Let’s be honest from the start: when in a few years we look back on the last two decades, we will wonder what the heck just happened. I’m going to be utterly subjective now because it is not my place to say who said what to whom with which effect (I am not a historian, you see, and neither do I claim to be one). And I’m not going to bang on about which weapon system offers the best bang for the buck because I believe that essentially, this is stuff that can make you lose a war, but it’s not going to win it, at least not in any meaningful way. Oh, and I’m also not going for that conspiracy crap so if you’re looking for that, do go elsewhere, please, you’re the only ones who’ve really got it alright and us mere mortals all fell for the spin, I suppose.
I remember the 11th of September 2001 as a dull and mildly depressing day. The sky was overcast and grey, it was neither cold nor warm, but you could certainly tell that summer was over and autumn was just around the corner. I was gainfully employed at that time in an ad agency (ghey, for sure) and when first news broke that “an aeroplane has just crashed into the World Trade Center”, I fully assumed it was not more than a Cessna, which reassuringly would make this an accident along the lines of that other aircraft that – in thick fog – had crashed into the Empire State Building somewhen in the 1930s.
But this was no innocent accident as I soon found out and I along with my colleagues rushed to the next TV screen, which was I believe in the art buying department of the aforementioned ad agency. What I remember of the newscast is seeing a huge plume of smoke billowing out of the building’s upper regions and hearing talk that a second plane was on its way via Manhattan, due to impact immediately. We watched, and I remember forgetting my surroundings almost entirely when that second plane hit the other tower. It was something one couldn’t have possibly seen before because no Hollywood imagination and no CGI craftsmanship could have provided you with such an image.
I felt a bit shaken because as hard as I tried, there was no way for me to make sense of this. Soon word got passed around that we would just quietly close the office and call it a day, though it was, I believe, only early afternoon and we didn’t seriously expect a frigging ad agency in Hamburg to be bombed to smithereens just because it was part of an American network. But what with our interests under attack and all that, our management probably preferred to err on the side of caution on this occasion.
Before we all packed up and went home, I remember having a telephone conversation with a friend who called me in the office to tell me the news about what had just happened in Manhattan. She briefly mentioned that apparently there were two more aircraft circling towards Washington, and they were suspected to head for either the Congress building and/or the White House. She then paused abruptly to utter a scream and a few incoherent words to the effect that the tower that had been hit first was now coming down, sinking in on itself. A sense of disaster was palpable, and we decided to meet up in front of her TV set later that day. We watched the events of that day over and over again on all available television channels until our eyes ached but we still couldn’t make sense of it, yet.
Now, I considered myself a reasonably left-of-centre kind of fellow in those days who believed it all, global warming, social democracy, free Palestine, the whole ticket. Mainly, because I wanted to believe it, I now must admit. I also believed – though in a benevolent way – in Yankee aggression. Therefore, it wasn’t too hard for me to believe that all that had just happened was somehow our own fault. Also, after initial, spontaneous and soon to be called unwanted outbursts of solidarity by our government, infamy and perfidy sneaked in via the backdoor – and the editorial columns of the usual suspects (Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, et al.) seemed to agree with me. So there!
Wasn’t it all just a reaction to Yankee aggression? Weren’t the noble savages in the Middle East revolting against the unjust yoke of Western imperialism? Wasn’t it all – and I now quote the German foreign minister du jour – down to “the victims’ victims”: the longstanding suffering of the innocent civilian population on the West Bank at the hands of the little “ZioNazi” Satan? In short: hadn’t we just got what we deserved?
It wasn’t entirely well-argued stuff at all, but it resonated emotionally. And the public’s mood soon shifted from laying flowers at the doorsteps of the American consulate towards blaming the victim: America had brought this on herself and others, and now the Yankees even had the brass cheek to ask us for assistance – well tough! That’s the way it resonated, emotionally. They can eat dust now – what has America ever done for us.
Surely, in all this Teuton furor stirred up by Our Mass Media the irony was totally lost that if it weren’t for the Americans of two generations earlier we’d still be running around in Lederhosen, sporting funny moustaches and suffering from a sore right arm because of all that Nazi saluting. So yes, maybe it was the liberation from fascism that Germans never really got over.
Soon, there was talk of war, or military intervention, as some people preferably called it, and there were some initial attacks by cruise missile on some terrorist compounds in Afghanistan. That’s when Islamic terrorism first knowingly entered my consciousness. There were precursors to the attack on the Twin Towers, to be sure: the attack on a ship off the coast of Africa registered somewhere in my memory, an American foray in to Somalia where some unfortunate chap got burned to a crisp, and dragged along a dirt road to the idle amusement of the natives.
