9.11 When hate and history rhymed
Which year in the modern post-1945 era has had the greatest influence on subsequent global events is a dinner table topic as pointless as it is diverting. Other years merit careful consideration but 1979 is certainly a front runner.
Pausing briefly in our own parish; in March, aged only 58, a man of whom the description: “greatest of all time” is no cliché, Christy Ring died on the streets of Cork from a heart attack, walking to a routine appointment with his doctor. In December, Jack Lynch, Christy Ring’s Cork teammate was ousted as Taoiseach by Charles Haughey in a heave that was effective as much because Mr. Lynch was as unconcerned about holding on to his job as Mr. Haughey was determined to take it from him.
In May, Margaret Thatcher began her 11 year tenure as Prime Minister of Britain, securing the first of three general election victories. From Rome, months in office as the first non-Italian pope in four centuries, John Paul II became the first Pope ever to visit several countries in a single year, including Mexico, the US, Ireland and his native Poland.
In July, Iraq’s President, Hasan al-Bakr resigned to be replaced by his Vice President, Saddam al-Tikriti, better known now as Saddam Hussein, a transition little remarked at the time.
But events in two other Arab/Islamist countries, entirely unforeseen in the West, have had even longer lasting effects.
After months of strikes and demonstrations against his rule, the terminally ill Shah of Iran submitted to voluntary exile abroad in January. Within a fortnight, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and, during the remainder of the year, consolidated his position as Iran’s supreme leader.
The Shah’s admission to the US for medical treatment in October provoked the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. 52 diplomatic staff remained hostage for 444 days. The perception of both impotence and incompetence (8 US servicemen died in a failed rescue attempt) contributed to insurgent Ronald Reagan’s defeat of incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Presidential election.
The deregulatory, market focused ethos of the Reagan-Thatcher axis through the 1980s shaped the subsequent direction of Western economies, sowing the seeds of the great crash of 2008, rendering the description “neo-liberal” a term of abuse almost as damaging as witch or heretic in bygone days.
The other country previously on nobody’s radar was Afghanistan. A successful communist coup in 1978 intensified rather than eased rivalries among its leaders. The murder in September of President Nur Mohammad Taraki on the orders of his deputy, Hafizullah Amin, triggered an eventual Soviet military “intervention” on Christmas Eve; the execution of Amin, and the installation of the “puppet”, Barbak Kamal, in his place.
But the Soviet occupation provoked fierce guerrilla resistance backed by US and Saudi money, US weapons and Pakistani logistical support. Soviet troops eventually limped out of Afghanistan from 1987. Its “Vietnam” contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War two years later.
Left behind in Afghanistan were up to two million dead, millions more maimed and anywhere from five to ten million Afghanis displaced to Pakistan and Iran. Chaos has reigned to a greater or lesser degree ever since; geographical control or political authority never being sustainably consolidated, the Taliban threat constant even though its extent ebbed and flowed.
An important “player” in the Mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation was Osama Bin Laden who deployed his Saudi family wealth to support that cause. In the political vacuum following Soviet withdrawal that endured through the 1990s, Afghanistan was a safe haven for the incubation of Al Qaeda, providing a launch pad for the attacks of 9/11, and the consequent US-led “interventions” in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
9/11 is the single most significant legacy of 1979. Since the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, no single day effected so enduring a transformation in the US outlook on the world beyond its shores.
Notwithstanding its actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed to a large extent amplified by them, introversion, insecurity and isolation asserted their ascendancy over self-confidence and multilateralism. “Build that wall!” struck a chord for understandable if unappealing reasons.
As important is the degree to which 9/11 seared itself in the memories of individuals across the world, not only in the US. Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we first became aware of the attacks on the twin towers.
I would claim, rather than boast, a moderately closer connection than many to the events of the day.
On that fine sunny Tuesday morning just after 9 a.m., I was in Tyson’s Corner in Northern Virginia, close to Washington DC, addressing a conference of delegates from the aircraft leasing and financing community about the valuation of commercial passenger aircraft. I had recently published controversial articles in industry journals suggesting that appraisers had plumped up the values of aircraft included in various multiple-aircraft financing facilities and I was expecting a tough grilling from both the appraisers and the promoters of those facilities.
I had just got going when somebody rushed into the room to tell us without preamble or detail that an aircraft of some kind had crashed into one of the towers. After a brief restless rumble through the audience, I resumed my speech only to be interrupted soon again by the return of the same individual to inform us about the second crash. That killed stone dead the lingering possibility of the first having been accidental rather than deliberate, the precise implications uncertain but obviously profound.
The conference adjourned for the morning. In this pre-smart phone era, we sat transfixed in sombre clusters in front of the televisions in the lobby. Until lunchtime when delegates voted with robust unanimity in favour of resuming the conference, a small but meaningful assertion of the primacy of normal order over terrorism induced chaos.
By then, I think we had all begun to realise that air travel might never again be as simple and straightforward as we had previously known it. Indeed, how and when we would get home from the US was already uncertain. Everything I had intended to say about aircraft values was, for the time being at any rate, redundant. Fortunately maybe, my memory of the resumed speech and subsequent discussion is a perfect blank — though I suspect that other preoccupations had doused delegates’ appetite to roast me alive.
Later that evening, grainy television images of flashing lights over Kabul triggered speculation that the US retaliation might already have begun. It was not so, but it was retribution delayed rather than denied. Within the month, the CIA was already active “on the ground” preparing the way for the overt military action that began with US and UK air attacks on Taliban targets on 7 October.
Twenty years on, we have come full circle, but only to the close of another chapter, not the end of the story.