On 9/11/11

On September 11, 2001, I was on the telephone with the first editor on hand that morning at the New York Times foreign desk, whining about how my story in that day’s paper had been edited. She kept putting me on hold because, she said, the desk was flooded with calls about something happening in Lower Manhattan. I turned on CNN just in time to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

I was one week into a new post as the Jerusalem bureau chief for The Times, just beginning to get my hands around a story that was about to change in ways I couldn’t imagine. Palestinians and Israelis would shortly begin killing each other in earnest, as their own conflict, in the wake of 9/11, spun out of all control.

That evening, I tracked down Benjamin Netanyahu, the once-and-future Israeli prime minister, to ask what the attack meant for U.S.-Israeli relations. “It’s very good,” he replied, with startling enthusiasm. Then he caught himself. “Well, it’s not very good, but it’s going to generate immediate sympathy.” I think he meant sympathy between Americans and Israelis. “If you ask, ‘Will the United States blame Israel?’—no, I think it will do the opposite,” he said, because “as you know, we’ve experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive hemorrhaging of terror.”

The following day proved to be the only time I managed to get Yasir Arafat on the telephone. He wanted to talk down reports that some Palestinians had celebrated the attacks. “For your information,” he said, “it is clear and obvious that it was less than 10 children in East Jerusalem—and we punished them!” When I asked if Palestinians might now be seen as supporters of America’s enemies, he proceeded to make an argument similar to Netanyahu’s, albeit turned inside out. “Not to forget, we are the victims,” he said, in his torrential, high-pitched English, “and, for this, we are suffering for what has been done—in America, during the terror—very deep pain.” Palestinians identified with Americans, he said, “because we are suffering in the same line.”

Immediately after the 9/11 attack there was, among Israelis and Palestinians, a sense that the United States was suddenly up for grabs: a sense that a new American feeling of victimhood and vulnerability would cause its foreign policy—and perhaps the nation itself—to change dramatically. In the short term, Netanyahu’s analysis proved more astute, though American policy quickly became a whiplash-inducing chaos of calls for a Palestinian state and support for Israeli unilateralism.

It’s easy now to imagine how wiser American leadership might have produced a less damaging decade: how all-out pursuit at Tora Bora, instead of war in Iraq, might have preserved countless lives; how shared sacrifice, say in the form of a higher gas tax, instead of our first-ever tax cuts in wartime and a presidential directive to go on vacation and spend money, might have averted or at least mitigated the economic wounds we’re now suffering; how a repudiation of torture might have enhanced America’s standing. It is, in fact, hard not to look back at history’s pivot in Lower Manhattan and think: We’ve made a lot of mistakes.

We’ve also gotten some things right. In the weeks and months after 9/11, in a race to the bottom that only Hamas could win, Palestinian factions began competing for political support by blowing up or shooting as many Israelis as they could; the Israeli military responded by besieging and tearing apart Palestinian cities. Suicide attacks became such a part of the fabric of Jerusalem life that one morning a couple of years later, I found myself asking my wife to drop me off by the scene of a bus bombing on the way to taking our toddler to day care. And as I interviewed failed or would-be bombers, and the demonic men who sent them, I became seized by the fear that these sorts of attacks would surely start happening back home. It was so easy to make a crude bomb—a couple of batteries, some fertilizer (one young bomber I interviewed—after he’d been patched up by an Israeli doctor—had doused his explosive with perfume to mask the stink). Terrorists wouldn’t need to take down buildings; they could just walk into a restaurant and start a panic that would almost certainly warp American life.

But it’s been 10 years now and that hasn’t happened. Yes, there have been horrible attacks here, but nothing like the epidemic of terror that spread through Israel and the occupied territories. I think this absence testifies far less to the new strength of Big Brother than to the enduring power of the American idea to permit and contain profound differences. That’s one of the themes Amy Waldman explores in her short story, “The Submission,” in this issue. James Fallows tackles the same theme from a different angle, in his dispatch from China about the crackdown in the wake of the Arab Spring. As Fallows observed during a presentation at this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, China has been “less appealing as a rival vision these past few months than it has been in years.” At the same time, “day by day, the actual work of American society—the melding of peoples and nurturing of ideas and creation of a style soon accepted as local in much of the world—has only become more influential.” As we mourn everyone, and everything, we lost on and because of 9/11, it’s also worth celebrating those things we’ve managed, maybe at times despite ourselves, to hold on to.