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From 9/11 to 9/12: Memories of the Origin of the "War on Terror"

Today, after reading Kersplebedeb's repost of Emmanuel Ortiz's seminal poem A Moment of Silence and Zak Brown's reflections on his childhood experience of September 11th 2001, I also found myself reflecting on this event. (More accurately a date that became an event because it was forced into significance by US imperialism––in some ways the only event, as Ortiz pointed out, that is allowed to count as a contemporary event according to imperialist discourse.)  Due to this date's significance in initiating the so-called "War in Terror" I cannot help but reflect on it from time to time, particularly whenever I am faced with the fact that the majority of my students were children when it happened and that this is often their cultural reference point.  Brown's article was salient in this regard; he reflects on a childhood dominated by this event and the ideology to which he was subjected in the following years.

The fact that the event of "9-11" and the initiation of the War on Terror forms both the childhood cultural referent for an entire generation of younger adults means that there are people who grew to adulthood while being subjected to a war that has not ceased since the twin towers fell.  In my mind this is far more poignant than an architectural blank space in NYC's cityscape, now commemorated by saccharine memorials, that the majority of these people wouldn't miss.  If the deaths of the people occupying those towers when they fell are incomparable, as Ortiz's poem sought to remind its audience a year after the event, to the ongoing massacres that existed before and after the attack, then destroyed buildings are even less meaningful. This event is such, though, that it exists to distort this logic: its discourse has always been exclusionary, a singularity where everything else is obscured by its ideological event horizon.  No, what has struck me recently about 9-11 is the fact that I am now teaching a generation who cannot remember a world in which the War on Terror did not exist; what is tragic that their counterparts in Afghanistan and elsewhere have experienced thirteen years of the most brutal ongoing war and occupation, also growing to adulthood, in an altogether different manner.  But this still only scratches the surface: global capitalism has always been permanent war; the only difference now is that this war has been given a name and particular ideological form.  I found this experience poignant enough, I guess, that it found its way into the conclusion of my book: "Some of us have grown to adulthood with this war serving as early childhood memory and yet, unlike those who have grown up in regions such as Afghanistan, have been able to live without experiencing the most direct and brutal effects of what George W. Bush once called, without iron, 'the task that never ends.'"

(My childhood cultural referent, as I've mentioned before, was the fall of the Berlin Wall, that happened when I was ten or eleven, and thus the ideology of capitalism as "the end of history."  This is an ideology that lurks at the heart of the War on Terror, though, waged by the so-called "New World Order".)

But reading these leftist anti-commemorations of 9-11 today caused me to also recall my own experience of that event.  On September 11th 2001 I had just started my Masters in Philosophy at Windsor University.  A new graduate student who had spent the latter half of his undergraduate as an anti-globalization activist––still an anarchist and still trying to argue with my Marxist soon-to-be supervisor––I had enough political experience to apprehend this event in a critical manner.  I was actually sitting in the Graduate Club drinking a beer and reading when the television sets above the bar began to depict the attacks.  It took me a while to realize what I was watching, several minutes to think "oh shit, there's going to be a fucking war."  My thoughts were echoed by another graduate student who happened to be present; we spent an hour worrying about possible US repercussions, rather than thinking about those victims that would be transformed into imperial martyrs, and engaging in "chickens-coming-home-to-roost" speculations.  (Interestingly enough, I recall that either this graduate student or myself utilized this adage, as probably many others did, years before Ward Churchill popularized it in that article that would nearly cost him his career.)

We saw something like this.

Later in the day I would call my partner in London, Ontario.  A child of Palestinian refugees, exiled first in 1948 to Lebanon and then in 1967 to Canada, she had spent the entire day watching with disgust as the student body of the University of Western Ontario [UWO] reacted in horror.  This was a veritable spectacle of first world sympathy that offended her sensibilities: the collective imperialist unconscious causing people to break down in tears, even if they weren't from NYC or were even from the US, desperate to call family and commiserate.  About what?  About the fact that the centres of imperialism were attacked, that's what.  And they were scared.  Why?  For the same reason: an ineffable imperialist we rearing its self-righteous head.

