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How catalytic events change the course of history: From the 9/11 attacks to the coronavirus pandemic

How catalytic events change the course of history: From the 9/11 attacks to the coronavirus pandemic

The 9/11 attacks of 2001 are classic examples of  “catalytic events” that change the course of history. They can be seen as triggers for “Seneca Collapses,” sudden and catastrophic, they are well described by Seneca’s words, “the way to ruin is rapid.” It is the way history moves: never smoothly but always in bumps. The most recent example of a catalytic effect of this kind is the current epidemic of coronavirus.

If you are a chemist, you know very well how catalysts work small miracles: you had been trying for some time to have a reaction occur without success, then you add a little pinch of something and things go “bang.” In no time, the reaction is complete. Then, of course, as a chemist you know that catalysts don’t really work miracles: all they can do is to accelerate reaction that would occur anyway. But that may be mightily useful, sometimes.

The concept of catalysis can be used also outside chemistry, for instance in politics. Let’s go back to the year 2000, when the group of American neoconservatives identifying themselves as the “Project for a New American Century” (PNAC) issued a document titled “Rebuilding American Defenses.” In that document, they argued that the American public could be led to accept a major shift of the available resources to military purposes only by means of “some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.

Surely, the PNAC members were highly successful with their plans, perhaps more than they themselves would have imagined. One year later, in 2001, the world saw the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on other locations, providing exactly the “catastrophic and catalyzing event” they had invoked.

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