Turning Point? 9/11 and the Dark Side

September 27, 2021

Netflix released its new series, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, just as the United States was withdrawing its remaining forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation. The series makes it clear that the sense of disarray so palpable in those widely televised scenes from Kabul airport this August has been characteristic of the US adventure there since the first American troops arrived in the fall of 2001. President Obama once tried to shift attention away from the catastrophic failure in Iraq and back to the supposedly “good war” in Afghanistan, claiming that “we took our eyes off the ball” and that “it is my intention to finish the job.” But, as the series shows, it was never clear what ball “we” were supposed to have our eyes on, or what America’s self-appointed “job” in Afghanistan actually was. After the loss of a quarter million lives, and with Afghanistan back in exactly the same hands it was in in 2001, it still is not clear.


Quite apart from the generals who were claiming success in public only to admit in private that they had no strategy, the series includes compelling interviews with traumatized American soldiers still coming to terms with what they had seen and done so far from home. Recalling the first time he shot an Afghan, one soldier remembers asking himself what had brought him and his adversary together. “Who was this person? Were they really Taliban? Or were they forced to fight? What if someone was invading my country? Would I take a shot at them?” In this war as in so many wars in the past, the people asking the right questions were the ones doing the dirty work of empire. For most politicians and journalists back in the US, as the series makes clear, it was easy simply to keep on recycling the same tired old soundbites and outright lies and selling them to a largely unreflective public that was initially eager for revenge after 9/11, before losing interest in the war and in what was being done in their name. The series does, however, also include plenty of American voices, including government insiders, who were sharply critical of US policy, its forms of deception and its violation of the very principles the US claims to stand for. One of the soldiers interviewed in the series recalls that American freedom is “the freedom to pretend. We feel entitled to our fictions,” he continues, “and, when you go to Afghanistan, all of it … it’s like the curtain comes down.”


Revealing the political function of these fictions is part of what the series does very effectively, sometimes by contradicting a former government official with far more persuasive on-the-ground testimony from journalists or dissidents, and more often through the juxtaposition of dissonant or contradictory sounds and images. These are the main devices the series uses to express a clear position without the help of a narrator. We hear recordings of American politicians (George Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama) or functionaries (the equally unrepentant Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card) while viewing a stream of powerful images that give the lie to their Orwellian narratives of “weapons of mass destruction,” “enhanced interrogation,” “surgical strikes.”


For instance, the first time we hear those now chilling words “enhanced interrogation techniques,” it’s against a still shot of a grinning Rumsfeld and Cheney. And while we hear Alberto Gonzales (the White House counsel who had notoriously dismissed what he referred to as the “quaint” Geneva Convention and its stipulations regarding the treatment of prisoners of war) speak in his soft Texan intonations about the “very, very detailed instructions” governing what could be done to prisoners during “enhanced interrogation,” we see images of bound, shackled, and hooded human beings in filthy outdoor cages. The methods specifically approved by Gonzales include facial slaps, cramped confinement, stress positions, sleep deprivation, “insects placed in a confinement box,” and waterboarding. “I’m not in any way suggesting that they’re not unpleasant or terrible,” Gonzales admits with a grin, but they weren’t “anywhere close” to torture. You can believe this man — or believe what your eyes see on the screen as those methods are illustrated. Most people recognize torture when they see it.


Another example of the same editorial technique comes when we hear a speech in which Obama proclaims that the drone attacks he orders “save lives,” juxtaposed with a shot of the tiny open coffins of some of the countless children who have been the beneficiaries of his supposedly humanitarian endeavors. Obama’s words may be softer and more sophisticated than those of the positively sinister Cheney, but their relationship to the truth is just as tenuous.


The trauma of the events of September 11, 2001, is unflinchingly recounted from a variety of perspectives in the first and second episodes. Through a close focus on individual narratives of that day, the series captures effectively what such an attack truly feels like: the sense of confusion, fear, relief, loss, grief, outrage when the lifeworld of an individual human being, or a community, is shattered or turned on its head by an attack that comes, quite literally, out of the blue. Yet we are not invited to think beyond the attack on New York City, which many Americans view as an event unique in the annals of history.


We ought to be able to generalize this experience beyond the victims of 9/11. For have not all those same emotions also been experienced by the hundreds of thousands of Afghan, Iraqi, or Yemeni civilian victims of US bombings or drone attacks? What makes those attacks different? Bruce Hoffman, a “terrorism expert” who appears throughout the series, gives us his carefully articulated definition of the term in the very first episode. “Terrorism,” he tells us, “is violence or the threat of violence designed to achieve fundamental political change. All terrorists,” he continues, “see themselves as reluctant warriors, cast on the defensive against predatory aggressors. So they feel that they have no choice but to use violence.” Let that expert definition sink in as you think through US foreign policy since 9/11 and the damage it has done—over a million people killed, 36 million displaced, entire countries plunged into anarchy—and draw your own conclusions.


