9/11 and Global Tribalism

As the 90s closed out, humanity was coming together. Now it’s tearing itself apart.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse September 22, 2018

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter@bfry1981), September 11th-13th, 2018, and republished by Tuck Magazine September 24th; See my related Trumpism and Tribalism Run Amok in the Middle East for Small Wars Journal

Danielle Parhizkaran/USA Today Sports

AMMAN — As I write this while watching the memorial service at Ground Zero with mourners reading the names of those they and others lost seventeen years ago today, as we remember the horrors of September 11th, 2001, and their aftermath, more and more, it looks like 9/11 can be seen as a turning point, one in which the world went from becoming less tribal to becoming more tribal, and not at all in a good way.

Hell, even tennis has just exploded into tribalism. TENNIS!! A spat between a (THE) tennis superstar and a stickler-of-an umpire became just like everything else: tribes gearing up for war, trying to gain ground in their culture wars consumed by vitriol and hate. TENNIS is now Trump vs. his many enemies, the left vs. the right, Sunni vs. Shiite, black vs. white, Hillary supporters vs. Bernie supporters, men vs. women, Israel vs. Palestine…

How did it get to this?

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As the millennium celebrations approached, the world could celebrate an era of increasing international peace, cooperation, and prosperity not seen since the Pax Romana some roughly two thousand years earlier.

Flikr/Paul Mannix

The Cold War had finally ended, and the two most powerful countries in the world had engaged in a massive reduction of their military forces, including their nuclear arsenals, as the great rivalry between Cold War superpowers the United State and the Soviet Union had melted away to a new if rocky friendship between the U.S. and Russia even as the U.S. extended friendship and alliances to many of Russia’s former Soviet republics and satellite states.

Europe was becoming more and more united politically, economically, militarily, as well as more democratic. Longtime enemies Jordan and Israel had finally signed a peace treaty, and a difficult but important peace process between Israelis and Palestinians had begun under the Oslo Accords. Even the U.S. and Vietnam were beginning a new chapter of friendship. Bitter rivalries in Asia had given way to increasing regional economic cooperation, and after a century of hatred, Japan and South Korea had agreed to host the 2002 FIFA World Cup together. Democracy and freedom were spreading in Latin America and Africa too, where apartheid had finally ended in South Africa and other nations were making important strides away from dictatorship.

This era of optimistic globalization would come to screeching halt as planes slammed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001. 

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It took a tremendous amount of `both hatred and willpower to plot to plan and fly those planes into their targets on September 11th, 2001. I’d love to say that, overall, we Americans responded with love to overcome the hate. We did, if ever so briefly, but that quickly gave way even more intense partisan rancor, two grossly mismanaged wars, and profligate spending along with a resurgence of all the awful trends that continued and spiraled out of control into what we have now. 

America became incredibly divided well before the 2004 presidential election; while the numbers were not dramatically different from 2000, the level of rancor and acrimony was. And America had just invaded Iraq in 2003, under deceptive and misguided if at least partially well-intention pretenses, and mismanaged the occupation in such an incompetent way that it ripped open the ethnic and sectarian divides in Iraq in a way that would, over time, raise tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, and Sunnis and other minorities like Christians, and this throughout the Middle East.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq exacerbated, but by no means created, these divisions, and the damage would be considerable. For a brief window, the U.S. seemed like it would be able to shape events as it desired, but that dream faded away to reality as soon as an al-Qaeda truck bomb killed dozens and wounded far more at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, including its all-star chief diplomat, the incomparable Sergio Vieira de Mello, that August; the UN pulled out soon after and Iraq, under hapless U.S. misleadership, descended in hell.

Yet the damage was hardly America acting by itself: particularly Syria and Iran—nervous about what American success in Iraq would mean for their regimes—were happy to let terrorists, insurgents, militiamen, other people and/or weapons enter Iraq by the thousands, caring little for the death and violence these actors and equipment would inflict upon the Iraqi people as long as they were undermining American interests there. This only further exacerbated tensions and problems already festering due to American incompetence to such a degree that Iraqi Shiites settled on an Iraqi Shiite strongman—Nuri Kamal al-Maliki—to feel safe, whose oppression of Sunnis was the largest single factor in the degree to which ISIS would experience success in Iraq. 

In a true case of chickens coming home to roost, ISIS—an offshoot of the breakaway former al-Qaeda group in Iraq that killed de Mello—added to the brutality of the Syrian Civil War, both directly in its own barbaric acts of mass murder and mass destruction but also indirectly in dragging less extreme factions closer to its brutality level and giving the regime of Bashar al-Assad and later its Russian allies all the excuse they would need to employ their own barbaric tactics against any and all resistance, pointing to ISIS and making little-to-no distinction between ISIS and Syrians simply fighting for their freedom.  The Syrian Civil War was itself one of a number of failures of the Arab Spring that have turned people against each other rather than uniting them, was already a horror-show of bloody sectarianism bringing out the worst in people all-around by the time ISIS had marched to the outskirts of Baghdad in mid-2014. 

