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We Need to Declare the End of the 9/11 Era

Mark the September 11 anniversary with care, then stop the lethal thinking and the grave misjudgements it caused.

When the artist Art Spiegelman told his story of 9/11 in a graphic novel, he called it In the Shadow of No Towers. It was an arresting thought, the gloom cast not by the twin peaks of the World Trade Centre but by their absence. We have been living in that shadow for the last 10 years – but it's time we escaped it. We need to declare the end of the post-9/11 era.

Of course that will be impossible for those directly affected. No one expects – and no one would ask – those still grieving for a wife or son, a husband or sister, to put the September 11 attacks behind them just because an anniversary with a round number is looming. What deepens their tragedy is that it continues. The television documentaries, newspaper testimonies and eloquent reminiscences that have been flowing for days leave no doubt that for those directly affected, 9/11 will never let them go.

Artists and writers too will resist closing the book on September 11 any time soon. Happenings on that scale take many decades, not just one, to process. As Salman Rushdie puts it: "I think these great events have to rot down. Maybe another generation has to look at it."

But if grief and art will necessarily stay fixated, the realm of politics needs to move on. Osama bin Laden is dead; George Bush and Tony Blair are long gone from office. The two 9/11 wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not over, but both now have a timetable for troops to come home. The phrase of the age – "the war on terror" – has been retired.

As for al-Qaida, it has been decapitated: as well as Bin Laden, the network's new number two and chief operational planner was killed last month, and the man branded its "foreign minister" revealed to be in Pakistani custody on Monday. Most analysts say al-Qaida is weakened, its capacity to act reduced.

Of course no wants to tempt fate with complacency. For that reason one aspect of the post-9/11 landscape will and should remain in place: vigilance. Police and intelligence agencies charged with protecting the public cannot revert to September 10 pretending that 9/11 – or, for that matter, Bali, Madrid and London – did not happen. The threat has changed, but it has not disappeared.

Other aspects of the post-9/11 order persist too. Guantánamo Bay remains open, one of the early disappointments of the Obama presidency. The US "homeland security" apparatus created a decade ago is now well dug in. Given the tenacity of such bureaucracies – plenty of cold war American military structures linger to this day – few would bet on this newer one allowing itself to be mothballed.

But it's the mindset that has to go. In those dazed days after the attacks, a new foreign policy doctrine was hastily assembled. It said that the world faced a single, overarching and paramount threat in the form of violent jihadism. Every other battle had to be subordinated to, or subsumed into, that one. And the call went beyond foreign policy. Culture, too, was to be enlisted in a clash of civilisations between Islamism and the west that would rank alongside the great 20th century struggles against communism and fascism. Christopher Hitchens confessed he felt "exhilaration" as he saw the towers fall. At last there would be war against "dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting."

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