Another, failed attack by some – as he was then portrayed by the media – crazy-arse goat herder who wanted to blow up the World Trade Center by planting a bomb in its basement car park. Oh, and the bombing in Beirut maybe, but that was way back in the 1980s. So, no, I can’t say I had a clear conception of who we were up against. At least not until I wanted to.
But I must say I had a very clear idea of what we were up against: seeing footage from an utterly devastated “Ground Zero” as it was then called in a callous attempt at sanitising language, I remember sitting in front of my television set, alone on a sunny September morning in Hamburg, hitting ground zero myself, tears running down my cheeks and all that because I found it so utterly and completely abhorrent what some people would do to other people if they were given half a chance. And I thought to myself: whoever did this, will stop at nothing.
It then transpired that “the ape Bush” as our enlightened media preferred to call the democratically elected President of the USA, George W. Bush, would go to war against Afghanistan. Now, the idea of throwing $500,000 warheads on $50 tents was about as debatable then as it is now, what with asymmetrical warfare and all that smart talk. Also, the wisdom of bombing some goat fuckers even deeper into the stone age was and is questionable. But something had to be done, surely, what with all that leader of the free world jazz.
So, another “coalition of the willing” was quickly cobbled together. Its role dispersal consisted mainly in the Yanks and the Brits doing the dirty jobs, while the Germans could put on their saintly glow and play world peace champion.
Of course, the Germans befitted that role like no others, because of the narrative of the erstwhile bad guy done good had really caught on then. The fairy tale had successfully been implanted in the public’s imagination all around the world. And I suppose I’d have to quote Bob Hope now who – legend has is – once said: “I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.” I’m not quite sure whether he really knew her in the biblical way, but it doesn’t matter now, I’m sure. Next step: Afghanistan peace conference in Bonn. German government vying for a Noble Peace Prize? You bet!
What is of importance now is that for a nation that practically singlehandedly invented the modern performing arts on stage and in front of film and television cameras, the Americans and – to a lesser degree, the Brits – apparently had astonishingly little knowledge about and regard for the powers of imagination.
Imagination, at least in the strictly rational way of thinking, depends on the wilful suspension of disbelief. It’s a licence to dream. The contract to make believe is something you knowingly enter and accept for a limited amount of time and space. It’s a utilitarian contract in essence: you pay the jester for making you happy – win-win! But as people want to believe, and knowledge is scarce – and absolute knowledge is even scarcer – many funny things may happen in the absence of facts. And faster than you can say mass media, imagination is not limited to a time and space any longer (the theatre, the cinema, the telly) but now is all around you. Now, everybody is living in a world of their own, in dreamy, lefty lalaland, because they can’t know things for certain any longer. Especially, when they don’t want to tell fact from fiction. And I doubt whether this is happy.
Alas, you can’t win a war unless you can capture the imagination. Because without capturing the much-touted hearts and minds, you can win militarily, but not in a meaningful way. And for all its worth, the message of Freedom & Democracy doesn’t quite resonate in the same way all around the world, especially in places that have no clear concept and much less practical experience or use for either. The principal mistake lies in the assumption that these people are just like us when they are not. You cannot export centuries old institutions to the banks of the Euphrates at the push of a button and expect things to run as smoothly as they would on the Hudson or the river Thames. It hardly worked on the banks of the Rhine or the Elbe for that matter, if the history of the last two or three decades is anything to go by.
Therefore, I’m afraid I have to say, we mainly lost the war – and we will keep losing it – because we lost control of the narrative. The narrative being that we’re all one happy-crappy band of brothers and it doesn’t much matter whether we’re from Istanbul or Iowa, from Manchester or Morocco because we’re all the same when we are not. I mean, this “we are one world” nonsense is stemming from people who despise other people because they were born on the wrong side of the Angel in Islington, and call you deplorable for not sharing their fondness of macrobiotics. I think “bigot” is the word to use.
All that the last couple of decades has shown is that Western civilisation (and I expressly include Russia in this description) is quite the exception to the rule. And this rule is being determined in Lagos and Durban, who have the numbers in their advantage. And chaps called Bin-Laden, who still have their head office on the other side of the parking lot in front of the Kaaba, I just had a look the other day.
In the next two instalments I shall like to lay out how the slow grinding down of the coalition of the willing played out in my mind, and how the region’s destabilisation finally led to The Worst Refugee Crisis Ever™, or at least since the second world war.
© Guardian Council 2018