Do you remember what you were doing at the precise moment when you heard about the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington? I do – and I’m not American. I’m a Kiwi. But I remember. Here in New Zealand, on the other side of the date-line, initial news broke in the early hours of 12 September. My wife – listening to overnight talkback radio on earpieces – heard the news and jabbed me in the ribs. ‘Wake up, a plane’s hit a building in New York.’
Thinking about tragic accidents, we got up to see whether anything was on TV. It was. And then the news got worse. Way worse. The fact that there was live coverage, here in New Zealand, underscored the scale of the tragedy as a world event.
That reveals the huge dimension of those events 13 years ago. A human tragedy of appalling scale that became a defining moment not just for New York, not just for the United States – but for the planet. One that helped shape the first decade of the twenty-first century for everybody in the developed world, not least because of the behaviours, attitudes and oppositions that followed, ranging from tighter security for air travellers to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The time is not yet ripe to consider these events history, for they are not. But when they are – in two, three generations, when young children view 2001 much as we view 1941, a distant time of grandparents and great grandparents – how will we see the 9/11 attacks then?
The answer, to me, emerges from the way that history, for professional historians, is all about meaning – about finding the broad shapes and patterns that turn the world of the past into the world of the present. These patterns seldom match the number system we use to count the passing years.
When we look at history that way we cannot go past the work of Eric Hobsbawm, who was to my mind perhaps the greatest historian of the twentieth century. I do not make such statement lightly. He took the long view. The historian’s view. A view divorced from the round-number dates into which we usually divide the past, like the end of a decade or a century.
For Hobsbawm, centuries were defined by the patterns of social and economic trends. That was why he called the nineteenth century a ‘long century’, marked by its ‘age of revolution’. To him, this century began in 1789 with the revolution that ended the ancien regime in France and which began a pattern of industrial-driven social dislocation and revolt. It ended in 1914 when the ‘guns of August’ heralded the end of the old European order in its entirety. Of course the trends that led to these pivotal moments pre-dated the specific instant by decades. Nothing, historically, comes out of a vacuum. But these dates offered defining events that, for Hobsbawm, brought the wider underlying trends into a decisive and overt reality.
Following the same logic, Hobsbawm also argued that the twentieth century was ‘short’ – beginning in 1914, with that collapse of the old order and the rise, in its place, of a tripartite world in which democracy was initially on the losing side of totalitarian fascism and communism. That resolved with the victory (luckily) of democracy – an event Hobsbawm argued was marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revolutionary state that had emerged from the First World War.
The decisive date, for Hobsbawm, was the formal end of the Cold War in 1992. By this reasoning the twenty-first century began in 1993. But I wonder. We cannot know our future – cannot say whether there will be any long and over-arching socio-political pattern to the twenty-first century. But so far, one does seem to be emerging, for the early part of it at least.
Like Hobsbawm’s long and short centuries, this shape has been defined by trends bubbling away well before the pivotal moment. They were evident for quite some time through the late twentieth century, partially masked by the over-powering priorities of the Cold War. But if we want to point, in Hobsbawmian fashion, to a defining moment – a point where those underlying issues suddenly became present and urgent in everyday consciousness, it has to be 9/11. Sure, that leaves us with a 9-year interregnum after the end of the twentieth century – but, as I say, history at the thematic level never does tidily match up with numeric dates or round numbers.
And will future historians look back on the twenty-first as a long century? A short one? That’s up to us, really – meaning, everybody on the planet – and the choices we make.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014