Globalization & the September 11 Attacks

“Everyone in the world is directly or indirectly affected by this new system, but not everyone benefits from it, not by a long shot, which is why the more it becomes diffused, the more it also produces a backlash by people who feel overwhelmed by it, homogenized by it, or unable to keep pace with its demands.”[1]

– Thomas L. Friedman, in “Longitudes and Attitudes”

While it can be argued that globalization is not a new phenomenon, the nature of modern globalization is, in fact, completely different than the traditional exchange of ideas, people and goods through an excruciatingly slow process. Moving at an almost uncontrollable speed, the transfer of people, ideas, money, and goods primarily through technological advancements, has resulted in the formation of a new global power structure. In his highly popularized book, “Longitudes and Attitudes,” Thomas Friedman delineates the new international power structure under globalization. Breaking down this structure in to three main power balances, Friedman lists the first type of balance as the “traditional balance of power between nation-states,” with the United States as the sole hegemon or superpower.[2] The second power balance that emerged from globalization is between “nation-states and global markets;” Friedman labels the major financial centers around the world – Wall Street, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, and London – as the “Supermarkets.”[3] The third, and perhaps most pertinent of the power balances is the balance between “individuals and nation-states.” The availability of the internet worldwide has allowed individuals to communicate with one another, or transfer money, over great distances in the mere click of a mouse, giving the individual unprecedented power. Friedman labels these people as “super-empowered individuals.”[4] Thus, under globalization, there are power struggles between states, the superpower of the United States in particular; between nation-states and supermarkets; and between both states and supermarkets and super-empowered individuals.

In order to begin to understand the events of September 11, 2001, it is necessary to step beyond the traditional notion of balance of power and into the new system of multiple actors influencing multiple power structures, creating what Maryann Cusimano Love calls, a new set of “transsovereign” problems. It is this current form of globalization that “gives breakdowns in state authority and capacity and transsovereign problems greater reach, speed, intensity, and impact.”[5] September 11th is one of many recent conflicts whose genesis arose from perceived political, cultural and economic threats to certain “super-empowered individuals,” facilitated by open economies, societies, and most importantly, technologies created through globalization. The first section of this essay will discuss the perceived threats and how these threats were manipulated by Osama bin Laden and other actors in order to gain support for their terrorist acts. The second section will look at the aspects of globalization that facilitated and intensifiedthe terrorist activities of September 11th. The third, and final section will analyze the implications that September 11th has had on global peace and world conflict.

Perceived Threats

“Injustice is inflicted on us and on you [Western people] by your politicians.”[6]

– Osama bin Laden

Some proponents of globalization – or “hyperglobalizers” as Manfred Steger labels them – may argue that globalization, through the promotion and internationalization of free trade, and the liberalization of financial transactions, is a means of reducing poverty globally and creating a global community. While it is true that some states have benefitted from economic globalization, it is impossible to ignore the gaping differences in wealth between developed and developing nations. Peter Dicken attributes these global economic inequalities to historical, political, economic, and social variations both between the developed and developing worlds, and more importantly among developing countries themselves.[7]The asymmetry of wealth that is created leads other scholars to view globalization as “neoimperialism wearing Bill Gates’s face and Mickey Mouse’s ears, extending the web of global capitalism’s exploitation of women, minorities, the poor, and developing regions.”[8] It is this exploitative and imperialistic aspect of globalization that al Qaeda used as propaganda against the West, and the United States in particular. Love describes the attacks of September 11th as a visual metaphor of this argument in which “planes piloted by hijackers from the developing world attacked symbols of international corporate wealth and control and U.S. military power.”[9]

The intentions of al Qaeda must, however, be taken into question – Were they frustrated with disparities in wealth, or was this simply a manipulative recruiting mechanism? Was bin Laden sincere in his denouncement of the rich, corrupt, “hereditary and hypocritical” Arab regimes? The answer to both of these questions can be deducted from three pieces of information: 1). “most of the hijackers were young Saudis;” 2). “the main financing for Osama bin Laden – a Saudi – has been coming from other wealthy Saudis;” 3). and finally “Saudi Arabia’s government was the main funder of the Taliban.”[10] It has become clear that the September 11th terrorists did not destroy the American symbol of financial power because they were poor; but rather, they strategically used the greed of U.S. politicians and their support for these corrupt Arab governments to gain support from masses of poor Arab citizens. In the PBS televised special, “Broken Promises” hosted by Bill Moyers, Vandana Shiva argues that globalization is a system of dispossessing the poor through the greed of large American multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola.[11] Why target the United States as the sole factor in this process of dispossession when the Taliban created a backwards society in which women were deprived of all basic universal rights, only furthering the poverty levels of the already poorcitizens? Perhaps this question can be more adequately answered through a cultural perspective.