Or leave politics aside for a moment: from the perspective of the victims of such a traumatic event, does it matter whether the attack on them—their home, their city, their village, their family, their neighborhood—was inflicted deliberately or simply out of wanton, callous indifference, as in the “horrible mistake” that led to the incineration of an Afghan aid worker and his entire family in a US recent drone attack in Kabul? Not really. (And anyway a “mistake” is something you commit once or twice, not over and over and over again for 20 years and in several different countries). The series takes us close to—but not quite to the point of—being able to understand 9/11 as a paradigmatic rather than an exceptional event. This is what it feels like to be attacked from the air. The conclusion surely ought to be that this is a feeling that no one should have to experience, but it is one that hundreds of thousands of people from Libya and Somalia to Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan have experienced since—and in the name of—9/11. Why is it that their trauma, which if anything ought to be more comprehensible to us because of 9/11, somehow isn’t?


That is one of the many questions that the series does not ask, let alone answer—and for all that it does well, it keeps some vital matters resolutely out of view. The context it offers for the 9/11 attacks centers mostly on the US intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s to counter the Soviet invasion and occupation that began in 1979. The series shows that the very same mujahideen who fought the Soviets with American support in the 1980s would eventually go on to fight the Americans themselves. “Yesterday they called us freedom fighters,” says Gulbedin Hekmatyar, one of the Afghan warlords interviewed in the series. “But when we do the same thing today they call us their enemies and they call us terrorists.” The narrative doesn’t stray very far from Afghanistan, apart from an occasional nod to the horrors of Iraq. The men who hijacked the planes on 9/11 were not Afghans, however, but Arabs. What motivated them to attack the symbols of US power? The series gestures at the US military presence in the Gulf (and particularly Saudi Arabia) since 1991 as a possible cause.


Arab resentment of US foreign policy did not begin in 1991, however, but decades earlier, and owes to the steadfast US support for Israeli belligerence and the enduring occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territory. That line of inquiry is not one the series takes up. For all the languages you hear in its episodes, including Persian and Pashtu, Arabic is strangely absent; and for all the interviews with everyone from ordinary civilians to politicians and warlords, the only two Arabs interviewed are a Lebanese-American FBI officer who specializes in extracting confessions in Arabic and a Sufi imam originally from Kuwait who is primarily interested in Islam as a religion of peace. Neither has anything to tell us about the deep history and many traumas elided by the series. We will never know what this series could have looked like had Arab attitudes toward the US been explained by an Arab scholar, or at least a scholar actually familiar with Arabs and Arabic; instead, we are left with Bruce Hoffman, who says that “we failed to understand the power of religion,” as though religion plays a role in the Arab world that it does not in the supposedly secular United States (where one in three voters is said to be an evangelical Christian and the two most recent Supreme Court justices are religious fundamentalists), as though “our” rational Western minds are still baffled by the mysteries of the Orient.


The series does an excellent job of revealing the US’s embrace, since 9/11, of what Dick Cheney approvingly refers to as “the dark side.” “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly,” we hear him saying through characteristically clenched teeth in a television interview, “without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.” The results of these sources and methods—the CIA rendition program, the black sites, Guantanamo, torture, deceit, blood, sweat, and lies—are never really placed in a broader cultural or historical context. Did the US not resort to “the dark side” before 9/11? Does US policy since 9/11 mark a departure, a turning point (the series title), from some previous adherence to more civilized—or at least legal—norms? What is the role of racism, of Orientalism, of binary us/them thinking (all of which recur throughout the series) in the development of US policy, foreign or domestic? What continues before, after, and right through this “turning point”? After all, the coded message of success sent back by US special forces to the Obama White House after their assassination of Ussama bin Laden was, “For god and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” What other, deeper, wider, and even more troubling legacies and historical connections does that particular choice of code name connote? What continuities between 19th-century and contemporary forms of empire? Those kinds of questions are kept firmly off the agenda of Turning Point.


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Saree Makdisi is professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Reading William Blake (2015), Making England Western (2014), Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (2010), William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s (2003), Romantic Imperialism (1998), and Tolerance is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial, to be published by University of California Press next year.


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Photograph by NATO Training Mission, 2012.