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Reaping the whirlwind: reflections on the anniversary of September 11, 2001

by James Graham 

Posted: 10 September 2007
Word Count: 2738
Summary: This is a long piece, longer than I intended, and rather a sober one because of the topic. I hope there's enough in it to sustain interest.

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We all remember where we were when we heard the news. I was listening to the car radio, on my way to Glasgow Central Station to meet someone arriving on an afternoon train. We remember our immediate reactions too, of disbelief at first perhaps, before the reality of the thing became all too clear. I had turned on the radio in the middle of an on-the-scene report from close to what was later to be called Ground Zero, and I remember wondering briefly whether this was an Orson Welles-style War-of-the-Worlds, a fictional drama posing as documentary. I believe this was a common reaction.

But there was another thought which I am sure arrived very early on, seemingly unbidden. It was a biblical text: They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. The ancient prophet's powerful aphorism remained with me during the following days and weeks. Very soon it began to seem a summation of the view I already held, that the attack on the World Trade Centre was a wicked and monstrous act - but it was not gratuitous.

In the aftermath, Americans and the rest of the world were insulted by politicians and other public figures who fatuously claimed that the terrorists had done this because they hated freedom, or because American women don't wear veils, or because Americans eat bacon sandwiches. Of course, it was nothing of the kind. It was a counter-attack. Innocent people of American and other nationalities were being punished for crimes committed over many years by a succession of US presidents and their administrations. The attacks of September 11th were, to use an American term not unrelated to winds and whirlwinds, the most devastating 'blowback' in their history.

Americans have been sowing the wind for over half a century.

When action is taken to overthrow a head of state such as Saddam Hussein, it can always be said that however ham-fisted the operation may have been, at least the world saw the demise of another tyrant. But when US power is deployed to bring down democratically-elected leaders, and indeed put an end to democracy altogether in a country, there can be no pretext or justification. We can look at two examples, one from Latin America and the other from the Muslim world.


The case of Guatemala is one of the most egregious political crimes of the twentieth century. Intervention began in 1953, soon after voters in Guatemala had elected a new social-democratic government under Jacobo Arbenz. This was not only not a communist government, there was not even a Soviet embassy in Guatemala City and Moscow refused to give aid or political support to Arbenz. What the Americans did cannot therefore be seen as a Cold War exercise.

There is no need to embellish the story of the ruin of Guatemala. The facts speak for themselves.

One of the major projects proposed by Arbenz was the nationalisation of undeveloped land belonging to United Fruit, so that these tracts of neglected but potentially good agricultural land could be allocated to some of the country's many landless peasants and labourers. In Latin America,as in other underdeveloped regions, land distribution is often a key to lifting people out of poverty. Compensation was offered to United Fruit on the basis of the company's own valuations of the land for tax purposes.

The American response to this was orchestrated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, head of the CIA. Both men had close business ties with United Fruit. Aware that it was difficult to accuse Arbenz of communism, they arranged for bogus Soviet-marked weapons to be planted on both sides of the Guatemala-Nicaraguan border, and constructed around this a web of lies about a communist conspiracy. Military bases were set up in Nicaragua and Honduras, close to the Guatemalan border.

On 18 June 1954, Arbenz was visited by the American ambassador, who told him he must resign or else Guatemala City would be bombed. To prove the point, within a few days US bombers from Panama bombed a military barracks and a residential area including a school. Troops crossed the border from Honduras and began to move towards Guatemala City. In the face of these provocations Arbenz resigned in favour of his Army Chief of Staff Carlos Diaz. But this was far from acceptable to the Dulles brothers. In his turn Diaz was visited by the US ambassador.

He was told he had to do two things. First he was handed a list of names of elected representatives, trade union leaders and others, and told to have them shot within twenty-four hours. Having done that, he was to resign in favour of an ultra-right-wing rebel leader and CIA 'asset', Castillo Armas. Diaz refused to carry out the killings, or to have any dealings with Armas. On hearing this the ambassador turned on his heel, returned to the embassy and cabled a request for more bombing raids, which duly took place within a few hours. Diaz resigned and Castillo Armas began his period of authoritarian rule. It was the end of democracy in Guatemala, and the beginning of a reign of terror in which at least 70,000 people were murdered or disappeared.

