All you need to know about 9/11 – except WHY?
A litany of cock-ups and confusion, but 10 years on from the attack, we are no wiser
I was in Stirling when it happened. A friend who had published Stella Rimington's memoir had a call from her. "Turn on the television," said Stella, "Look. Bloody Osama. Got to be."
Ten years ago, almost, since 9/11, and they haven't got over it, achieved closure, moved on. America became a sort of Bessie Bighead, the cowhand in Under Milk Wood who can never forget Gomer Owen, who "kissed her once when she wasn't looking, and never kissed her again though she was looking all the time".
Al-Qaeda bombed them once when they weren't looking, and the attack on the Twin Towers became the USA's own Gomer's Kiss, the defining event of contemporary American history. Most people even at the time sensed that it was a one-off, that it wasn't the opening shot in a salvo of skyscrapers, toppling like dominoes all across the United States.
Unfortunately, that's precisely how the US government, with the wildly enthusiastic support of the military, the arms trade and Tony Blair, did see it. We know the consequences too well for them to need or bear repeating here.
What we still don't know, and probably never will know, are the reasons. Everyone except the body of extreme US conservatives then in government has, at least, a rough idea of what motivated al-Qaeda. Nobody really has an idea of what actually went wrong on the day, how the systems failed to stop the attack, or why the hell George W Bush decided it would be a good idea to invade Iraq or why Capitol Hill allowed it.
The whole thing was as rapid and unconvincing as cheap pornography, when the plumber calls and suddenly it's an orgy.
The Eleventh Day by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan is a comprehensive gathering-together of just about everything we know and they can find out about what happened in the lead-up to the Twin Towers' collapse. It's a compelling story of what is universally agreed to have been one of the most audacious, brilliant and cost-effective attacks — Summers and Swan quote an estimated budget of just $500,000 — in military history.
It's also, as so often, a catalogue of systematic cock-ups. Organisations don't work properly. People miss the point. Like anyone who spends 80 per cent of their time in meetings (as most of the actors in this tale do) their minds aren't on the job.
People who should listen, don't listen. A CIA briefing paper warned Dubya of Osama bin Laden's determination to attack the USA just a month before it happened. Hence the stunned-chimp appearance of the president in that kindergarten, when informed of the attack... the longest, most silent and eloquent "Oh fuck…" in history.
The details range from large to small. The then boss of the CIA recognised al-Qaeda names in the passenger lists of the crashed aircraft. "Confirmation," he's said to have murmured. "Oh Jesus."
At the other end of the scale, a political fudge removed the Palestine/Israel conflict from the 9/11 Commission's report, leaving a vacuum which could be filled by opportunistic Islamophobia. Much easier to blame insane Sunnis.
As for the invasion of Iraq, it remains incomprehensible. And there lies the problem. Exhaustive knowledge is not the same as understanding. Yet governments — and the writers who write about them — seem to believe that if only we can find out every last detail, we'll finally know what really went on. We won't.
The reason I was in Stirling was, ironically, to teach a course in incident investigation, a discipline which relies on 'root cause analysis' to find out not only what happened when, but, far more importantly, why. It uses the most powerful intellectual tool in the history of humanity, which everyone who's been driven mad by a toddler trying to find out about the world will know is the word 'Why?' itself.
It's a word which terrifies politicians and civil servants, because it's utterly neutral. 'Why?' doesn't have Tory or Labour bias, it doesn't care about Dubya or Rumsfeld, Clegg or Cameron or Miliband. The danger of the word 'Why?' is that, used properly — which means you keep asking it at every stage of the investigation, until there's no more information to be had — it may well produce results you really don't like.
The only certain truth is that, whether it's a plane crash, a terrorist attack, or riots in the streets, the people at the sharp end are very, very unlikely to be the root cause.
Sometimes those root causes are way back along the organisational chain. Sometimes they're a long time in the past. But until you can get to those roots, the thing will happen again. And again. And again.
Here, today, they're talking of curfews, sentencing diktats, forced evictions and suspension of human rights. And, of course, of yet another sodding Royal Commission, looking to lay blame and governed by the adversarial rules of British law: did, didn't, didn't, did.
Far better here, and in the USA, to spend the money on an expertly-conducted root cause analysis, not of whose "fault" it was, but of what went wrong. But then we might all learn something, and we really can't be having that, can we?
• The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, Doubleday, £20. ISBN 978-0385612814 ·
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