Anniversary Approaching, New Views of 9/11

An incomplete roundup of mediations and commemorations, before the 10th anniversary

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In advance of the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, here come the mediations on the events of that day, and of the decade since.

A good place to start is Greg Jaffe's article from The Washington Post, whose bracing opening line is its thesis: "This is the American era of endless war." To look back toward those attacks is to review a vast, new infrastructure of combat and recuperation. It is also, Jaffe argues, a change in philosophy at multiple levels of American life. We don't think about war the same way anymore.

In previous decades, the military and the American public viewed war as an aberration and peace as the norm.
Today, radical religious ideologies, new technologies and cheap, powerful weapons have catapulted the world into “a period of persistent conflict,” according to the Pentagon’s last major assessment of global security. “No one should harbor the illusion that the developed world can win this conflict in the near future,” the document concludes.
By this logic, America’s wars are unending and any talk of peace is quixotic or naive. The new view of war and peace has brought about far-reaching changes in agencies such as the CIA, which is increasingly shifting its focus from gathering intelligence to targeting and killing terrorists.

The commemorative 9/11 section put together at The Street includes a telling capsule view of a different, perhaps complementary type of insecurity that has marked the last decade. In a few graphs, they chart ten years of economic volatility and soaring debts, not all attributable to the attacks and the wars that followed, but just as indelibly marking the current era of doubt and worry.

The anniversary is an occasion for reflection on the attackers, who Christopher Hitchens argues can - and must - be described as "evil," no filigrees of geopolitical context needed or wanted.

The proper task of the "public intellectual" might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either. To the government and most of the people of the United States, it seemed that the country on 9/11 had been attacked in a particularly odious way (air piracy used to maximize civilian casualties) by a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and "unbelievers," and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.
To me, this remains the main point about al-Qaida and its surrogates. I do not believe, by stipulating it as the main point, that I try to oversimplify matters. I feel no need to show off or to think of something novel to say.

In his introduction to The Atlantic's coverage of the anniversary, Jeffrey Goldberg declares that "murder is the meaning of 9/11." The essay, like Hitchens', is intended as a corrective against seeing those attacks, or those since by Al Qaeda and its associates, in a context of political debate. They are simply murderous, he says.

The debate is between those who argue that radical jihadists hate us for our freedoms and our modernity, and those who argue that they hate us for our policies. The answer, of course, is yes -- yes to both. But even this answer only scrapes at the truth, which is that it is hatred that precedes everything, the rationalizations and justifications and the elaborate scaffolding of ideology and theology al Qaeda erects around its sociopathic core.

From across the Atlantic, The Guardian glances askance at conspiracy theorists and their occasional success in sowing doubts about the true authors of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. "Not since President John F Kennedy was felled by bullets in Dallas nearly half a century ago have conspiracy theorists had so much to get their teeth into although, tellingly, a number of those who see a government plot on September 11 can also be found claiming that the Holocaust is a myth," Chris McGreal writes.

Niall Ferguson, meanwhile, explores the counterfactual: what if the tragedy hadn't happened at all?

Back on the eve of destruction, in early September 2001, only 13 percent of Americans believed that the U.S. should be “the single world leader.” And fewer than a third favored higher defense spending. Now those figures are naturally much higher. Right?

Wrong. According to the most recent surveys, just 12 percent of Americans today think the U.S. should be the sole superpower—almost exactly the same proportion as on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. The share of Americans who want to see higher spending on national security is actually down to 26 percent. Paradoxically, Americans today seem less interested in the wider world than they were before the Twin Towers were felled.

Ferguson's thought exercise posits a still-bleak picture of the Middle East, even if the Bush administration could have foiled the 9/11 plot, including an uprising in Muslim countries against an American government that looked out for its own interest but left disrupting of terrorists and rebels to the existing autocratic regimes. "In other words, if things had happened differently 10 years ago—if there had been no 9/11 and no retaliatory invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—we might be living through an Islamist Winter rather than an Arab Spring," Ferguson writes.

Such retroactive gilding of the U.S. invasions, especially when it comes from the likes of Dick Cheney, is "as dubious as it is self-serving," David Remnick writes in The New Yorker.

In fact, the Arab Spring was not inspired by the wondrous vision of post-Saddam Iraq. Nor was it the result of Western actions or manipulations; its credibility depended upon the fact that it was unambiguously indigenous and self-propelled. An approach marked by calculation and humility, as well as strength, has served the interests of both freedom and American prestige far better than the theatre of raw power. In Libya, we see that a more supple brand of foreign policy that rejects the swaggering heedlessness of the Bush years need not neglect the imperatives of freedom and human rights. Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves—questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about the countervailing limits. Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.

A concluding word goes to the students who sat in a Florida classroom, almost a decade ago, and watched the shell-shocked president receive whispered news of the attack. Bush faced years of derision for his immediate response that day, for remaining still and looking stunned, minute after minute, as New York and Washington and Pennsylvania were engulfed in grief and panic. Looking back now, the kids who were with him understand. 

"It was nice that he understood we were young kids," one told The Guardian, "and would probably have gone crazy if he had told us what had happened."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.