistan and/or Iraq. How much damage will that do? In
half-destroyed Afghanistan, it hardly seems worthwhile. And the U.S.
has been restrained about bombing Iraq for many reasons, including
not wishing to lose lives. Maybe the U.S. will bomb someone. Will
that convince the American people and the rest of the world that the
U.S. is too fearsome to attack? Somehow I doubt it.

The truth of the matter is that there is not too much that the U.S.
can do. The CIA tried for years to assassinate Castro, and he's still
there. The U.S. has been searching for bin Laden for some years now,
and he's still there. One day, U.S. agents may kill him, and this
might slow down this particular operation. It would also give great
satisfaction to many people. But the problem would still remain
whole. Obviously, the only thing to do is something political. But
what? Here all accord within the U.S. (or more widely within the
pan-Western arena) disappears. The hawks say that this proves that
Sharon (and the present Israeli government) are right: "they" are all
terrorists, and the way to handle them is with harsh riposte. This
hasn't been working so well for Sharon thus far. Why will it work
better for George W. Bush?

And can Bush get the American people to pay the price? Such a hawkish
mode does not come cheaply. On the other hand, the doves are finding
it difficult to make the case that this can be handled by
"negotiation." Negotiation with whom, and with what end in view?
Perhaps what is happening is that this "war" - as it is being called
this week in the press - cannot be won and will not be lost, but will
simply continue. The disintegration of personal security is now a
reality that may be hitting the American people for the first time.
It was already a reality in many other parts of the world.

The political issue underlying these chaotic oscillations of the
world-system is not civilization versus barbarity. Or at least what
we must realize is that all sides think they are the civilized ones,
and that the barbarian is the other. The issues underlying what is
going on is the crisis in our world-system and the battle about what
kind of successor world-system we would like to build.(1) This does
not make it a contest between Americans and Afghans or Muslims or
anyone else. It is a struggle between different visions of the world
we want to build. September 11, 2001 will soon seem to be, contrary
to what many are saying, a minor episode in a long struggle that will
go on for a long time and be a dark period for most people on this

by Immanuel Wallerstein

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission
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author at iwaller at; fax: 1-607-777-4315. These
commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections
on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of
the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 09/14/2001

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