Historian specializing in the United States, director of the Center for North American Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Romain Huret evokes “fortunately optimistic” America before the attacks and lists the upheavals that have occurred since that disastrous date. in the global equilibrium.
What did the United States look like at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks?
It was an extremely happy, prosperous and optimistic country. We must not forget that the 1990s marked the end of the Cold War and the final victory of the United States with the fall of the Soviet Empire. At that time in history, the obvious idea was that the American model would spread across the planet. The Americans then experience a period of unprecedented economic prosperity: the minimum wage is exploding, full employment is imminent, people have the impression that growth is eternal. And since there is no enemy left, some, like American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, even go so far as to evoke “the end of history.” It is the absolute triumph of the model of American democracy and mass consumption. The country is plunged into blissful optimism, meaning September 11 will be a total, absolute shock.
Can we expect an attack of this magnitude?
Nobody saw it coming. It must be remembered that at that time not only did an attack on American soil seem unthinkable, but enemy number one – the Soviet Union – had been defeated. One model had largely won over the other and the world seemed much safer. The attacks are therefore an absolute slap in the face to the army, the secret services, the government and the population. Especially since we will soon learn that we have allowed men to circulate freely, take flying lessons and organize themselves on American soil to commit a crime that will shock the country as the assassination of the president did. Kennedy, November 22, 1963, or the attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1943. It’s a pause.
What is the reaction of the American people?
It is astonishing: everything collapses, and also has a special resonance with the imagination of the disaster that reigned in Hollywood at the time. The movie in vogue at the end of the 90s was that hard †crystal trap), with Bruce Willis defending a tower under siege by terrorists. And suddenly it becomes real: The World Trade Center towers are collapsing live on screens around the world! But very quickly, the resilience of the United States takes over. There is an unprecedented patriotic momentum, with thousands of young people joining the military to defend their country. President Bush, rather badly elected, becomes a warlord, which becomes inevitable. The allies unite around America, but no one sees what is already taking shape, which is that the country is deeply destabilized internally. American democracy, in particular, has been extremely weakened by these attacks. The institutional and social foundations are also being shaken, which will have a major impact on the sequence of events.
What is this effect?
Bin Laden’s goal was undeniably the destabilization of American democracy, and we see today that this goal has been largely achieved. For example, the militarization of the United States, coupled with successive fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, has resulted in the “cruel” of society. You have to realize that today there are 18 million veterans in this country, 2 million active soldiers, and all these people have families. So 60 to 70 million Americans have a relative in the US military.
What is the consequence of this militarization of society?
It has powerful effects on the democratic debate, with tremendous verbal abuse, of which Donald Trump is the purest product, who pushed the boundaries of the debate by resorting to insults, swear words, theorizing of the enemy like the traitor, so many references borrowed from military rhetoric and which he managed to convert into the political game. It also has economic consequences, with on the one hand a colossal debt linked to a multiplication of areas of operations and on the other a dependence on this war economy. The factories of the military-industrial complex as well as the army bases support entire states in the American South and West, which explains the attachment of part of the population to this militarization. Another consequence is that for twenty years Americans, who have little interest in the rest of the world, have had a view of the outside world that essentially passes through the military filter, sending them back images of violence, radicalization, danger. This sense of threat to democracy and to the white Christian population will continue to be very well exploited by Trump in 2016.
Doesn’t the September 11 page turn with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the reorientation on the trade war with China?
There is a sense of optimism that is back in the United States, where huge fortunes have been made in Silicon Valley or in the stock market, but September 11 sharply accentuated the divide between two Americas: those on the East and West coasts, educated, those took advantage of the economic boom and watched America’s wars from afar; and those of the center, whose children went to fight in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. This divide is huge and these two Americas seem difficult to reconcile today. This is also the biggest challenge of the Biden presidency, which must lead a country that is currently under extreme tension.
Didn’t we in Europe also pay a high price for these September 11 attacks?
If we were to try to write a counter-history of the past twenty years, it is certain that we would not have known about the 2015 attacks in France had it not been for September 11, 2001 and the American reaction that followed. The world has been completely destabilized by what happened that day in the United States. More generally, geostrategically, everything the United States has done since 2001 has turned into a fiasco: democracy has never been exported anywhere, the Middle East has been totally destabilized for decades, and new global equilibria are still to be found. Today there are also voices in the United States to say that they should never have gone to war with countries in 2001 and that it would have been better to track down the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks. That’s not what happened. Result: today no one can say what the world will look like in five years.