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Did 9/11 really change the world?

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9-11-smokeBy Barnaby Phillips

How much difference did 9/11 really make to our world? At the time, it seemed like everything had changed. For the many thousands of people in the United States personally affected by those heinous acts, life would never be the same again.

For millions of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the consequences have been traumatic and profound. In many other countries, from Britain to Nigeria, from Indonesia to Spain, from Uganda to Russia, innocent people have become victims of acts of terror.

Governments have responded in various ways, and sometimes those responses have been clumsy, cruel and counter-productive. These are all very important events. But have they really changed the world for decades to come?  

Here’s a list, off the top of my head, of global events and trends in the past decade that many people would argue are more important than 9/11, "the War on Terror" and the activities of al-Qaeda.

1) The rise of China as an economic superpower.

2) Likewise, the rise of India.

3) Brazil, Turkey and a whole host of other countries are coming up not so far behind.

4) Related to above, the relative economic decline of the West, (by which I mean the United States and Europe), symbolised by the financial crisis of 2008, and the ongoing crisis in the eurozone.

5) The complete failure of all of the world’s leading powers to take action to prevent, or even mitigate, the effects of climate change.

And here are two more possibles, that I’m tempted to put on the list:

6) The amazing spread of social networking like Facebook and Twitter.

7) The Arab Spring.

An interesting piece from Reuters looks at the same issues. The author, Peter Apps, reaches similar conclusions, although he argues that America and Britain’s economic problems, and hence their decline in global influence, are, at least in part, a consequence of the wars they decided to wage in reaction to 9/11.

This blog, in the Financial Times, also makes the point that 9/11 seems much less important now than it did at the time.

Of course, the sensible answer to the question I posed at the top of this blog is "it’s too early to tell". That, famously, is what the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai is said to have responded when asked for his assessment of the French Revolution. So, if it’s too soon to reach a conclusion on something that happened in 1789, it would be very reckless to make definitive pronouncements about something that happened as recently as 2001.

As Martin Wolf points out in the FT blog, if al-Qaeda were able to stage an attack involving nuclear weapons, our assessment of the long-term significance of 9/11 would change, and radically.

Thankfully, that has not happened yet. So, a very tentative conclusion on the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, is that it did not change the world quite as much as we thought it might. But like Zhou Enlai, we'll have to wait and see.


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