I remember asking my partner about what the tiny activist population at UWO thought of this spectacle, the strange behaviour of these scions of anti-globalization anarchist-affinity politics.  For example, what was that animal rights asshole who was on that old UWO activist listserve, that fucker who complained whenever my partner and I tried to push the politics of Palestinian self-determination––what was he saying?  I suspected he was urging some sober-minded bullshit, respect for the victims of the World Trade Centre and screw you all for talking about politics that have anything to do with internationalism (though we didn't know the word then, not really), for daring to talk about US foreign policy––both its past and potential future––in this context where the sympathy of these first world victims should be our moral duty.  But these were the days where email listserves were slow in responding to contemporary events: they were a new thing and most people were on dial-up anyhow.  Hell, the people invested in the spectacle of tragedy at UWO were lining up at bloody pay-phones to call their loved ones: cellphones were not ubiquitous thirteen years ago.

(As an aside, I often wonder about the "activist" asshole mentioned above and whose name was Andreas.  He produced an asinine little zine called Defiance, fancied himself to be the prime activist in London, and somehow ended up infiltrating the tiny student movement at UWO even though he: a) wasn't a student; b) by all appearances seemed to be involved, as a thirty-something man in twenty-something circles, to pick up women.  After spending a couple years watching his "both sides are wrong" interventions in any discussion of Palestinian solidarity, as well as having encountered his horrendous zine time and time again, I wanted to strangle him outright.  But now, after years of the War on Terror and the rise of the BDS movement I hope that his politics have changed.  My suspicion, however, is that he has drifted even further to the right.)

Within a couple years there was a whirlwind of tiny events, all mediated by the fact of 9-11.  I ended up speaking as some kind of anarcho graduate student authority on the student radio at Windsor about 9-11 and the soon to be unleashed War on Terror––I think I appealed to Chomsky, as most random anarchists due, but I can't be sure.  Then, within a few months, I ended up becoming some sort of marxist because I realized, among other things, that anarchism lacked the theoretical tools necessary to critique imperialism.  Then I was in Toronto as a PhD student and engaged in the anti-war protests: those same damn marches around the same damn block, unless they were the snake marches that the IS authorities really hated.  More than one effigy of Bush was burned, as if that even mattered: imperialism continued, these marches were ineffective no matter how militant they became.  Michael Moore's documentary about 9-11 was released and it was woefully unsatisfactory, even from him: as my fellow graduate student and activist, Abed, put it at the time––"that's a film about why it was justified to invade Afghanistan but not Iraq!"  Then the anti-war movement disintegrated but the War on Terror (surprise, surprise) continued.

For me, 9-11 demarcates two periods of movementism: the anti-globalization movement and the anti-war movement, both of which did little to challenge the very things they claimed to fight.  Imperialist globalization remains and is part of the also remaining War on Terror.  If I was further politicized by both this demarcation and what these two periods of activism were unable to answer, then this is yet another tragedy––my ideological transformation (and the ideological transformation of so many others) comes at the expense of untold millions massacred and devastated in the years following 9-11.


  1. many people take part in activism to pick up chicks, whats wrong with that? aren't you being a bit moralistic here?
    many men took part in slutwalk precisely to, erm, pick up sluts.

    good article. I think you are not the only one who, after 9/11, moved from anarchism to marxism. I and many of my friends did the same. we were in anarcho groups, taking part in anti capitalist protests etc, then after 9/11, it all seemed suddenly, well, naive and out of date. I mean, the black block smashing the windows of Mcdonalds suddenly seemed like childs play, and a lot of the books i liked at the time suddenly seemed dated, such as Crimethink, and Hakim Bey's TAZ etc. I remember the zapatista's in that period being uber cool, almost hip. now we rarely hear about them, which is a shame actually. Hardt and Negri's empire, which i remember buying, seemed suddenly dated overnight.

    1. Sometimes I think people complain about "moralism" in the wrong way. If someone is an activist mainly to pick up women this speaks to two problems: a) they aren't committed to the politics, and thus can't be counted on; b) it helps strengthen misogyny where women comrades are seen as people to be picked up. Indeed the fact that you talked about people joining slutwalk to pick up "sluts" speaks to point (b). To dismiss critiques of misogyny as "moralism" is a problem. There is a different between petty-bourgeois moralism and a revolutionary ethics.

      Yeah, for some of us all this past stuff seems out of date post-9/11 but it is still part of the mainstream left praxis here at the centres of capitalism. The G20 and "Occupy" saw a resurgence of all this stuff.

  2. JMP,

    Were you drinking a beer at 9 in the morning? That's when the attack started!

    Otherwise great post.


  3. No, I was actually drinking at 11am when the bar part of the grad club opened, started turning alcohol, and turned on the televisions over the bar.

