Why 9/11 Was No Pearl Harbor

New York, or rather Manhattan, has been part and parcel of my life for over a decade. It is stimulating, sophisticated, and a city where truly anything is possible. But it is also in parts a curious mixture of first and third Worlds, for this has historically been a city where waves of immigrants have replaced one another in a sometimes brutish pecking order. I’ve lived and worked in Manhattan, and long before I did so, I was a frequent visitor. I still am. For I continue to keep links with the United Nations, while writing and blogging for amongst others ‘Big Think’.

Having spent years railing against aspects of US foreign policy, despaired of the Reagan and Bush years, I am an unashamed enthusiast of Americans.  New York in particular holds a very special place for me, as it does curiously for many around the World who may never have been to the city, but who recognise great chunks of it from films they have seen. And it is the film of the attack on the World Trade Center that most obviously stands out, for this was the most shocking that reality television has managed to inflict upon us. This was no fictional ‘Towering Inferno’, this was, as Americans would say the ‘real deal’. There are events in all of our lives where we remember where we where and what we were doing when some gargantuan or life changing news broke. The attack on the Twin Towers was just that for millions. As it happens I had recently returned from the city, having been speaking at the ‘Socialist Scholars Conference’, with Mick Rix the other UK delegate, who at that time was leader of the train drivers union, ASLEF. We had even taken time out to visit one of the towers and catch the elevator to the top. I will never forget the same elevator stalling on the way down and coming to an abrupt halt between floors on the way back down. The light flickered and a couple of people let out momentary yelps, and then we were on our way again.

Back in London, at the Tribune office, one of the staff called me into the next room to watch footage of the first plane hitting. My first thought, in common with many others I suspect, was ‘this can’t be real’. My second was to go back into my office and call some of my friends in Manhattan. Ian William’s, Tribune’s UN Correspondent was living down town, and had witnessed the immediate aftermath from his apartment window. Another friend told me how she and others were now leaving the city by foot. Most friends I spoke to were clearly in disbelief.

Shortly afterwards I was back in New York, wandering through some of the stricken streets, and looking inside shops that were coated in a thick mat of grey dust, This being New York, a small industry of patriotic pictures, badges and flags, had already taken root. Postcards depicting the twin towers before their fall were particularly popular.  In subsequent years, as a New York based TV reporter, I would be sent to cover anniversaries of the attacks, and never failed to be moved by the shrines to those who had lost their lives, and in particular the heavy cost born by the New York Fire Department.Many lives were shaped and effected by what happened on that infamous day, and in particular for many who had never been to America. For the response to the atrocity when it came was historically misjudged, and had led to bitter conflict and loss of life that far out numbers the loss of life in lower Manhattan.

The attack on the World Trade Center was no Pearl Harbour, because it was directed at civilians by civilians, albeit civilians terrorists. No account of the last decade, and no proper examination of cause and effect can fail to ignore America – and Britain’s  response – the war on Iraq. So my memories of the past decade come also with those of the million strong march in London against the war, a  massive demonstration at which I spoke along with many others. What is done can never be un-done, but at the very least we can and must learn from history

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.