Reflections on the 9/11 Decade

What have we learned about America and the world in the ten years since September 11, 2001?

What have we learned about America and the world in the ten years since September 11, 2001?

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A day of memory and reflection. As I sat down to dinner with my family Sunday night, I suspended my usual role as the table manners police out of sheer pleasure of their company, and a thought for those, many from this and nearby communities, who have had missing places at their tables for ten years. My father's birthday is September 15; ten years ago on Sunday we were due to fly to Charlottesville to gather with all our family for his 70th birthday. When all the planes were grounded, we piled our two then very small sons in to the car and headed from Cambridge, Massachusetts, all the way to Virginia. It took us longer driving there and back than we actually spent in Charlottesville, but no matter. Everyone around that table was profoundly grateful that we had an intact family to gather. And I will never forget the eerie glare and smoke still rising from that awful emptiness in the familiar Manhattan skyline as we drove down the New Jersey turnpike late at night, with our three year old asking why we were so silent. For months afterwards, whenever anyone cried, he would ask if it was because the buildings fell down.

9-11 Ten Years LaterSunday was a day for personal remembrances of that kind, a day to call friends and watch memorials big and small. But the process of reflecting on the past decade actually started several months ago, when journals and magazines started soliciting "ten years later" pieces in anticipation of the anniversary. The Royal United Services Institute asked me and a distinguished group of other commentators to try to identify the single greatest consequence, lesson, or impact of September 11; I argued that the U.S. reaction to September marked the end of 20th century warfare more than the beginning of 21st century warfare. Democracy, a terrific journal of ideas, asked for general reflections on the decade; I commented on the paradox that the United States was much more confident right after the attacks than it is now, after a decade in which we successfully blocked any further attacks within the United States and offered my own prescriptions for regaining that confidence The New Republic asked what had changed the most since September 11; my answer was that we are gradually coming to understand that we are not the center of the universe, which is actually a good thing. And the Wall Street Journal asked "did we overreact to the attacks?" I reprint my response, in 350 words, here.
It is possible to ask whether we overreacted to 9/11 only because of the hard and steady work of countless state, municipal and federal counterterrorism officials who have succeeded in preventing its repeat, or something even worse. After a decade without any such attacks (albeit with some near misses), and with increasingly frequent and invasive security procedures permeating our daily lives, the costs of our reaction may be more immediately evident than the benefits. But another attack would change that calculus overnight.

One way in which Americans have overreacted, however, is emotionally--by assuming, as we so often do, that our experience of terrorism was qualitatively different from the experience of Europeans, Indonesians, Indians, Africans and others. We have since watched and admired the courage and determination of the British after coordinated attacks on subways and buses in July 2005, and of the Indians after the 10 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai in November 2008.

The world likewise watched the many acts of bravery and heroism on 9/11, from firefighters and police to the group of passengers who rushed the cockpit on United Flight 93. But as a society we were unable to resume business as usual in the way that the British and Indians and many others have done. Because the sensation of vulnerability to violent attack on American soil was so new to us, we gave the terrorists the satisfaction of knowing that they had changed our lives dramatically.

The lesson here is the power of resilience over revenge. As emotionally satisfying as the killing of Osama bin Laden and the attacks on other al Qaeda leaders are, in the long run they are a less effective response to terrorism than enhancing the resilience of our infrastructure, our economy and our people. If we are prepared for an attack and can return to normal as quickly as possible. even while grieving--with our planes flying, our markets open and our heads high--we can diminish the impact and hence the value of that attack in the first place.

Reflection points can also be inflection points, where taking stock of what has been crystallizes realizations about where we must go. May that be our collective response to this anniversary.