I will be taking a break from Blogging for the next 2 to 3 weeks. It has become necessary for me to move home and this will be taking place over this period – so it’s packing, cleaning, transporting, etc, for the next few weeks. I may be able to get back to Blogging before 3 weeks, we’ll see how the move all goes. There is a lot to do though.
This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
At 8:46am on a sunny Tuesday morning in New York City, a commercial jet plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, cutting through floors 93 to 99.
As the news was beamed around the world, shaken reporters wondered whether the crash had been an accident or an act of terrorism. At 9:03am, viewers watching the smoke billowing from the gash in the building were stunned to see a second jet plane dart into view and fly directly into the South Tower. Suddenly, it was clear that the United States was under attack.
The scale of the assault became apparent about 40 minutes later, when a third jet crashed into the Pentagon. Not long after, in the fourth shock of the morning, the South Tower of the World Trade Centre unexpectedly crumbled to the ground in a few seconds, its structural integrity destroyed by the inferno set off by the plane’s thousands of gallons of jet fuel. Its twin soon succumbed to the same fate.
Over the next days and weeks, the world learned that 19 militants belonging to the Islamic terrorist group, al Qaeda, armed with box cutters and knives missed by airport security, had hijacked four planes.
Three hit their targets. The fourth, intended for the White House or the Capitol, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania when passengers, who had learned of the other attacks, struggled for control of the plane. All told, close to 3,000 people were killed and 6,000 were injured.
Immediate impact of the attacks
The events of 9/11 seared the American psyche. A country whose continental states had not seen a major attack in nearly 200 years was stunned to find that its financial and military centres had been hit by a small terrorist group based thousands of miles away. More mass attacks suddenly seemed not just probable but inevitable.
The catastrophe set in motion a sequence of reactions and unintended consequences that continue to reverberate today. Its most lasting and consequential effects are interlinked: a massively expensive and unending “war on terror”, heightened suspicion of government and the media in many democratic countries, a sharp uptick in Western antagonism toward Muslims, and the decline of US power alongside rising international disorder – developments that aided the rise of Donald Trump and leaders like him.
War without end?
Just weeks after 9/11, the administration of US President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan with the aim of destroying al Qaeda, which had been granted safe haven by the extremist Taliban regime. With the support of dozens of allies, the invasion quickly toppled the Taliban government and crippled al Qaeda. But it was not until 2011, under President Barack Obama, that US forces found and killed al Qaeda’s leader and 9/11 mastermind – Osama bin Laden.
Though there have been efforts to end formal combat operations since then, over 10,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan today, fighting an intensifying Taliban insurgency. It is now the longest war the United States has fought. Far from being eradicated, the Taliban is active in most of the country. Even though the war’s price tag is nearing a trillion dollars, domestic pressure to end the war is minimal, thanks to an all volunteer army and relatively low casualties that make the war seem remote and abstract to most Americans.
Even more consequential has been the second major armed conflict triggered by 9/11: the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was not linked to 9/11, officials in the administration of George W. Bush were convinced his brutal regime was a major threat to world order. This is largely due to Saddam Hussein’s past aggression, his willingness to defy the United States, and his aspirations to build or expand nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, making it seem likely that he would help groups planning terrorist attacks on the West.
The invading forces quickly ousted Saddam, but the poorly executed, error-ridden occupation destabilised the entire region.
In Iraq, it triggered a massive, long-running insurgency. In the Middle East more broadly, it boosted Iran’s regional influence, fostered the rise of the Islamic State, and created lasting disorder that has led to civil wars, countless terrorist attacks, and radicalisation.
In many parts of the world, the war fuelled anti-Americanism; in Europe, public opinion about the war set in motion a widening estrangement between the United States and its key European allies.
Monetary and social costs
Today, the United States spends US$32 million every hour on the wars fought since 9/11. The total cost is over US$5,600,000,000,000. (5.6 trillion dollars). The so-called war on terror has spread into 76 countries where the US military is now conducting counter-terror activities, ranging from drone strikes to surveillance operations.
The mind-boggling sums have been financed by borrowing, which has increased social inequality in the United States. Some observers have suggested that government war spending was even more important than financial deregulation in causing the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis.
The post-9/11 era has eroded civil liberties across the world. Many governments have cited the urgent need to prevent future attacks as justification for increased surveillance of citizens, curbing of dissent, and enhanced capacity to detain suspects without charge.