After Armas, Guatemalans suffered under one dictator after another for over thirty years. Perhaps the worst of these, Efrain Rios Montt - considered a good ally by Reagan - organised racist attacks on indigenous peoples, destroying more than 400 villages and murdering their inhabitants. Vietnam-style napalm attacks were carried out by US bombers on villages and rural areas which were thought to be centres of resistance. Over a time-span greater than that of the Vietnam war, Guatemala was torn by conflict and oppression. Every napalmed village in Guatemala - or Vietnam - was a Ground Zero.

Even after similar outrages in Chile - bombed, in a now famous coincidence, on 11 September 1973 - Nicaragua, Colombia and other Latin American countries, America has not suffered any major retaliation from that quarter. But when it came to meddling in the affairs of the Muslim world, it was a very different matter.

It has to be said, of course, that bin Laden and al-Qaida are not interested in Guatemala, or anywhere else outside the Muslim world. Their field of vision is so narrow they are not even interested in large parts of the Muslim world that do not precisely conform to their fundamentalist notions. But I do not think this alters the impact of their act of vengeance in every country that has suffered at the hands of Washington. Many people would have found just below the surface of compassion for the victims, and misgivings about the grotesque nature of this attack, a conviction that would not be reasoned away - that America had brought this on itself, that it had indeed reaped the whirlwind.


Perhaps the most disgraceful exploit of the State Department and CIA in the Muslim world was their assault on democracy in Iran - an event roughly contemporary with the Guatemalan debacle. The democratic government of Iran under prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq passed by a majority vote the nationalisation of Anglo-Iranian, the oil company later to be renamed British Petroleum. Like Arbenz, Mossadeq wished to reclaim some of his country's assets which had been owned and exploited by foreign interests, and to use the revenues to improve Iran's infrastructure and public services. Like Arbenz too, Mossadeq was not a communist; he could hardly have been called even 'left-wing' in most senses of that term. He was a centre-right nationalist.

Again there is no need to embellish the facts - though the CIA's Tehran adventure was foolhardy and much more risky than their relatively straightforward bullying in Guatemala. A cash fund of $1m was deposited in a safe at the American Embassy in Tehran; a similar fund in sterling was deposited at the British Embassy. These monies were used by the CIA and British Intelligence to pay Iranian agents and mercenaries to recruit a force for the purpose of bringing down the Mossadeq government. The Shah proved a willing accomplice, who was easily persuaded when the time seemed ripe to issue an order to Mossadeq to resign. When Mossadeq refused, rightly claiming that only Parliament could decide such matters, the agents of Britain and the US rallied their mercenerary forces. First they staged a sham 'popular' demonstration against Mossadeq. At the same time a sham counter-demonstration, purporting to consist of Mossadeq supporters, vandalised mosques in a calculated affront to the Muslim population which turned many Muslims against Mossadeq. Finally a battle was fought in the streets between the mercenaries and government forces loyal to Mossadeq. The mercenaries won and under further pressure from the Shah, Mossadeq resigned. In the ensuing weeks and months the Shah, with American and British support, was established in virtually sole power at the head of a police state, and Iranian democracy was dead.

How can any state which interferes so outrageously in the affairs and lives of other peoples expect to be safe?

The whirlwind that finally struck New York was the outcome of what proved to be the most dangerous of all risk-taking by US agencies in the Muslim world. The sequence of events is quite simple. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the CIA collaborated with the Pakistan intelligence service and the Saudi monarchy to recruit large numbers of young men from all over the Arab world to fight a guerrilla war against the Russians. It did not matter who they were; no American ever seems to have paused to ask how dangerous these people might be. Far from exercising caution, the CIA funded the building of the training camps on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier which were later to become the head offices of a worldwide terrorist movement.

