Western reporting on the wars that started after the 11 September attacks inevitably begins and ends with one event: the planes flying out of a clear blue sky into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and into a field in Pennsylvania.
The innocence of the U.S., symbolized recurrently in the image of the “clear blue sky” on the morning of 11 September 2001, is central to the story. Perhaps it is the fate of all empires to cast their gaze outwards to new territory to cajole or capture, safe in the knowledge that the economic and military might they enjoy translates directly into moral superiority. It’s been the case with the U.S. and its wars of the twenty-first century.
The coverage of the “War on Terror” in the West over the past two decades has been impoverished. This tradition is continued in a new documentary produced by Netflix, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, directed by Brian Knappenberger.
The central problem with the five-part series is its failure to adequately tackle the question: For whom did the world turn? Whilst the domestic U.S stayed relatively peaceful during the two invasions that followed the attacks, its forces and those of its allies took part in wars that have, according to Brown University’s Cost of War project, killed approximately 929,000 people mainly in five conflicts and displaced more than 38 million people from their homes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These deaths are barely acknowledged by Knappenberger. Instead, the “Turning Point” appears to be a shift in U.S. domestic and foreign policy in so much as it relates to the image Americans have of themselves and their country.
Guantanamo Bay, for example, is seen as a failure in the spirit of U.S. inalienable moral fortitude. The tragedy of the torture and decades-long imprisonment that befell detainees, many of whom were completely innocent, is important only because it sways away from the American ideal of itself. The trauma of the detainees and their families is passed over.
Nevermind that Abdul Latif Nasir, for example, who was released earlier this year after nearly twenty years in detention, had never heard of the 11 September attacks until he arrived in Guantanamo Bay. The guilt of the people who are suffering from U.S. policy is rarely questioned.
Instead, the only violence shown or described in Turning Point is relays of video and photographs of downtown New York or Washington D.C. on 11 September, a thread that continues throughout the series and often breaks up each individual episode. The deaths of the people who were murdered that day are, the film would have you believe, the only murders that resulted from the “Turning Point” in question.
Various war crimes, including those at Abu Ghraib, are understood as problematic only because of the problems they wrought on U.S. goals in the Middle East and South Asia. A video of American soldiers urinating on the bodies of Afghans, who it appears they have just killed, is depicted as important because it put Western forces in greater danger. The opportunity to discuss what happens when an ultra-nationalist military force faces a society traumatised by decades of war is passed over by the film.
The Middle East and North Africa are depicted, with a euphemism that plagues the entire series, as a “theatre”; America is King Lear, noble but ravaged by forces out of its control, whilst everyone else (literally everyone else with the exception perhaps of Europe and Canada, though these are barely mentioned either) are dispensable extras, useful only to facilitate the hero’s story.
This idea of simplified narratives is the subject of Anand Gopal’s brilliant account of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, first published in 2014.
In Gopal’s words, it’s “a book about categories that people create and then come to believe in—with a force of conviction so strong that sometimes it becomes literally a matter of life and death.”
In contrast to Turning Point, Gopal’s work complicates the U.S.’ relationship with the mujahideen before the 2001 invasion, complicates and explains the Taliban’s relationship with Osama bin Laden - “‘Osama is like a chicken bone stuck in my throat,’ [the Taliban leader Muhammad Omar] once admitted. ‘I can neither spit him out nor swallow him.’” - and depicts a traumatized Afghan society capable of profound acts of love as much as horrifying acts of violence.
It will soon be twenty years after 2,996 people were killed after four planes were hijacked on 11 September. But if the U.S. and its Western allies are to truly reckon with those events, they must look at the effects their policies have had on the people who bore the greatest violence through the loss of parents, siblings, friends, hopes, safety, certainty, and life.
“There’s before 9/11, and there’s after 9/11”, Brian Knappenberger argues. There’s also inside the U.S., and outside the U.S. We need to see more of the latter to stand any chance of understanding the last twenty years of war.
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