I WAS having lunch with my editor at The Scotsman, Rebecca Hardy, when news filtered in that the Twin Towers in New York had been hit by a plane. It was Tuesday, of September 11, 2001.

It was a year that saw the swearing in of George W Bush as 43rd president of the United States, the start of Wikipedia, Tony Blair’s second election victory in Britain, anti-globalist riots in Genoa at the G8 Summit, and the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas. But, of course, 2001 would end the end be marked by only one thing: the deaths of 2996 people (including 19 terrorists) in the four plane hijackings.

Rebecca and I rushed back to the paper and pandemonium. We and news desk watched events unfold like everyone else – on TV. The collapse of the Twin Towers. The endless rumours and false leads. The desperate rush to secure some eyewitness accounts.

I talked to a friend in Brooklyn. She had been puzzled by the sudden appearance of snow until she comprehended it was ash from the burning buildings across the river in Manhattan.

The desk was convulsed with the notion that this was a defining moment in global history. So was much of the world. Yet deep inside I had qualms with this assessment. It was certainly a human tragedy unfolding on prime time. And 20 years on, those images remain the totemic image of our political era.

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But therein lies my unease – then and now. 9/11 was the first global political crisis played out with24-hour TV coverage, mobile phones and (infant) social media. Its impact was re-inforced by the immediacy of communications technology. Millions of other lives have been lost in Afghanistan and the Middle East, unnoticed and unmourned because there were no cameras to record their demise. Were those lives worth less than the ones lost on 9/11 on western TV screens?

Anyone on the planet involved in producing a newspaper that day in 2001 was conscious we were writing the first draft of history. What we wrote then and there would become a prime source of historical accounts of that day, forever after. The Scotsman lead article made a reference to the endless prior film depictions of New York being destroyed by invading aliens, climate disasters or escaped giant gorillas.

Andrew Neil, the paper’s “publisher” and source of constant editorial “helpful hints” from London, went ballistic at this mention of Hollywood disaster movies. He declared the piece to be insensitive and probably indicating a left-wing bias against America and himself.

Actually, the article was quite nuanced. American popular culture – before and after 9/11 – is suffused with the idea of the destruction of New York – and has been since the Cold War. Some of this is down to a deep, psychological fear that western, exploitative, consumerist society is deeply fragile. And some of it stems from pure guilt.

So, invoking America’s worst nightmares in the newspaper’s lead story on 9/11 was not in itself gratuitous or offensive. Rather, it was a first stab at explaining the horror (and futility) of the terrorist attacks in the context of America’s domination of the world.

That approach did not satisfy Mr Neil, of course. He was and remains an arch ideologue of Western, capitalist values. Like many that Tuesday in 2001, he saw the attacks on the Twin Towers as proof that western civilisation was under existential threat from an atavistic, medieval jihad (Neil has a flat in New York, by the way).

With viewers in America and Europe transfixed by their television sets, watching every Hollywood version of The End of the World as We Know It played out in real time, now was the very time to mobilise public opinion for what would be christened “the war on terrorism”. Twenty years on, the west is still fighting this so-called war.

Thus 9/11 became an accidental excuse for a sharp turn in western military and political posture towards active intervention in the Islamic world. The events of 9/11 were cynically manipulated to imply that the jihadists were a religious throwback bridling at the spread of western liberal values – a refrain being regurgitated in the past month with reference to the Taliban’s misogynistic attitudes to women.

The west was in Afghanistan to spread women’s rights! Were we hell.

THE chief lie surrounding 9/11 is that the jihadist terrorists – for whom I hold no brief whatsoever – were somehow just mad, evil, deluded fanatics forever distanced from understanding western liberal values by their obscurantist faith.

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The truth is that modern jihadism is largely the creation of western political manipulation – a Frankenstein monster created by the west as part of its Cold War against the Soviet Union and the once influential communist parties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Modernism in the Middle East and Central Asia in the post-Second World War era was spearheaded by secular nationalist parties aided and influenced by sizeable Communist parties. The west – chiefly the US and Britain – systematically patronised and subsidised Islamic fundamentalist groups to destabilise and often murder these secular leftists.

Having destroyed secular, modernising forces across the Middle East and Central Asia, the west then reaped the jihadist whirlwind as its millenarian, utopian creation inevitably came into conflict with the corrupt states the west was using to further its economic interests in the region, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the jihadists realised their real enemy was not the puppets in Riyadh or Islamabad, but the puppet master in America.

In 1993, al-Qaeda bombed the basement of the World Trade Centre in New York, killing six people. Like most terrorism, it was a pathetic pin prick serving only to embarrass the US administration. But al-Qaeda lucked out on their second attempt, on 9/11.

Using hijacked aircraft rather than a basement car bomb made for perfect television. Plus, the Twin Towers had been built to maximise rents, with their open floor plates merely clipped on to the building’s corners. The fire started by the aircraft engines melted these clips, sending one floor crashing down to the one below.

In contrast, in 1945, a US bomber smacked into the Empire State Building in fog, between floors 78 and 80, hurling burning engines deep inside. Some 14 people were killed but the structure’s steel frame was so strong that damage was limited and resulting fires were extinguished in 40 minutes.

I was in New York some weeks after the 9/11 attack. The remains of the Twin Towers were still being cleared. I joined a noticeably silent queue to file by. This was less disaster tourism than folk trying to take in the scope of the tragedy. Those images remain with me two decades on.

The 9/11 attacks murdered a lot of people but were no strategic threat to the west economically, militarily, or politically. The true disaster of 9/11 was America’s decision to use it as an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and to launch an ill-prepared and ultimately futile military crusade against its former jihadist proteges. Blair’s poodle Britain was stupid enough to join in. We are still living with the consequences.