  4. Should have added: drinking beer at 11am in a grad pub is not that abnormal for graduate students. I think…

  5. Yo,

    Just a comment about anarchism lacking the theoretical tools to critique imperialism. I wonder what you mean by that? Like, anarchists critique imperialism all the time, and I guess I would say that you, the dude on the radio talking about Chomsky right after 9/11, would have been one such anarchist critic of imperialism. Do you mean that anarchists can't critique imperialism in, like, the correct way, or the way that gets to the root of the problem? Because if so, you should probably say something other than "critique" (and by the way, I know I'm being a little pedantic here, but still, your claim is strong enough to warrant some pedanticness).

    I happen to think that anarchism doesn't have much in the way of substantive critiques of imperialism as a specific thing, and I suppose that's a problem. You'll more often see critiques of anti-imperialist politics, actually - not against the concept of anti-imperialism itself, but against how anti-imperialist politics play out. This is pretty much the same as the critiques of anti-fascist politics that you'll see, too. It strikes me, though, that since anarchism is primarily concerned with state power and its badness, a critique of imperialism is a little banal (which doesn't mean that there shouldn't be, you know, at least one pamphlet addressing the issue specifically). This is also why, I think, most specifically anarchist critiques of fascism have been terrible, since again, the vacuous concept of fascism is really, in effect, just something that gets applied to shittier states or shitty people who wish the state could be shitty in the way they want it to be shitty.

    To be super reductive, imperialism is something that states do. Not all states, perhaps, but states that can - and any state that could, would!

    Really, what is imperialism other than the deployment of state violence outside of that state's borders, rather than inside? We don't really call the Alberta tar sands "imperialism", or the suppression of the Ferguson uprising, or whatever else. A war in the Middle East, though, or even a less military thing, like sanctions against a country or a Canadian mine in Peru, might get called all that.

    It's obvious that this has been less sufficiently theorized in my little post here, and there's clearly a whole thing to say about states, since not all states are alike (a point that I agree with, but many other anarchists obviously reject out of hand, sometimes in slightly ludicrous language like "Soviet Unions are red fascist!" or what have you). But the claim that anarchism lacks the tools to critique imperialism seems pretty off-base. Maybe they're not the right tools, in your view, or maybe you think they lead to wrong conclusions. But that's a different thing.

    Also, please don't transpose your own previous Chomsky allegiance onto all anarchists. It's a thing, sure, especially on anglo university campuses on Turtle Island. But many anarchists don't even know who Chomsky is, and plenty of us who do find him rather tedious/actually just a liberal who thinks the Spanish Revolution was more ballin' than it actually even was (though, to be fair, it certainly was ballin' in some aspects, don't get me wrong).


    1. Hi Nauss, yeah I agree that that was a hasty comment. But yes, it was meant to indicate that the "lack" is in not having the proper tools. A critique is not a criticism but a critical analysis of something; one of my reasons for ceasing to be an anarchist is because I felt it lacked any critical/theoretical tools capable of providing a real critique of social phenomena that was properly materialist. When it did apply correct analysis it was usually cribbed from a marxist analysis. In any case, that throwaway line was more meant to be an expression of my own experience, or how I understood things at the time, because clearly people who are still anarchists would disagree with that assessment. The thing is, I eventually did not think so and ended up thinking what I explained above.

      I also don't think that imperialism is something that states do, or the deployment of state violence outside of that state's borders. It is primarily the export of capital, which means a heck of a lot more than that. But I think you're correct if you see it as settler-colonial logic applied in a "colonialism as remote control" kind of way (that's what Babu called it once). The point, though, is that it is more than "state violence" which is not to say it isn't that, but that this violence is produced by larger mechanisms which are reducible to the export of capital which means violence, but also really good stuff for certain classes of people even in those countries (i.e. the comprador classes). I'm reminded here of Engels' critique of Duhring for attempting to reduce social phenomena to violence and his question about the material mechanisms that allowed such violence to happen (the critique of Duhring's appeal to Robinson Crusoe, cited by Fanon in Wretched).

      My prior allegiance to Chomsky (though not really, I was being too hard on myself) was not something that was meant to be transposed to all anarchists. The term "random anarchist" was meant to indicate the default "anarchism" that most activists claimed back then for lack of a better definition but, being entirely random, wasn't even good anarchism. Yes, plenty of anarchists who are actually anarchists find him tedious. At the same time, a shitload of other people who define (maybe erroneously?) as anarchists always cite him. Hence, "random". To be honest, back in those days I wasn't even that kind of anarchist, and didn't always like Chomsky, so the comment was more self-critical than it probably needed to be.

