As the tidal wave of September 11 anniversary articles engulfs us, can one at least voice the thought that the appalling attack that day will not prove nearly as important as is being made out?

Of course the deaths of 3000 civilians is terrible. Of course the sense of violation to a country whose homeland had not been physically attacked in nearly two centuries was immense.

In journalistic terms, if nothing else, this was the first global event to have been defined by television.

Previous wars and human tragedies have been projected essentially by the still camera - the girl fleeing napalm in Vietnam, the flag being raised at Iwo Jima. September 11 was a moving picture that has been played around the world endlessly since, and is now being played again even more intensely. The effect on hearts and minds in America is profound.

But assessed against Tony Blair's judgment of this being "a defining moment for American foreign policy and their attitudes towards the world", the significance of September 11 is much less certain.

For all the talk of the "War Against Terror", the attack on the Twin Towers was essentially no different in kind, although larger in scale, from the IRA bomb attack on Mrs Thatcher in Brighton or ETA's outrages against civilians in Spain.

The first explosions cause outrage, the following ones less so. By the time it came to the IRA's mortaring of the British Cabinet room in John Major's time, the calls for immediate retaliation had died down. Indeed, there was an unspoken sense that it was probably best not to talk too much about how near success the assault had been.

A year after September 11 we still don't know just how extensive a campaign was planned by al Qaeda. We haven't even caught the main suspects.

But in so far as the organisation seems to be a loose assemblage of anti-Western ideologues and fanatics, one has to assume that attacks will go on in an ad hoc way, launched by individual cells with little overall co-ordination.

In which case they will have to be met in the traditional way of security, intelligence and police work. Bombs will go off in symbolic places, civilians will be hurt but - as in Britain, Spain and Greece - life will go on.

Terrorism will not go away: there will always be people with grievances. But societies have learned to cope.

What has made September 11 seem so different is the rhetoric that developed after it. What started as a universally supported feeling that this was the last straw, that governments everywhere would combine to put a stop to this kind of international violence against civilians, has become in Washington's language something else, elaborating a new concept of war and redefining the rules of engagement.

In terms of the country's consciousness of the outside world, there is a huge change. Without September 11, Washington would be dominated by the domestic economy and President Bush would be making only the occasional speech on international affairs. But in terms of policy? The answer is not so clear.

Bush and his advisers came to power with a clear view that the end of the Cold War and rapprochement with Russia, coupled with spending on Star Wars defence, would enable the US to move out of detailed engagement with the world and allow it to concentrate on its national interests.

A separation from Europe and a withdrawal from international agreements and institutions were on the cards from the start.

Despite hopes that the post-September 11 world would force it to re-engage, the original doctrine still seems to be in place. Even without the attack on the Twin Towers, Bush would probably have taken on Iraq and Iran, not because of terrorism but because of their access to weapons of mass destruction, which could threaten US interests, including oil.

There would have been no invasion of Afghanistan, but US interest, and interests, in Central Asia would be on the increase because of Caspian oil reserves. The terror attacks certainly intensified developments, but it has not changed them.

The biggest change has come not from September 11 but from the intifada in Palestine and the election of Ariel Sharon in Israel. Middle East violence has forced Washington to become involved whether it likes it or not (it doesn't).

But it has also posed the greatest danger. US policy on Iraq, and Iran, is in danger of becoming inextricably wound up with its support of Israel.

The possibility remains that the Third World could be brought in on the side of Muslim radicalism - just as Osama bin Laden intended.


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