11 September 2015

The Long Decade of the Hammock

The North Pool, the memorial in the footprint of the North Tower.
Ground Zero, New York, 9th November, 2014
Today marks the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11. It's a weird feeling to have people working for you who were still in primary school when the events of that day took place, who have no first-hand memory of the day and whose memories are shaped as much by disaster movie homages in the decade that followed as by the reality that unfolded before the eyes of millions of people around the world. 

This is the real gulf that exists between my generation and the one that followed, in a very real way 9/11 changed everything, not the attack itself (there have been worse atrocities, arguably there have been more visceral events witnessed en masse), but the way in which the attack was used by US/UK neo-conservatives to push a very specific agenda. For a brief moment the world stood united in solidarity, then that shared grief and compassion was hijacked and used to launch a war that continues to this day, a war outside the rule of law, a war that surgically removed compassion from the public consciousness.

When millennials are accused of being self-absorbed and egotistical, is this not really the reflection back of the world we created for them in the aftermath of the towers' fall?

I had been in the US for four weeks when the attack happened. We didn't have a TV, but after getting a phone call just after the first plane hit the towers telling me what happened, I left our apartment and headed in to a common room at the nearby university, arriving just after the second plane hit the towers. I sat and watched, like millions around the world, as the towers collapsed. I didn't know it at the time but the world I knew, the world all of us knew, collapsed with them.

The North Pool, the memorial in the footprint of the North Tower.
Ground Zero, New York, 9th November, 2014
I've read a lot over the subsequent years on the philosophical "meaning" of 9/11, particularly commentaries by the usual suspects like Zizek, Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, but oddly enough the words that struck the deepest chord with me came from a passage in Iain Banks' 2009 novel Transition:
"I first encountered her near the beginning of that golden age which nobody noticed was happening at the time; I mean the long decade between the fall of the Wall and the Fall of the Towers.

If you wish to be pedantically exact about it, those retrospectively blessed dozen years lasted from that chilly, fevered Central European night of November 9th, 1989 to that bright morning on the Eastern Seaboard of America on September 11th, 2001. One event symbolised the lifted threat of a worldwide nuclear holocaust, something which had been hanging over humanity for nearly forty years, and so ended an age of idiocy. The other ushered in a new one.

The wall's fall was not spectacular. It was night and all you saw on television was a bunch of leather-jacketed Berliners attacking reinforced concrete - mostly with hammers, rather ineffectually. Nobody died. A lot of people got drunk and stoned - and laid, no doubt. The wall itself was not a striking structure, and not very tall or especially forbidding; the real obstacle had always been the barren, sandy killing ground of mines, dog runs and razor wire behind it.

The vertical barrier was always more symbolic than anything else; a delineation, so the fact that none of the crowds of cheerful vandals scrabbling for a perch on it could do much to destroy it without access to heavy equipment was irrelevant; what mattered was that they were clambering all over the famously divisive, allegedly defensive symbol without getting machine-gunned. However, as the expression of a sudden outburst of hope and optimism and an embracing of change, one could ask for no more, I suppose. The al-Qaida attack on the USA - well, given that a nation was invaded and occupied using this as an excuse, and that this was done in the name of democracy, let's be both nationalistic and democratic about it: the Saudi Arabian attack on the USA - could hardly have offered a greater contrast.

Slung between these two wide-reaching levellings, the intervening years held civilisation happily if ignorantly scooped, as in a hammock."

- Transition, Iain Banks, 2009, p2
The Long Decade of the Hammock. Born November 9th, 1989, died September 11th, 2001.

The true instrument of its demise though wasn't the attack or the fall of the towers, rather it was a small piece of paper with 60 simple words at its heart. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was the law rushed in to being by President George W. Bush and passed into law on September 14th, 2001, and is the basis for every subsequent US attack, every bombing, every assassination, every drone strike in the last 14 years. At its core is a short 60-word passage that outlines the conditions under which US military force can be used in the wake of 9/11:
"That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."
The way in which this law came into being, and the way in which it has been used to justify the invasion of two countries and operations in a dozen more is covered in a very engaging collaboration by Radiolab and (of all places) Buzzfeed. The Radiolab piece is below, it's long but well worth listening to:


The AUMF ushered in our current era of war without end, but it is a war that has devastating effects for only one side. Beyond the military and those families directly connected to the armed forces, no sacrifice is asked of the American or British public. With the increasing use of drone strikes, now even the military is being relieved of the burden of sacrifice. The victims of this war are nameless and faceless, shielded from the western public by a compliant media that rates the newsworthy value of a death by the colour of the corpse's skin.

When we do finally see the victims, as they march down European motorways in search of a life free from the chaos a decade of US and UK intervention in the Middle East has caused, the first response from the UK government was to call for an increase in the bombing of their homeland. ISIS was born in the US detention camp of Bucca, in Iraq, its first commanders brought together there in 2009. Some were hardened fighters, others were in the wrong place at the wrong time and their brutal treatment at the hands of the US military radicalised them. The US action in Iraq, the camp itself and every act of torture committed against the prisoners there, all had their legal justifications in the AUMF. The waves of people trying desperately to reach the safety of Germany and Austria for a better life, these are all the children of the AUMF.

The AUMF birthed an era where the the political forces of neo-conservatism and economic forces of neoliberalism were ascendant, and unstoppable. They ruled a world where they could not be held accountable for their actions. Where a national law or international treaty favoured them, they imposed it rigorously. Where it sought to keep them in check, they declared themselves to be above it. It was a time when no-one declared that "there is no alternative", as the lack of alternative was self-evident. The Left became the Right, and the Right became the unquestioned orthodoxy.

One World Trade Center.
Ground Zero, New York, 9th November, 2014
Back in 2009 Iain Banks wrote that we had moved on, that the era of war without end was over, closing with what he called "The third Fall, the fall of Wall Street and the City, the fall of the banks and the fall of the Markets, beginning on September 15th 2008". Paul Mason calls this current cycle the start of "Post-Capitalism". Capitalism must embrace a new equality if it is to survive, says Thomas Piketty. David Harvey has already proclaimed its end. Everyone agrees that change is coming, but no-one can agree on what, or how or when. And yet still the war without end continues. We bomb the refugees to save the refugees.

So ends an age of idiocy as the Third Fall ushers in a new one.

The Long Decade of the Hammock. That was my decade. In November of 1989 I was sixteen, coming of age, seeing girls, going to discos, drinking pints, starting to be aware of the world beyond. In September 2001 I was twenty-eight, just emigrated with my long-term partner and starting a new chapter of our life together. On September 11th, 2001 the Long Decade of the Hammock came to an end, and so to in hindsight did my youth.

I fear that's why this date affects me so much each year. Perhaps it is not a shared grief or sense of global outrage, rather it is a purely selfish sense of personal lost for the halcyonic rose-coloured days of youth that drives me. But in a way, is that not the perfect emotion, the truest and most honest representation of this, our millennial age? The global tragedy rendered as an emotional selfie, reduced to the tiniest framed square of personal experience, the shared "us" distilled into the toxic "me". Is this not how we've taught the world to behave?

I really, really hope not.

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