Then after communism was defeated, an enemy-of-the-month policy had to come into play. The first of these was Saddam Hussein, a convincing enough choice - albeit he had been a US ally for two decades - but operations against Iraq meant that US forces had to be stationed in Saudi, a desecration of the native land and 'Holy Land' of one of the CIA's most fervent recruits - one Osama bin Laden. The worm turned.

Of course there is more to all this than the follies of American foreign policy. If we are rational we can hardly stomach the bigotry and malignity that would murder three thousand New Yorkers merely because American troops are somewhere within a hundred mile radius of the Great Mosque at Mecca. But in Afghanistan the US gave bin Laden his chance of a lifetime. Without the CIA camps and the thousands of fundamentalist recruits, his bigotry and rage might have remained impotent. Just as the CIA had opened doors for state tyrants such as Saddam and Pinochet, so it opened the door to the stateless tyranny Al-Qaida.


There are many aspects of all this violence and counter-violence that evoke another Biblical text: 'That which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun'. The American empire is different from the old empires in that it does not maintain colonial power through direct rule; instead, by force or conspiracy it sets up client regimes - authoritarian more often than not, because the suppression of revolt is more efficiently and more unscrupulously carried out in police states than in democracies. What is not new is the violence with which this modern empire is being built and sustained: its history of bloodshed, from the Philippines in the first decade of the twentieth century to Iraq in 1991 and 2003 onwards, has its precedents in the brutalities of the European Scramble for Africa.

Much has been said about the ghastly novelty of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. For example, they seem to have been designed as a media event. A woman who lived in a New York apartment with a view of Manhattan in the middle distance, spoke of a very strange kind of deja vu: a short time before 9/11 she had been channel-hopping and had come upon a showing of the movie 'Independence Day'. Thinking disaster had struck the city, she rushed to her balcony in a panic and was greatly relieved to see everything was quite normal. Then on September 11th she had turned on the television and there were these horrific scenes at the Twin Towers; fairly sure this time that it must be another disaster movie, she nevertheless looked out from the balcony, and saw to her horror that it was real. The way the attacks seemed to play on our perceptions of reality and image, fact and fiction, is unnerving. The purpose of the attacks seemed to be not only to kill large numbers of people, but to create the biggest news story of the modern age.

Nevertheless, there is a core element in the 9/11 attacks that is no new thing under the sun. Stripped of its theatricality it is still a characteristic guerilla strike. It too has its precedents, in the Mau Mau killings in Kenya, in bombs planted in crowded places by the FLN in Algeria or the IRA in Ireland and Britain. It is the characteristic way of semi-secret, conspiratorial militias to attempt to intimidate governments and societies through acts of terrorism. Typically these militias attract those whose anger or psychological instability has driven them beyond rationality. In all those aspects al-Qaida is nothing more than a rebel militia.


Acts of terrorism against America do a great disservice to rational critics of American imperialism - those innumerable individuals and movements worldwide who deplore the mischief done in the world by US conspiracies and open aggression, but do not believe anything can be achieved by the histrionics of 11 September 2001 and other apocalyptic gestures. For rational people too, it is not enough to criticise; an alternative vision must be imagined and thought about. The pieces of that vision have not yet come together, but it is hard to see a complete picture without the following components.

First, a way must be found to restore and strengthen the system of international law. The United Nations would have to be reformed and reconstituted so that multilateral action against tyrants, both state and non-state, could replace the unilateral loose-cannon behaviour of the US military-industrial-political complex. We must explore the means to make international law universally enforceable, so that any politician who reaches high office - whether a Saddam or a Bush - knows from the beginning that if he crosses any of the lines clearly drawn in international law, he will be brought to justice.

Second, we have to discover how to create international structures for the redistribution of wealth and resources and the equalisation of living standards between the rich and the poor worlds. The world's wealthiest financial and manufacturing companies must sooner or later be brought to recognise their responsibility, and sanctions must be devised against those who fail to do so. The assets of a single corporation now often exceed those of several poor countries combined. Through the channel of an international redistributive agency, corporations must learn to make a new kind of investment, in clean water, cheap medicines, free education and better infrastructures for the poor world.