Before delving into the complexities of cultural aspects of globalization, it is first necessary to establish a comprehensive definition of cultural globalization. Steger defines the phenomenon as “the intensification and expansion of cultural flows across the globe.”[12] Similar to the economic globalization debate, cultural globalization is sometimes viewed as a means of strengthening local cultures or creating a global culture through which diversity can be embraced. This view was obviously not taken by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. It is through the perceived threat of cultural imperialism and homogenization that these terrorists justify their hatred for the West, and more specifically the United States. Steger explains how this “Americanization” can lead to a political and cultural “‘Jihad’ – the parochial impulse to reject and repel the homogenizing forces of the West wherever they can be found…Jihad draws on the furies of religious fundamentalism and ethnonationalism which constitute the dark side of cultural particularism.”[13] Religious authorities in many Muslim countries have established education systems that breed hatred for non-Muslim societies and result in a stagnant and unreformed Islam. It is through this antimodernism that fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden can appeal to Muslims of all ages such as the twelve year-old Afghan refugee interviewed by Friedman, who when asked about his reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11th answered: “I am pleased that America has had to face pain, because the rest of the world has tasted its pain…[Americans] are unbelievers and do not like to befriend Muslims, and they want to dominate the world with their power.”[14] The brainwashing of young minds has allowed these perceived threats of “Americanization” to transform from tolerance to terrorism with September 11th as the most obvious realization of these ideals. It is virtually impossible to discuss Muslim culture without mentioning the politics of these states.

The governments, and government structures of many Arab-Muslim nations are shaped, at least in part, by these traditionalist, fundamentalist religious institutions. While the actual governments are predominantly “secular autocratic regimes,” it is through convenient agreements that these increasingly unpopular regimes remain in power and the religious authorities have control over both religion and education.[15] As long as these autocratic regimes remain in power, there will be an overarching dominant religious sector promoting antimoderism and anti-Americanism, and allowing any perceived political threats to spiral into aggressive actions. Such resentment is a product of years of “political, social, economic, and human degradation,” that is only further exacerbated by external factors.[16]

United States military presence across the world, especially in Saudi Arabia, combined with the blatantly selective nature of both U.S. political support and condemnation that has provoked the “super-empowered individuals,” such as bin Laden to crusade against American imperialism. By supporting authoritarian regimes in pro-American states, and forcing democracy upon authoritarian regimes that are anti-American, United States politicians are simply aggravating both sets of states – the entire populations of the anti-American nations due to U.S. hypocrisy, and the citizens of pro-American nations due to the U.S. support of repressive regimes. This sentiment is articulated by Friedman when he says that “the Bush policy today is to punish its enemies with the threat of democracy and rewards its friends with silence on democratization. That’s a surefire formula for giving democracy a bad name.”[17] It precisely this bad name of both democracy and the United States, combined with extremist religious cultures that has been a driving factor of anti-American sentiments among the populations of many Muslim nations.

Globalization – Facilitation and Intensification

“Terrorism depends on surprise to gain attention and generate fear, so terrorists must constantly be innovative in their means of attack or they lose the power to shock.”

-Martha Crenshaw and Maryann Cusimano Love, in “Networked Terror”

Terrorism has had many definitions over the course of history and within different groups, however, a general understanding of the concept’s current application is necessary in order to understand the catalyzing effects of globalization on terrorism, particularly al Qaeda’s aggression towards the United States on September 11, 2001. A general, and widely accepted framework for terrorism is “the use of violence against noncombatants, generally by nonstate actors to generate fear in furtherance of other political goals.”[18]The most obvious aspect of globalization that facilitated and intensified the antagonistic actions of Osama bin Laden and his followers is technology.

The advent and spread of global media played a pivotal role in heightening terrorist frustrations, as well as providing an outlet for these terrorist to spread their message. The availability of Western programs all over the world – the Arab world being no exception – is an example of the aforementioned cultural imperialism that is considered a threat to many critics of Americanism. The global media has also facilitated terrorist efforts by allowing them to broadcast their message internationally – the infamous bin Laden tape is the most notable of these efforts. As modern technology spread to the more advanced of the developing countries, it became easier for different television networks all around the world to exchange footage and in this particular case, allowed for the rapid airing of the bin Laden tape.[19] The condemnation and, in some cases, the banning of these global media sources in combination with the subsequent embracement and utilization of these resources as a tool is quite hypocritical and demonstrate the dependence of al Qaeda on advanced, Western-developed technologies.