The well publicised missteps of the FBI and the CIA in failing to detect and prevent the 9/11 plot, despite ample warnings, fed public distrust of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Faulty intelligence about what turned out to be nonexistent Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) undermined public confidence not only in the governments that touted those claims but also in the media for purveying false information.
The result has been a climate of widespread distrust of the voices of authority. In the United States and in other countries, citizens are increasingly suspicious of government sources and the media — at times even questioning whether truth is knowable. The consequences for democracy are dire.
Across the West, 9/11 also set off a wave of Islamophobia. Having fought a decades-long Cold War not long before, Americans framed the attack as a struggle of good versus evil, casting radical Islam as the latest enemy. In many countries, voices in the media and in politics used the extremist views and actions of Islamic terrorists to castigate Muslims in general. Since 9/11, Muslims in the United States and elsewhere have experienced harassment and violence.
In Western countries, Muslims are now often treated as the most significant public enemy. European populists have risen to power by denouncing refugees from Muslim majority countries like Syria, and the willingness and ability of Muslims to assimilate is viewed with increasing scepticism.
A week after his inauguration, US President Donald Trump kept a campaign promise by signing the so-called “Muslim ban”, designed to prevent citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
One of the most widely expected consequences of 9/11 has so far been averted. Though Islamic terrorists have engaged in successful attacks in the West since 9/11, including the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and the 2015 attacks in Paris, there has been no attack on the scale of 9/11. Instead, it is countries with large Muslim populations that have seen a rise in terrorist attacks.
Yet the West still pays the price for its militant and militarised response to terrorism through the weakening of democratic norms and values. The unleashing of US military power that was supposed to intimidate terrorists has diminished America’s might, creating a key precondition for Donald Trump’s promise to restore American greatness.
Although many of the issues confronting us today have very long roots, the world we live in has been indelibly shaped by 9/11 and its aftermath.
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” asks Reg from the People’s Front of Judaea in Monty Python’s comedy classic, Life of Brian. Rome: City + Empire, now showing at the National Museum of Australia, offers visitors a clear answer: they brought civilization.
This collection of more than 200 objects from the British Museum presents a vision of a vast Roman empire, conquered by emperors and soldiers, who brought with them wealth and luxury. Quotations from ancient authors extolling the virtues of Rome and the rewards of conquest stare down from the walls. This is an exhibition of which the Romans themselves would have been proud.
Indeed, the major issue is that the displays present a largely uncritical narrative of Roman imperialism. One section, called “Military Might,” features a statue of the emperor Hadrian in armour, a defeated Dacian, and a bronze diploma attesting to the rewards of service in the Roman army. An explanatory panel informs us that resistors were “treated harshly” while those “who readily accepted Roman domination, benefited”. This is especially troubling to read in an Australian context.
The exhibition is beautifully laid out, with highly effective use of lighting and colour to emphasise the different themes: “The Rise of Rome”, “Military Might”, “The Eternal City”, “Peoples of the Empire” and “In Memoriam”. And it boasts impressive busts and statues of emperors, imperial women, priests and priestesses, gods and goddesses, most displayed in the open, rather than behind glass. This allows visitors to view them up close from many angles.
The use of imagery is one of the exhibition’s greatest strengths. Close-ups of coins and other small artefacts are projected against the wall, while enlarged 18th-century Piranesi prints of famous monuments such as the Pantheon provide a stunning backdrop.
There are some excellent curatorial choices. The number of images of women is commendable, enabling the exhibition to move beyond emperors, soldiers and magistrates to emphasise women as an intrinsic part of the life of Rome.
Stories of key monuments, such as the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, and the Pantheon, are accompanied by busts of the emperors who built them as well as associated everyday objects such as theatre tickets and strigils. However, there is no map of the city of Rome to allow visitors to place these buildings in context. And the evidence for the true cost of Roman conquest is not sufficiently highlighted.
Where are the slaves?
Coins show emperors subduing prostrate peoples, including one featuring Judaea, where Vespasian and Titus cruelly crushed a revolt between 66-73 CE. The accompanying plaque refers obliquely to Roman “acts of oppression”, but one has to turn to the exhibition catalogue to find the true list of horrors, including the thousands enslaved and the sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem. Nor is there any mention that the construction of the Colosseum, profiled just a few feet away in the exhibition, was funded by the spoils of the Jewish War.
The walls are covered with quotations extolling the Romans’ own imperialistic vision. “The divine right to conquer is yours”, a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, greets visitors at the start. Even more troubling is a quotation from Pliny the Elder which looms over the “Peoples of the Empire” section:
Besides, who does not agree that life has improved now the world is united under the splendour of the Roman Empire.
