Immanuel Wallerstein


September 11, 2001 – Why?

(15 September 2001)

Comment No. 72, Sept. 15, 2001 (See copyright notice at the end)
Copied from the Marxism mailing list.
The original can be found at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.

On September 11, 2001, the whole world watched a human tragedy and a great drama, and everyone was fixated on it. In the U.S., four commercial airliners were hijacked in the early morning. The hijackers numbered 4-5 persons in each plane. Armed with knives, and having at least one person among them capable of piloting the plane (at least once it was in the air), the hijackers took over the planes, ousted (or killed) the pilots and directed the planes on suicide missions. Three of the planes hit their targets: the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington.

Given both the amount of fuel aboard and the technical knowledge to know at which height the planes should hit the buildings, the hijackers managed to destroy completely the two towers and carve a big hole in the Pentagon. As of now, there are probably more than 5,000 dead (no one has an exact figure) and many more hurt and traumatized. The U.S. air network and financial institutions have ground virtually to a halt, at least for this week, and untold short-range and middle-range economic damage has been done.

The first thing to note about this attack is its audacity and its remarkable success. A group of persons, linked together by ideology and willingness to be martyrs, engaged in a clandestine operation that must be the envy of any secret service agency in the world. They obtained entry into the United States, managed to board with knives four airplanes, which were leaving from three airports almost simultaneously, and all of which were heading on transcontinental flights and therefore had large amounts of fuel on board. They took over the planes, and managed to get three of them to reach their targets. Neither the CIA nor the FBI nor U.S. military intelligence nor any one else had any advance notice or was able to do anything to stop this group.

The outcome was the most devastating such attack in the history of what we call terrorist attacks. No previous attack killed more than 400 or so persons. Even at Pearl Harbor, to which the analogy is being widely made, and where the attack was conducted by the military forces of a state, many fewer people were killed. Furthermore, this was the first time since the Civil War (1861-1865) that warfare occurred within the boundaries of the continental United States. The U.S. has since been engaged in many major wars – the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam – (not to speak of “minor” wars), and in all of them the actual fighting occurred outside these boundaries. The fact that warfare occurred in the streets of New York and Washington constituted the biggest shock to the American people of this attack.

So, the big question is why? Virtually everyone is saying that the person responsible for the attack is Osama bin Laden. It seems a plausible assumption, since he has declared his intention to carry out such acts, and perhaps in the near future U.S. authorities will produce some evidence substantiating this assumption. Let us suppose this is correct. What would bin Laden hope to achieve in attacking the U.S. in this spectacular way? Well, this could be seen as an expression of anger and revenge for what bin Laden (and others) consider the misdeeds of the U.S. throughout the world, and particularly in the Middle East. Would bin Laden think that, by such an act, he could persuade the U.S. government to change its policies? I seriously doubt that he is so naive as to think this would be the reaction. President Bush says he regards the attack as an “act of war” and possibly bin Laden, if he is the perpetrator, thinks the same. Wars are not conducted to persuade the opponent to change his ways, but to force the opponent to do so.

So let us reason as though we were bin Laden. What has he proved by this attack? The most obvious thing that he has proved is that the United States, the world’s only superpower, the state with the most powerful and sophisticated military hardware in the world, was unable to protect its citizens from this attack. What bin Laden, again presuming he is in fact the force behind it, wished to do, clearly, is to show that the U.S. is a paper tiger. And he wished to show it, first of all, to the American people, and then to everyone else in the world.

Now this is as obvious to the U.S. government as it is to bin Laden. Hence the response. President Bush says he will react forcefully, and the U.S. political elite of both parties have given him their patriotic assent without any hesitation. But now let us reason from the point of view of the U.S. government. What can they do? The easiest thing is to obtain diplomatic support of condemnation of the attack and justification of any future counterattack. This is exactly what Secretary of State Powell said he would be doing. And it is reaping its rewards. NATO has said that, under Article 5 of the treaty, a military attack on the U.S. (which they consider this to be) requires all its members to give military support to the counteraction, if the U.S. requests it. Every government in the world, including that of Afghanistan and North Korea, has condemned the attack. The sole exception is Iraq. It is true that popular opinion in Arab and Muslim states has not been as supportive of the U.S. but the U.S. will ignore that.

The fact that the U.S. has achieved this diplomatic support, perhaps later a U.N. resolution, will hardly make bin Laden quake in his boots. The diplomatic support is going to seem to be thin gruel for the American people as well. They will demand more. And more almost inevitably means some kind of military action. But what? Whom will the U.S. Air Force bomb? If bin Laden is behind the attack, there are only two possible targets, depending on further knowledge about the evidence: Afghanistan and/or Iraq. How much damage will that do? In half-destroyed Afghanistan, it hardly seems worthwhile. And the U.S. has been restrained about bombing Iraq for many reasons, including not wishing to lose lives. Maybe the U.S. will bomb someone. Will that convince the American people and the rest of the world that the U.S. is too fearsome to attack? Somehow I doubt it.

The truth of the matter is that there is not too much that the U.S. can do. The CIA tried for years to assassinate Castro, and he’s still there. The U.S. has been searching for bin Laden for some years now, and he’s still there. One day, U.S. agents may kill him, and this might slow down this particular operation. It would also give great satisfaction to many people. But the problem would still remain whole. Obviously, the only thing to do is something political. But what? Here all accord within the U.S. (or more widely within the pan-Western arena) disappears. The hawks say that this proves that Sharon (and the present Israeli government) are right: “they” are all terrorists, and the way to handle them is with harsh riposte. This hasn’t been working so well for Sharon thus far. Why will it work better for George W. Bush?

And can Bush get the American people to pay the price? Such a hawkish mode does not come cheaply. On the other hand, the doves are finding it difficult to make the case that this can be handled by “negotiation.” Negotiation with whom, and with what end in view? Perhaps what is happening is that this “war” – as it is being called this week in the press – cannot be won and will not be lost, but will simply continue. The disintegration of personal security is now a reality that may be hitting the American people for the first time. It was already a reality in many other parts of the world.

The political issue underlying these chaotic oscillations of the world-system is not civilization versus barbarity. Or at least what we must realize is that all sides think they are the civilized ones, and that the barbarian is the other. The issues underlying what is going on is the crisis in our world-system and the battle about what kind of successor world-system we would like to build. This does not make it a contest between Americans and Afghans or Muslims or anyone else. It is a struggle between different visions of the world we want to build. [1] September 11, 2001 will soon seem to be, contrary to what many are saying, a minor episode in a long struggle that will go on for a long time and be a dark period for most people on this planet.

by Immanuel Wallerstein



1. I have made the case for why we are living in a crisis of the world-system in Utopistics, or Historical Choices for the Twenty-first Century (New York: New Press, 1998)


[ Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author at; fax: 1-607-777-4315. These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]


Last updated on 4.2.2002