Finally, there has to be a new recognition, a greater recognition than ever before, of human diversity and the sovereignty of peoples. The people of the Autonomous Region of Chiapas in Southern Mexico must be allowed to develop their non-capitalist economy and ecology without harassment. If they ask for help, it must be given without even a gossamer thread attached. Minority communities who try to realise in microcosm the slogan ‘Another world is possible’ must be allowed space to do so. On a larger scale, the peoples of such countries as Guatemala or Iraq must be allowed to develop their own history, with whatever aid is necessary but without political interference.

Goals such as these are difficult to achieve; they make the hijacking of three passenger aircraft look contemptibly easy. As things stand at present, they seem idealistic and far distant. But they are rational and nothing except rational solutions will do. The case must be made in the face of irrational power, whether that of al-Qaida or that of the rampaging American empire.

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Comments by other Members

Brian Aird at 14:20 on 12 September 2007  Report this post
This is a thought provoking and well written summary of some of the issues leading up to and arising from 9/11.

But there is evidence of bias in the way exclusively biblical texts are quoted and the way those who commit acts of terrorism are assumed to be ‘unstable’ or ‘irrational’. The French resistance carried out many acts of sabotage during the second world war, but we choose not to see that as irrational terrorism but as important acts of bravery. There is also only scant regard for the role terrorism plays as a form of political propaganda.

Since this is a piece of journalism it also begs the question – can we as journalists ever write about anything and be free of political or personal bias ourselves or not affect the issues we write about? Isn’t it ironic that so many Pulitzer prize winning authors have championed the under-dog and exposed wrong-doings at state level, when Joseph Pulitzer, or his newspapers, played no small part in fomenting war a century ago (Cuban civil war – Spanish American war). However, its good that examples of US warmongering action around the globe are listed as they serve to remind us how ‘manifest destiny’ works in practice and that ‘might’ is not always ‘right’.

I first heard about the attack on the twin towers in the middle of watching ‘That Hamilton Woman’ – just as Nelson (Lawrence Olivier) had asked the King to let him return to war to “wipe them out” (I assume Napoleon’s army not just ‘the French’). This made me think of the Prussian general, Clausewitz, who is often quoted as having written, “war is a continuation of politics by other means”. Whilst this out-of-context quote can hardly do justice to the full range of Clausewitz’s grand theory of war, it has always, in turn, made me think about the relationship between ‘terrorism’ and politics in our nuclear-unthinkable proxy-war age. OK, that was not my immediate reaction – when I saw those planes hit, I cried – it’s as simple as that – and I knew then it was both about reaping and sowing seeds of war – just as you imply.

But what is terrorism, really? After all, the efforts by influential politicians to undermine other sovereign powers, by bombings, invasions, regime changes or sanctions either real-or-threatened might be thought of as (state) terrorism. All of which makes ‘war on terror’ as meaningful as ‘war on ‘war’ or perhaps ‘politics against politics’.

So what are we most afraid; dirty bombs or dirty politics? I’d say it hard to tell the difference in terms of the potential harm that we can do to each other.

But the re-invented UN suggested might still be based on the fundamental flaw at the root of the current one; which is that all nations want to be united or are even capable of unity. But, I do find myself in partial agreement with one of your conclusions; “Minority communities who try to realise in microcosm the slogan ‘Another world is possible’ must be allowed space to do so.” That reminds me of the failure of Tolstoy communities and a similar experiment on a much wider scale that took 80 years to fail! But to be fair democracy also had to have started as an experiment (Greece? India?) - maybe the jury's still out.

I think the current problem with understanding political change in places such as the Middle East is more to do with a fog of politics and propaganda rather than the fog of war that Clausevitz wrote of. Its hard to make decisions or form opinions when fed with conflict ridden clichés about (mostly) nameless insurgents and terrorists.

We live in an all-together different age now where communication can be sent around the globe in an instant. In the struggle to take control of the medium (i.e. television, the internet, news papers) is the chance to exchange ideas openly despite non-shared cultural, political or religious influences being thrown away? Or is highly visible collision the only way?