This section is full of objects displaying the luxurious lifestyle of provincial elites under Roman rule, from the stunning decorated spoons and bracelets of the British Hoxne treasure to beautiful funerary reliefs of rich Palmyrenes. The exhibition trumpets the “diversity” of Rome’s peoples, but this curious set of objects does not tell any coherent story beyond the comfortable lives of the privileged.
Slavery – the most horrifying aspect of Roman society – is all but absent. There are incidental references (a gladiator given his freedom, the funerary urn of a former slave), but they are presented with little context. Scholars have estimated that slaves composed at least 10 per cent of the empire’s total population of 60 million. They undertook domestic and agricultural labour, educated children, and served in the imperial household. Their stories remain largely untold.
The absence of any counterpoint to the Romans’ story in this exhibition is all the more surprising given that the catalogue contains an essay from the NMA that does show awareness of these problems. Curators Lily Withycombe and Mathew Trinca explore how the narrative of Roman conquest influenced imperial expansion in the modern age, including the colonisation of Australia.
Particularly revealing is their statement: “While the Classics may have once been in the service of British ideas of empire, they are now more likely to be taught using a critical postcolonial lens.” Yet this nuance does not make it into the exhibition itself.
A very different narrative about the Roman world could have been presented. Even in their own time, Roman commentators were aware of the darker side of imperialism. In his account of the influx of Roman habits and luxuries into Britain, the historian Tacitus remarked:
The Britons, who had no experience of this, called it ‘civilization’, although it was a part of their enslavement. (Agricola 21, trans. A. R. Birley).
The colossal head of the empress Faustina the Elder from a temple in Sardis is a spectacular object, but its overwhelming size should remind us of the asymmetrical power dynamics of Roman rule. Emperors and their family members were meant to be figures of awe to peoples of the empire, to be feared like gods. Tacitus memorably described the imperial cult temple at Colchester in Britain as a “fortress of eternal domination”.
Guide to the Classics: Virgil’s Aeneid
The Rome of the exhibition is a curiously timeless world. The grant of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212 CE goes unmentioned, and the coming of Christianity is presented almost as an afterthought.
There are some spectacular items from the vibrant world of Late Antiquity (3rd-7th centuries CE), such as the gold glass displaying Peter and Paul and parts of the Esquiline treasure. But this section is marred by factual errors and it misses the opportunity to explore the dynamics of fundamental religious and cultural change.
Rome: City + Empire is a wonderful collection of objects, displayed in an engaging manner, which will be of interest to all Australians. The exhibition is likely to be a hit with children – there is a playful audio-guide specifically for kids and many hands-on experiences dotted throughout: from the chance to electronically “colour-in” the funerary relief of a Palmyrene woman on a digital screen, to feeling a Roman coin or picking up a soldier’s dagger.
But visitors should be aware that it presents a distinctly old-fashioned tale of Rome’s rise and expansion, which is out of step with contemporary scholarly thinking. The benefits of empire came at a bloody cost.
Rome: City + Empire is at the National Museum of Australia until 3 February 2019.
This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
Nearly 30 years ago, in the night of November 9-10, 1989, East German border police opened the gates at crossing points in the Berlin Wall, allowing masses of East Berliners to stream through them unhindered.
This started a night of unbridled celebrations as people crossed freely back and forth through the Cold War barrier, climbed on it, and even danced and partied on it.
The signal for the mass breach of the previously heavily guarded wall was a fumbled announcement in a press conference by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) Party chief of Berlin, Günter Schabowski.
His announcement that travel restrictions for East German citizens would be lifted led to the Wall’s transit points being mobbed by thousands of East Germans as they interpreted the announcement to mean immediate freedom of movement to the West.
The opening of the Berlin Wall triggered a series of events that led to an unexpectedly rapid unification of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG or West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) on October 3, 1990.
But to really understand this moment, we need to look at when and why the Berlin Wall was erected in the first place. Following Germany’s defeat in the second world war, the country was split between the victors – the Western Allies’ occupation zones became the Federal Republic in 1949, while the Soviet zone was reconstituted as the German Democratic Republic shortly thereafter.
Germany’s capital, Berlin, was also split down the middle. The wall was erected by the East German leadership in August 1961 to stop the flow of citizens from East to West, completing a sealed border that elsewhere ran along the frontier between the two German states.
