Philip Zelikow: Bin Laden killing buries the trauma of 9/11





Philip Zelikow is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission.

The next 10 years will be quite different from the last 10. Osama bin Laden’s death is one of those catalytic moments that seize mass attention, as people sense a turning point of some kind. But what kind? Leaders who seize the chance can regain precious strategic initiative, to redefine interests and offer a fresh narrative.

For those seeking perspective on the al-Qaeda phenomenon, which reached its peak strength between 1999 and 2001, a suggestive one is the rise of violent anarchist groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Centred in countries such as France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Spain, this movement spread to the US and elsewhere, mainly through immigrants. A few charismatic icons, such as Prince Peter Kropotkin or Enrico Malatesta, spread the word while in exile.

The scattered groups exalted the “propaganda of the deed”. Cells of anarchists around the world, sharing little more than this common inspiration, carried out sensational attacks, including the assassination of a US president (William McKinley).

Looking back, historians – like some contemporaries at the time – see this violent utopianism as having been a symptom of alienated people in societies undergoing wrenching change, reacting to oppressive rule. In no case did anarchists seem likely to establish governments of their own. The anarchist movement of that era was instead an outlet of fury. It seems ominous to us now as a precursor to movements that would more effectively exploit such anger and such dreams.

Any good analogy can only suggest questions. For our time, one of these is where the anger will lead now...



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