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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Was Really New About September 11?

Take the long view. What will New York be like on Sept. 11, 2011? It's not difficult to imagine a rather wretched future. You need only visit one of those cities -- Jerusalem or Belfast -- that have been fractured by terrorism and religious strife to get a glimpse. Imagine a segregated city, with a kind of Muslim ghetto in an outer borough that non-Muslims can enter only, if they dare, with a special endorsement on their ID cards. Imagine security checkpoints at every tunnel and bridge into Manhattan, where antiterrorist troops check every vehicle for traces of explosives and prohibited toxins.

Does that mean you also have to count on even worse gridlock on the Van Wyck Expressway? No, because you also need to imagine a decline in the number of cars on the road. For by 2011, the third and final oil shock will have heralded the end of the internal-combustion engine era.

Still, there will be some comfort to be found downtown. There, rising like a phoenix from the rubble of the World Trade Center, will be that gleaming monument to American resilience: the twin towers of the Nafta Center. Even if world trade couldn't be rebuilt after the Great Depression of 2002-03, at least the city's beloved landmark could. And the new towers will be even taller -- thanks to the anti-aircraft turrets on top.

In its immediate aftermath, the destruction of the World Trade Center looked like one of those events -- the assassination at Sarajevo, the bombing of Pearl Harbor -- that set history on a new course. Some excitable commentators began talking about ''World War III'' almost the same day the twin towers fell. That's one possible future. Much more likely, however, is the nightmare scene sketched above. That's because this outcome could arise out of already discernible trends, all of which predated Sept. 11, 2001. Tragic and spectacular though it was, that event was far less of a turning point than is generally believed.

We should be wary, in fact, of ever attaching too much importance to any single event. It was not Gavrilo Princip alone who started World War I. In his novel, ''The Man Without Qualities,'' Robert Musil dismissed the idea that history moves in a straight line like a billiard ball, changing direction only when struck. For Musil, history was more like "the passage of clouds,'' constantly in flux, never predictable. That quality is what makes it impossible to predict where we will be 10 years from now.

The first deep trend is obvious enough: the spread of terrorism -- that is to say the use of violence by nonstate organizations in the pursuit of extreme political goals -- to the United States. This kind of terrorism has been around for quite a while. Hijacking planes is certainly not new: Since the late 1960s, when the tactic was first used systematically by the Palestine Liberation Organization and its sympathizers, there have been some 500 hijackings. As for the tactic of flying planes directly at populous targets, what else were the 3,913 Japanese pilots doing who killed themselves and many more U.S. troops flying kamikaze missions in 1944 and 1945?

All that was really new on Sept. 11 was that these tried-and-tested tactics were applied in combination and in the United States. Between 1995 and 2000, according to State Department figures, there were more than 2,100 international terrorist attacks. But just 15 of them occurred in North America, causing just seven casualties. It was the successful extension of international terrorism to the United States that was the novelty.

A novelty, yes, but hardly a surprise. Terrorism had been a fact of life in major cities around the world for decades. The only surprising thing was that New York was spared for so long.

Put it this way: If economics could be globalized, why not political violence? The two are connected. Year after year it becomes easier for small bands of fanatics to perpetrate mass destruction because the means of destruction get cheaper and more readily available. The last time I checked, a used AK-47 assault rifle could be purchased in the U.S. for $700.

The bad news is that no amount of warfare against the states that harbor terrorists will rule out further attacks. The Western European experience shows that the real war against terrorism has to be fought on the home front by domestic intelligence agencies, police forces and humdrum security guards around all potential targets.

So, welcome to the world of the daily security check, the fortnightly bomb scare and the annual explosion. Ten years from now, New York firefighters and Washington postal workers will feel the same weary resignation that Londoners developed during the IRA's bombing campaign.

I have not yet raised one trend, much commented on -- the supposedly inescapable "clash'' between a democratic West and an intolerant Islam. From this viewpoint, Sept. 11 was a moment of revelation rather than redirection, as America belatedly woke up to a struggle the Muslim world has been fighting for years. I don't buy this.

Primarily that's because the most striking features of modern Islam are its amazing heterogeneity and geographical dispersion. Violence between ethnic or religious groups is not dividing the world into great blocs. As we have already seen in the Balkans (where we were inclined to side with the Muslims, don't forget), the tendency is for existing political units to fragment. So any clash of civilizations will occur not on conventional battlefields but in the streets of multicultural states like Bosnia.

Think of it as "deglobalization:" for one of the great paradoxes of our time is that the economic integration of the world has coincided with its political disintegration. Excluding sub-Saharan Africa, there were 64 independent countries in the world in 1871. Forty-three years later, on the eve of World War I, imperialism had reduced the number to 59. But since World War II, there have been sustained increases. By 1995, there were 192.

In this context, the main significance of movements like Islamic fundamentalism may lie in their centrifugal as opposed to centripetal effects. Rather than anticipating a clash between monolithic civilizations, we should expect a continued process of political disintegration as religious and ethnic conflicts challenge the integrity of existing multicultural nation states. Civil war has, after all, been the most frequent kind of war since 1945. From Yugoslavia to Iraq to Afghanistan, what the United States keeps having to confront is not a united Islam but a succession of fractured polities, racked by internecine war. (The same could be said about Somalia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda.)

Why has economic globalization coincided with political fragmentation in this contradictory fashion? The best answer may be that as more ethnically heterogeneous countries adopt (with American encouragement) the combination of economic openness and political democracy, their rationale simply falls away. Central government loses its legitimacy as the planner of the economy, and ethnic minorities vote for separatist parties.

What are the implications for the world of Sept. 11, 2011? With the caveat that this is only one of a number of possible futures, let me repeat my earlier predictions. Terrorism will be a part of everyday life. U.S. troops will be patrolling both Kabul and Kosovo. And the divisions between ethnic and religious groups will be even more pronounced. So much for the bad news. The good news? There will be fewer SUVs clogging up the streets.

Let me conclude with a fifth prediction. Most people will regard all of these things as direct consequences of the terrorist attacks 10 years before. Wrong. The unpalatable truth is that it would all have happened anyway.

Niall Ferguson is professor of political and financial history at the University of Oxford. He contributed this comment to The New York Times.