The Wall’s opening was the product of two processes that had gathered momentum throughout the second half of 1989: the peaceful demonstrations and protest marches of a number of newly constituted East German civil rights organisations, and the growing number of East German citizens leaving from the GDR’s side doors.
The latter mostly happened through Hungary, which opened its border with Austria in May. Large numbers of East Germans on holidays in Hungary took advantage of the opportunity to migrate to West Germany. By November 1989, the trickle of East Germans leaving had become a flood, with thousands a day going to the West by the week the wall was opened.
Furthermore, the East German SED leadership had been increasingly on the back foot since peaceful demonstrations started, following manipulated local government elections in May 1989.
By the start of October, there were regular Monday night protest marches through Leipzig and other East German cities. Initially, there were fears that the SED leadership might suppress these protests with violence.
The Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent mass killings in Beijing in June 1989 were fresh in the minds of many. But after a large-scale Monday night demonstration in Leipzig was allowed to proceed without armed opposition from the police and security services on October 9, the opposition gained courage and momentum.
A few days before the opening of the Wall, an estimated half a million protesters gathered in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, calling for democratic reform of East Germany.
There was, of course, a wider context for these events. By 1989, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, had become convinced of the need to carry out economic reform measures in the Soviet Union. He considered disarmament and a winding down of Cold War confrontation in Europe as necessary preconditions for such reforms.
Unlike previous Soviet leaders, Gorbachev signalled a tolerant attitude to reforms in the member states of the Warsaw Pact, including relaxation of censorship and central control of economic matters.
Indeed, Gorbachev even began to encourage the replacement of older generation communist hardliners with younger reformist leaders. When Gorbachev visited East Berlin for the official 40th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the GDR on October 7, 1989, he was rapturously welcomed by young demonstrators. They saw his visit as promising reforms that had hitherto been resisted by the ageing SED leadership under Erich Honecker.
On October 18, Honecker was obliged to step down in favour of his younger protégé Egon Krenz. However, in the following weeks, despite the almost inadvertent opening of the Berlin Wall, Krenz failed to keep up with escalating popular pressure for change.
The impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall
The new openness to reform in what was still known as the “Soviet bloc” had already seen contested elections in Poland in May 1989, and political and economic reforms in Hungary. These were catalysts for the changes in East Germany (especially events like Hungary’s opening of its western border).
In the weeks after the opening of the Berlin Wall, there was a peaceful transition to democratic government in Czechoslovakia, and less peaceful changes of régime in Romania and Bulgaria, as it became clear the Soviet Union was no longer prepared to support hard line Communist governments in Eastern Europe.
The lasting consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall were momentous.
Despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of Soviet army troops in the former Cold War front line state of East Germany, Gorbachev agreed in negotiations with the United States President George H. W. Bush and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to permit a swift unification of the two German states. This occurred almost entirely on West German terms.
The speedy collapse of the East German economy in mid-1990 left East German leaders, now democratically elected, with little leverage. Once the West German currency, the Deutsche Mark, was introduced into the East in a currency union in July 1990, East German firms, already exposed by the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, were drastically unequipped to compete.
For two centuries, modern European history had largely revolved around the “German Question”: what external borders would a German state have, and what political order would prevail in this pivotal Central European state? The peaceful and democratic unification of 1990 seemed to provide a definitive answer.
Providing real unity between West and East Germans required massive financial transfers from West to East. The transformation of the Eastern states in practise caused significant economic and social dislocation. As East Germans made enormous adjustments in their lives, their Western cousins were also paying slightly higher taxes to cover the costs of unification.
More globally, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the symbolic end of the Cold War. Berlin had long been a cockpit of Cold War confrontation – now it was the victors’ trophy. One US policy analyst prematurely proclaimed the “end of history”, in so far as history was a clash between major political orders, and Western democracy and capitalism had won.
But since 1989, many disappointments have followed the initial euphoria. The “peace dividend” hoped for by millions, and Gorbachev’s sunny but characteristically vague formula of peaceful coexistence in a “common European home”, have not eventuated. Instead, a triumphant NATO has pitched its tents inside the borders of the old USSR, and a surly and resentful Russia has responded with brinkmanship and confrontation.
Following the end of the Cold War, neoconservative US administrations sought to put their stamp on the world, and the “blowback” has resulted in chaos in much of the Middle East and think tank predictions of a “clash between civilizations”.
Economically, turbocharged neoliberal capitalism has come under question, especially following the 2008 global financial crisis. But, what is significant to note is that since the collapse of state socialism, symbolised by the fall of the Wall, the contours of an alternative social order have become almost impossible to discern.