My 9/11

11th September 2001 was a wonderful, bright and sunny day here in London, just as it was in New York.  You didn’t need a jacket outdoors.  I was on duty for a presentation to a prospective client that morning, at the client’s offices.  I was done by lunch time and walked through the lobby blissfully unaware of what was happening over the Atlantic, though it must have been on television screens in the lobby by then.  As I walked through the sun from Gresham Street to our office on Moorgate I was in a world of my own, relieved that the presentation was done.

It wasn’t until I reached the office with sandwiches in hand that I found out.  “Somebody has flown a plane into he World Trade Centre,” a colleague said.  I had in mind a light aircraft, or perhaps something a bit like the plane that flew into the Empire State Building in the war.  It was only as I tapped into my computer that the scale of it started to become clear.  The internet was overloaded, so the information only came through slowly.  At first there were the burning buildings.  And then the towers collapsed.  We held an emergency management meeting, since the trading and custody activities that we administered would certainly have been affected.  But there wasn’t much we could do.

Our management team had held a global conference in New York only that April.  And we’d had dinner at the restaurant on top of the World Trade Centre tower.  We’d used those lifts.

Nobody could do much work; we gathered in small groups.  Apart from trying to understand the sheer horror, the main concern was what the Americans might do in response.  Revenge attacks would only make things worse, we all thought – but were all too likely.

I went home a bit early, I think.  A lot of City workers had been sent home in the afternoon.  I joined my wife in front of the television – she had been home that day and had been watching the TV as the second plane struck, having turned it on more or less by accident just after the first one had.

I had a meeting scheduled for that evening. The local primary school where I was a governor had an OFSTED inspection going on – and the inspectors wanted to talk to governors that evening.  Would it be cancelled?  No notice to say it was, so I went.

And the meeting did go ahead.  The head of the inspection team, a self-important little man, carried on as if nothing had happened; he didn’t even mention it.  This was his day of power, and no terrorists were going to spoil it.  I managed to sit through it, but said nothing.  Back home to watch the TV.

And that’s what I remember.  How have we been spending the 10th anniversary?  We went to see Marlow’s Dr Faustus at the Globe.  We started in a shower, but the weather was mostly nice.  An interesting and enjoyable play, well produced and played to a packed house.  Going there and back we had to go to Waterloo, since the Bank branch of the Northern line was closed.  We worked our way through the crowds attracted to the Thames Festival – and had a delicious venison sandwich for lunch from one of the stalls.  On the way back we visited the Tate Modern to have tea in the Members’ Room and to see the Miro exhibition in its last couple of hours.  Mostly his work is beyond me; but some of the paintings were breathtaking – especially the huge triptychs.  The resonances with other Spanish artists, Picasso and Dali, were interesting, as was the relationship to political background in Spain (and Catalonia); I can only imagine the man’s total despair in the early 1940s.  As we hurried for the station in the rain we passed a carnival parade gathering for its moment of glory behind the National Theatre.

The South Bank was packed with people seemingly of all nations having a nice day out.  Apart from the rain the only blot was Transport for London’s decision to keep the York Road entrance to Waterloo tube closed – in spite of the crowds.  The folly of this was illustrated when they had to close one of the down escalators because of an accident.  Such are our everyday frustrations ten years on.

And later I will be joining some of my local Lib Dem friends in the Nightingale pub for our regular monthly drinks.  Life is well within its usual frame.  But we don’t forget.


Tony Blair is both right and wrong, but mostly yesterday’s man

Well I was going to turn the radio off this morning when John Humphreys was interviewing Tony Blair to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  But I couldn’t go that far, and I caught about half of it.  I’m glad I did because it has helped clarify my views on confronting terrorism.

Mr Blair’s main argument is a lot more subtle than it is often made out to be.  He dismisses his critics as believing that the Islamic extremists (and I think that term is a fair one) are not a lunatic fringe who can be contained using normal security methods.  They are in fact the extreme end of a much larger spectrum of people who agree with their virulent anti-western narrative.  Since they have such a large hinterland of people who will support them and from whom they can recruit, they will simply grow stronger if they are not vigorously confronted.   He completely rejects the idea that the West’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have made things worse, since he says the terrorists would have gathered strength anyway.  What provoked 9/11? he asks.  The Al-Qaeda threat is of much longer standing than than these Western interventions.

And he is partly right.  There is a big hinterland for the terrorist groups, and an even bigger group of people who think that there are two sides to what is going on, rather than it being a simple battle between good and evil.  But from the same facts I draw a different conclusion.  This is not just a battle between just goodies and baddies; there is a huge neutral middle ground whose support is decisive.  These are mainly Muslims, and they live all over the world.  If these people come to the conclusion that the terrorists are a bad thing, who will make their aspirations more difficult to achieve, then Al-Qaeda and its like will be isolated and disappear.  If, on the other hand, they accept the clash of civilizations narrative, their support, even if mostly tacit, will keep the terrorist threat going forever.

There is a security campaign against the terrorists; but there is also a hearts and minds campaign for the Muslim public.  Unfortunately, if we are too uncompromising on the first campaign we will not win the second.  It is important to occupy the moral high ground.  The tragedy is that Tony Blair, and the American neocons, think they are occupying this higher ground.  In fact they have been systematically provoking the Muslim public.

And the important thing to understand about the hearts and minds campaign is that the ground shifts.  What gave Al-Qaeda real strength in its early days was the US intervention in the first Gulf War in the 1990s, which led to the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil; this seemed an insult.  It probably didn’t mean a great deal to the wider Muslim public, but it was enough for a determined group of Middle East activists to get started, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Israel, Iraq and Iran didn’t really come into things.  This was enough to lead to 9/11.

But the American response to 9/11 changed the game.  The outrage initially gave them the precious high ground, but they made cynical use of it.  Two problems stand out: the campaign in Iraq and taking sides with Israel.  These may not have been all that relevant to the Al-Qaeda threat in 2001, but they became so because the the strength of the American intervention.  The Muslim public became angry with America and its allies, and the extremists were able to pump up the clash of civilisations narrative.  They started to draw in many more recruits from right  across the world, including Britain.

But the hearts and minds battle has not been one-sided.  The terrorists’ very success has exposed the weakness of their case.  They now spend more energy killing other Muslims and creating civil disorder in Muslim countries than they do on attacking the west.  They have no real answers to the problems that trouble so many Muslims: dis-empowerment and poverty.  The west is retreating from Iraq and, ever so slowly, Afghanistan.  The British coming together after 7/7 has not played to the extremist narrative.  The western response to the Arab Spring has shown it to be a bit less cynical than people thought – comparing favourably with China and Russia, say.  In Libya Al-Qaeda and the west turned out to be on the same side.  Israel remains a running sore, of course.

Of course we need a robust security response to the terrorist threat.  But it can do more harm that good.  Assassinations and suspending the rule of law should not be part of it.  The terrorists may not be moved by this – but they will increasingly lose the support of their hinterland.

We have to move on.  Mr Bush’s and Mr Blair’s response to 9/11 was a huge mistake, and we can’t expect them to acknowledge this.  But they are yesterday’s men.  We’ve learnt a lot.  A new generation of leaders is showing more subtlety.  Slowly, we are learning how to manage the terrorist threat.