The terrorists of September 11th used sources of technology other than the media, in particular common everyday items such as cellular phones, television, radio and computers in order to communicate and coordinate their intricate plots. The internet, perhaps the most influential and commonly used source of technology has raised the quantity, distance and speed of information, goods, and idea shared to unprecedented levels. Mohamed Atta, a hijacker and one of the masterminds behind the September 11th attacks used his laptop and the American Airlines website to reserve his ticket, while some of this fellow hijackers used[20] These technologies have created a compression of time and space that have been a defining characteristic of globalization – a characteristic that makes globalization a nearly unavoidable phenomenon.

September 11th – Global Peace and World Conflict

“Where there should be a nation-state, there is a vacuum filled by warlords. What better place for the seeds of international terrorism and lawlessness to take root?

-Walter H. Kansteiner, U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs

Modern globalization, and the resulting international balance of power structure – the balance of power between states; the balance of power between states and “supermarkets;” and the balance of power between both states and supermarkets and the “super-empowered individual” – are phenomenons that have changed the nature of world conflict, making these conflicts inevitably more global in their scope. Susan Strange argues that state existence is being threatened by the globalization of the arms trade and the availability of technology has given power to nonstate actors, which has extracted the power of force from both strong and weak states. While conflicts were once wars between nation-states, they have evolved into conflicts between state and nonstate actors, or states and individuals, where the opponents do not engage in face-to-face combat but often have faceless enemies whose mere existence is perceived as threatening. September 11th has further perpetuated this trend by justifying, in the minds of many Americans, a war against “terrorism” – an idea, a product of globalization. The current war in Iraq has lost the vision of fighting against this idea that threatened American “freedom,” and has evolved into a war of excuses – the United States has used the promotion of democracy as an excuse to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, while supporting the tyrannical, pro-American, regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The leaders of the United States are not protecting the ideology of democracy, but rather the ideology of hypocrisy and injustice.

While the scope of conflict has been widened to a global scale, some optimists may argue that the possibility of peaceful solutions to these conflicts is also widened. It is through the very technologies that have catalyzed conflict that peace can be realized – with the compression of space and time, communication between opponents is facilitated, along with the ability for third party mediators to join the peace process. Perhaps a more realistic view on the effects of September 11th on global peace is presented by Friedman when he quotes Adrian Karatnycky, the president of Freedom House:

“…many of the terrorists we are not confronting are a Western phenomenon, existing inside the Islamic diaspora that is an established fact of life in the U.S. and Europe…and this means that the war against terrorism will require relentless efforts within the borders of the West, even as it is prosecuted in the far-flung outposts of the Islamic world. It means that networks of terrorists may well be found among students and scholars who today walk the halls of Western universities and congregate after hours in sundry political and ‘religious’ groups, not as ‘sleepers’ ready to act under orders, but as Islamic radicals minted right here.”[21]

Globalization has been the source of extensive debate – does globalization bring promise or problems, peace or war, tolerance or hatred, homogenization or difference? By dissecting the events of September 11, 2001 it is clear that the fusion of perceived threats catalyzed by globalization and fundamentalist propaganda have proven to be a catastrophic combination, resulting in the most shocking terrorist attacks in modern history. Under the new system of power balances, with “supermarkets” and “super-empowered individuals” colliding with each other and with states, we begin to see “issues that are domestic in consequence but international in scope,” resulting in new types of world conflict and new challenges for global peace.[22]


[11] Bill Moyers, Broken Promises. 60 min. Public Broadcasting Service, April 2005. Videocassette.

[6] Loretta Napoleoni, Terror Incorporated: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005).

[5] [12] [19] Manfred Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[8] [9] [18] [22] Maryann Cusimano Love, Beyond Sovereignty: Issues for a Global Agenda, 2d ed. (Australia: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003).

[7] Peter Dicken, Global Shift: Reshaping the Global Economic Map in the 21st Century (New York: The Guilford Press, 2003).

[1] [2] [3] [4] [10] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [20] [21] Thomas L. Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes: The World in the Age of Terrorism (New York: Anchor Books, 2002).

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