I believe that until we stop using terms like ‘irrational’ to describe behaviour we don’t understand and start trying to see each other’s point of view; we are destined to remain fogged – and possibly at risk of war.

James Graham at 10:50 on 13 September 2007  Report this post
Brian, many thanks for posting such a long and well-considered comment. I'll reply soon. Maybe we can get a debate going on these issues.


James Graham at 22:56 on 14 September 2007  Report this post
First, the biblical quotes. It did cross my mind that two Bible texts might give the article too much of a Christian slant. But a Scottish Presbyterian atheist is allowed to quote the Bible, which after all is a collection of old literature, varying hugely in quality but containing some good yarns and some memorable passages. Just to add another: my favourite 'Thou shalt not' is 'Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil' - also relevant to the article, maybe.

On reactions to seeing the the planes hit - yes, my reaction was much the same as yours, and the understanding came later that however awful it was 9/11 was after all a counter-strike against an aggressive power. What also came later was a realisation of how narrow our perspective was when we witnessed that atrocity on TV. Imagine that we had also been shown full coverage of an American missile attack on even one suburb of Baghdad in the 'Shock and Awe' operation of 2003; if cameras had been there to record the Cruise missile exploding in a residential street in the Radwaniyeh district on 22 March 2003, showing us bodies and severed limbs and ruined houses, and cutting to the hospital to show children with massive burns or metal fragments embedded in the spine. This particular scene - only a small portion of 'Shock and Awe', of course - was covered in an angry report by Robert Fisk in the Independent, but we didn't see it repeated round the clock on News 24, Sky News, etc. etc. We were given ample opportunity to be shocked by what the non-state terrorists did, but what the state terrorists did was not allowed to have the same impact. Any impact it has must be worked at very hard by radical journalists such as Fisk or John Pilger.

On rationality and irrationality, it does seem to me that there's something irrational about extremism of all kinds, especially religious extremism. I suppose I am describing as irrational people whose beliefs or behaviour I can't understand. But if irrational action means action based on superstition and emotion rather than evidence and thought, then I have to doubt the rationality of either suicide bombers or those Christians who want to kill gays because they say 9/11 was God's punishment on America for tolerating them.

At the same time a terrorist organisation such as al-Qaida does have a rationale, just as the Bush administration has a rationale for what it does. Bin Laden has expounded his rationale on Al-Jazeera. In that sense I suppose we have to say that non-state terrorism is no more or less rational than state terrorism.

I like your reference to the Tolstoy communities and the 'similar experiment on a much wider scale that took 80 years to fail'. In spite of the Terror and the Gulag, and having read all about them, I remain sympathetic to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Throwing all rationality to the winds, I believe the impulse that brought about this flawed experiment will one day return.


Brian Aird at 10:15 on 17 September 2007  Report this post
Hi Graham; my only fear with quoting the bible is that those who didn't grow up with that book as regular nightly reading might fell excluded. What might an Arab think of Christinaity? I'll quote one I knew: "many of our prostitutes are christians". Can we expect Muslims to join in this discussion though? Can we realistically expect anyone of the stature of Fisk or Pilger to come from the Middle East? What would the Lebanese poet, Gibran have written had he still been alive?

Like you I'd like to hear more discussion and as in any good conversation, perhaps we can best prepare by being ready to listen.


James Graham at 11:51 on 19 September 2007  Report this post
Hi Brian - I do see what you mean about quoting the bible. Anyone who wants to engage in dialogue with the Arab world should steer clear of biblical texts. If this were a widely published article (it's not going to be - I've no idea who would publish it) it would probably be a good idea to rewrite the biblical bits.

I'm not sure that it matters that Fisk and Pilger come from the rich world - they've redeemed themselves. As for political writers or journalists from the Middle East, there's one that springs to mind immediately - Rageh Omaar, who used to work for the BBC but is now with al-Jazeera. His investigative reports on al-Jazeera are top-rate.


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