Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 10:14 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 10:14 | SYDNEY

Annals of bad writing about 9/11


Andrew Carr


6 September 2011 13:51

With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nearly upon us, every pundit will want to have their say. Some pieces will be outstanding (we'll try and link to the best), and some...well here's Niall Ferguson wondering 'what if 9/11 never happened?':

Let's start in January 2001 and thwart the 9/11 attacks by having Condi Rice and Paul Wolfowitz heed Richard Clarke's warnings about al Qaeda... al Qaeda is preemptively decapitated, its leaders rounded up in a series of covert operations and left to the tender mercies of their home governments...But then, three years later, the murky details of this operation surface on the front page of The New York Times. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, denounces the 'criminal conduct' of the Bush administration. Liberal pundits foam at the mouth. Ordinary Americans, unseared by 9/11, are shocked. Osama bin Laden issues a fierce denunciation of the U.S. from his Saudi prison cell....

It triggers a wave of popular anger in the Middle East that topples any regime seen as too close to Washington. The government of Qatar—gone. The government of Kuwait—gone. Above all, the government of Saudi Arabia—gone...In other words, if things had happened differently 10 years ago—if there had been no 9/11 and no retaliatory invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—we might be living through an Islamist Winter rather than an Arab Spring.

The logic here is bizarre. Why would the US capture of a few dozen Middle Eastern men (some in the US, most globally) lead to deeply 'shocked' Americans? As a 'liberal pundit' I almost wish it were so, that the public would demand to know how the government came to arrest these men and would demand reasonable treatment of them after arrest. Instead, the literally hundreds of extraordinary renditions after 9/11 were effectively ignored by most US citizens.

Second, given Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (noticeably Ferguson omits Egypt under Mubarak) have long been seen as 'too close to the West', why would helping the US carry out a few arrests in 2001 have such a large effect? Such cooperation as Ferguson suggests occurred regularly after 9/11 and didn't cause anything like an uprising. Indeed not even an actual US military invasion of two countries in the region drove the Arab street into open rebellion.

Finally, given bin Laden was in Afghanistan in 2001 with the Taliban, by what mechanism would he end up in a Saudi jail cell?

I like counter-factuals as a way to think about the path less taken — indeed I wrote one recently on the ANZUS alliance — yet they only work if you are humble in your assessment. Instead, Ferguson's political allegiances are writ large in his re-interpretation. If you find a contender for worst piece written about the 9/11 anniversary, email me here.