  6. As someone with practically no memories of the time prior to the war on terror, this was an interesting read. I actually just finished The Communist Necessity this morning, and I have to say that I found it very enjoyable as well as enlightening. Thank you for being such an excellent writer!

  7. have there been many marxists who went the other way, became anarchists?

    1. I think this goes without saying: people switch ideological allegiances all the time.

  8. Murray Bookchin was a Marxist who went over to Anarchism. Speaking of myself, started off as an anarchist, saw though it, joined a Marxist-Trotskyist group, then saw through that as well. Kind of agree with Daniel Guerin and his idea of 'libertarian marxism'. While it is true that Anarchism is lacking in theoretical tools, it is also true that Marxism is authoritarian. I mean, while i critically support Maoism, ie in nepal, I think there were real problems with it as well, which was more than revisionism among the leadership. I look at the PCP sites, and the cult of Gonzalo, and I honestly wonder how people could ever think this would liberate them. There is a problem of authoritarianism in marxist parties, imo, while at the same time much marxist analysis is right.

  9. what do you think of the work of Michael Albert, in particular his idea of the 'third class', the coordinator class, of which, according to him, Leninism is the ideology of. This seems to me to be right in some ways.

    1. I have a problem with that conceptualization. Not because I disagree that a certain conceptualization of the Leninist party leads to the idea of a "general staff of the proletariat" where authoritarianism and bureaucracy can cohere within the party organization, but because I don't think this constitutes a "social class" but instead party leadership is representative of other class positions, some of which will be bourgeois or petty-bourgeois. Moreover, I don't think Leninism by itself is an ideology that celebrates a "coordinator class" and that this is a serious misreading, based on later thinkers who argued that intellectuals run the party since they are better prepared to understand theory. Maoism rejects this. Hell, even pre-Maoist Leninists rejected this (for example, Gramsci's work on the "organic intellectual"), and it is a bad interpretation of the theory of a revolutionary vanguard. A much more sophisticated analysis of this problem (that Albert grasps vaguely but fails to theorize properly) can be found in some of the sum-up documents of the New Communist Movement, particularly the work of Tom Clark––not that I agree completely with Clark, but I think he grasps a significant contradiction in the orthodox application of Leninism. (As an aside, the manuscript about MLM that I've been working on deals with Clark's analysis in a friendly though critical manner.)

  10. a certain understanding of Maoism, given by Trotskyists, does present Maoism as the ideology of a radical nationalist bourgeoisie ie the ISO.

    My query is about Nepal, where the Maoist leadership of Prachanda/Bhattarai very easily became/joined the rest of the political class; that the leadership of this party was a kind of 'coordinator class' makes sense, and seem to have little problem serving the imperialists they supposedly fought against. but i wont pretend to know more than I actually do about it.

    I am curious what you think about the kind of theory exemplified by Bakunin in his 'power corrupts the best'. that power in itself centralized in one group, necessarily an exclusive group, causes this group to turn into a new ruling class. Again, a perhaps superficial reading of the USSR and China would seem to bear that out. When i see the RCP carry pictures of Avakian, or the Shining Path pictures of Gonzalo, i wonder what kind of society it would be if they actually took power, and my guess is that these men would never leave power. but again, i wont pretend to know more than i do.

    1. I don't think the Prachanda/Bhattarai leadership can be reduced to a social class, that is where I think the disagreement lies. Really, I think their capitulation can easily be explained according to the concept of two-line struggle where some people in the party will end up being drawn to bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, counter-revolutionary ideology (since it is so compelling due to its normative status) and derail the revolution. This does not mean they are a new class, but rather that they can be seen as more part of the bourgeois class. Like I said, it's not that what this "coordinator class" thing is getting at is wrong in and of itself, only that it helps institute a poor understanding of social class as a whole.

      I think platitudes about the corruption of power aren't very scientific. I really don't think that problems of failed revolutions are reduced to the corruption of power because I think the people involved in derailing these revolutions cannot be reduced to authoritarians trying to cling to authority and privilege without engaging in unscientific psychologization. Bhattarai actually believes that his position is better for Nepal as a whole; his subjectivity is produced by this understanding. Maybe Prachanda wants to hold unto power, maybe a strange subjectivity is produced by cults of personality (this seems quite obvious), and so yes we can speak of an "authoritarian personality" to some extent. At the same time, since the problem of these revolutions' failures is much broader than a few people being "corrupt" and actually communicates to the ways in which counter-revolution returns to all of society, slogans about the corruption of power, which don't even really explain what power is (recall Engels argument against Duhring about power here), should be avoided.


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