Israel’s right-wing leaders, from the late Ariel Sharon to Benjamin Netanyahu, likened their conflicts with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah incorrectly to George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” just as Putin did with the Chechens, and prosecuted these conflicts with a ferocity that only empowered extremists in Hamas and Hezbollah (who do their part to empower extremity in Israeli politics) and has helped make the prospect for peace all but impossible for now, destroying Oslo and the peace process. 

The same increasing sectarianism and tribalism has led to a cruel callousness with which the Saudi-led coalition has prosecuted the war in Yemen and has created one of the worst humanitarian disasters in a half-century.

Just to look at a few other major locations: India is increasingly a hotbed of religious violence, China is engaged in the mass-cultural and religious destruction of its Uighur Muslim minority in its worst oppression since Mao, a genocide against the Muslim-minority Rohingya is happening in Burma, the South China Sea is becoming an increasingly nationalistically confrontational arena, and ethnic and/or religious tensions are driving forces reigniting wars in central Africa, from the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to South Sudan.

While Americans were focused on the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, including two wars overseas, the Bush Administration and Republicans rammed through a disastrous series of regulatory and economic moves that more than helped set the stage for the 2008 global financial crises. The hardships caused, intensified, and/or perpetuated by the near-collapse of the global financial system created and/or facilitated a state where masses of citizens globally were experiencing regression in their well-being, fostering much of the instability, political division, violent conflict, and rage at the status quo mentioned above.

As people looked for easy targets to blame, economic setbacks gave way to even greater racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious resentment; too many non-whites blamed white people in general for their ills in an unproductive way, painting with a broad brush and alienating possible white allies while energizing angry whites, while, even more importantly, whites laughably and ignorantly looked at racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as the roots of all their frustrations. Racial unrest exploded across America over the past few years, and white identity politics, more so than the economy, have brought us Brexit and Trump, though obviously there are relationships between the two. At this point, tribal secessionism in Europe is rising, in Spain with Catalonia and in the UK with Scotland (both having enthusiastic Russian support).

In hindsight, Brexit in 2014 was an obvious herald of Trump’s triumph in 2016 (both dramatically and in determining ways aided materially and abetted by the Russians). By 2016, poor whites in Appalachia and elsewhere were told to check their privilege, while nonwhites moving into the suburbs and in other communities were told to go back to where they came from. The resulting election (with the help of a massive, concerted state-sponsored Russian effort), was the most racially polarizing since the Civil Rights era a half-century earlier, a “whitelash” (to quote Van Jones from election night) of white nationalism that revealed the depths of American tribalism and made American politics in many ways as banal as those of the former the Soviet Republic of Georgia and many other places consumed by ethnic division.

Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

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Since Trump’s win, the world has only plunger deeper into tribal division. The U.S. presidency—the single largest public media organ in global politics—has gone virtually silent on human rights, tolerance, respect for other cultures, and appreciation of diversity, with the consequences far transcending the verbal arena. This is a dramatic swing considering that human rights have been a major theme of U.S. foreign policy (even with all its shortcomings) for most of America’s modern history regardless of which party was in the White House. Concurrently, the forces on the other side of those stances have only too eagerly filled the void, and often with the help of Putin’s Kremlin.

As I noted not long ago, small-minded tribalism was a major factor in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it is a major factor in the current unraveling of the West.

Regrettably, a tennis match is now—like everything else in the current cultural landscape—a frontline battle in a vicious global war of tribalism. This tremendous tribal tidal shift can be traced to 9/11, a tombstone not just for thousands of Americans and those who died in the ensuing misguided wars, but also for an era of humanity transcending petty differences. 9/11 is not just a time to mourn the dead, but what is to come, the petty creatures we have become, and the alternate world of lost opportunities: the what-might-have-beens if that glorious march forward—even with all its inconsistencies, bumps, and steps backwards—had continued without the slamming of planes into buildings and without the sad, counterproductive responses launched from what can be called, in hindsight, the ashes of hope.

Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer and consultant from the New York City area who has been based in Amman, Jordan, since early 2014. He holds an M.S. in Peace Operations and specializes in a wide range of interrelated topics, including international and U.S. policy/politics, security/conflict/(counter)terrorism, humanitarianism, development, social justice, and history. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981

See my related Trumpism and Tribalism Run Amok in the Middle East for Small Wars Journal

© 2018 Brian E. Frydenborg, all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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