“There are days in New York—surprisingly many of them, all things considered—when it’s almost possible to forget that we are living in an age of terror. And then there are days, like last Thursday with its headlines out of London, when that grim reality rises up and slaps us hard upside the head. When we’re reminded that there really are ideological-cum-religious fanatics intent on slaughtering us in large numbers. When we realize that these zealots aren’t merely crazy but determined and ingenious. When we’re forced to admit that we are, deep down, more scared than we ever let on.
It is almost five years since that fear was imposed on us and the age of terror began in earnest. From the moment the Twin Towers fell, 9/11 was seen as a watershed, a historical turning point of grand and irreversible proportions. With the acrid smoke still swirling above ground zero, the mantras repeated constantly were that 9/11 had “changed everything”—that “nothing would ever be the same.”
As a way of marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11, we’ve attempted to provide an answer—or, rather, many answers. But we’ve done so in a roundabout manner: by asking an assortment of big thinkers and public figures to address the question, What if 9/11 never happened? Now, let’s be clear, we’re well aware that the dangers of counterfactual speculation (If Bobby Kennedy had never been shot, then Nixon would never have been elected! So no Watergate! No Carter! No Reagan! Etc., etc., etc.) are almost as grave as those of unbridled futurism. But we also see the virtues of an approach that appeals both to left-brain analytics and right-brain imagination—and that, in the process, tends to uproot subterranean assumptions and challenge conventional wisdom.”
If 9/11 had not happened? Kerry would be president. We would get to airports at the last minute, and the paranoia proportion would be lower. Iran’s voice would be less important. Daniel Pearl would still be alive. Francis Fukuyama would have beaten Samuel Huntington, who would be seen almost everywhere for the crypto-fascist that he is. History would be over. Writers would be writing novels; philosophers, philosophy. Wall Street would be touching the sky. Gas would be $20 a barrel. Castro would still be the devil. Oliver Stone would have made a movie about a still-reigning Saddam Hussein. The superrich would be cooler, and more concerned with poverty in poor countries. I wouldn’t have had to shorten my vacation in Saint Paul de Vence to do a story about Israel at war. Palestinians would have a state. Moderate Muslims would control the Islamic extremists. America would be less religious (God help us!), France less anti-American (“these Yankee bastards are fighting back too hard, endangering world peace”). But it’s all a contradiction in terms. Because 9/11 did happen. —Bernard-Henri Lévy