“There’s going to be WAR. NUCLEAR WAR. We are going to NUKE AFGHANISTAN.” One guy standing near me was shouting this. But most of the crowd was quiet, staring at the second tower now burning, the repetition that indicated this was no accident.
I was there by chance: a student interning in New York in my summer holiday. I didn’t actually see the towers collapse because I was running for my life at that point. Then, and in those next weeks, I saw people react in very different ways. Notably, I was struck by the gap between the solidarity and help on display in New York, and the TV channels churning out “clash of civilizations” commentary from so-called “terrorism experts.”
I did not buy this clash of civilizations stuff, and decided to study conflict and terrorism myself. Having grown up in Glasgow, which had a long history of Catholic/Protestant sectarianism, I had seen firsthand that identity-based hatreds that may seem eternal can become barely relevant in the space of just one or two generations, when politics and society change.
But after 9/11, back in the U.K., those dynamics played out in reverse: political trends fed community tensions. New internal security threats loomed from groups and individuals claiming religious inspiration. The prime minister sought to be America’s closest supporter in its invasions of Afghanistan and, more divisively, Iraq.
A vicious circle of untrue but emotionally compelling claims and counterclaims developed, between those who erroneously said all terrorists were Muslim and those who erroneously said all the West’s wars were against Muslims. Extremist groups, both “Islamist” and far right, continue to trade on these lies.
More generally, conspiracy theories began to rise online. Meanwhile, the exaggeration of intelligence to justify the Iraq war had long-lasting effects on trust in government. But like New York, Londoners stayed proud of their multicultural city when it too was under attack, and found strength and solidarity in diversity. Mostly.