David Rothkopf

We need more than a day to reflect on 9/11

Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters.  They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan.  What I intended to write (and had actually written in the ...

Mario Tama/Gettty Images

Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters.  They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan.  What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not “It is odious…” but instead “It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms…”  I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to.  As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo.  Apologies.

A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled “What America Has Lost.” It was subtitled “It’s clear we overreacted to 9/11.” As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post “Top Secret America” series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has “created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together.”

Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic — nearly sacrilegious, in fact.

Yet I believe that Zakaria’s column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America’s security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.

We see that impact, for example, in the appalling displays that have dominated U.S. national news during the past couple of weeks: the debate over the building of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan and stories about the repugnant hate-mongering of some fly-speck of a country preacher trying to make a name for himself by threatening to burn Qurans. The impact of 9/11 flows in and around these issues in countless ways that show how twisted and ugly the scars are that the attacks have left on our society, both on its surface and far beneath. There is hatred and distrust and racism on one level. And there is, even among reasonable people, a continuing desire to use 9/11 as an excuse to suspend our constitution, to infringe upon American’s most basic rights and values.

We talk about the “sacredness” of 9/11 and regularly forget the more sacred commitments to tolerance and freedom on which the country was founded. Talking heads rail about this vile man who degrades every Bible on which he thumps in Florida, and argue that since he poses a threat to our troops he should be arrested or otherwise prohibited from his self-expression — even though his right to express himself is precisely what those troops are actually risking their lives to protect.

The same is true of the ill-considered plan to build that cultural center in lower Manhattan. It is odious, but if our freedoms do not extend to those whose behaviors we disagree with, then they are not freedoms at all. And of course, if we compromise our values in times like these we really do play directly into the hands of our enemies.

Cooler heads have urged that the rallies that will take place to mark 9/11 be de-politicized and that the day be devoted to reflection on the lives that were lost. That is as it should be. But we need more than a day to reflect on what 9/11 has done to America — and what we have allowed it to do to us.

We should take this entire year between now and the 10th anniversary of the attacks to try to consider the blow that was struck and our response to it with some perspective — not just about what happened, how it happened, and why, but about what kind of a nation we want to be going forward.

It is easy to hold on to our values when all is going well. It was easier to trumpet them when we felt we had the wind at our back as a nation. But we are now in a world in which the anger provoked by the evil actions of that day in September nine years ago has begotten fear and insecurity — and one in which new insecurities are appearing daily, compounding our national case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Our fear of terrorists at our borders thus turns into fear of immigrants who might take scarce American jobs, and our willingness to compromise our values and laws in one case leads to a willingness to do so in the other. Our unsteadiness about what people might come across our borders translates into a fear of what goods might come across them, and we are drawn to measures that compromise an international system of laws we helped create in order to punish the source of those threats without regard for how our actions may be used against us.

History will judge our response to 9/11, and — looking at the invasion of Iraq, the abuses of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and countless renditions, at the Patriot Act, the building of the security state, the prioritizing of terror over other far greater threats to our security, the spending of trillions to fight terror that undercut our fiscal health, our willingness to contradict the spirit and the letter of our constitution and the values that set America apart — and it may determine that we indeed entered a period of national hysteria during the decade that followed. It is too early to say whether the attacks achieved the terrorists’ ultimate goal of permanently damaging our standing in the world. But it is not too early to conclude that it might have, that it’s possible we will never be the same.

Of course, after such a tragedy, perhaps it is best that we were not again the same. There is much to learn from 9/11 that can make us stronger and safer and help us to better understand the nature of the world in which we live and the threats with which it is rife. But as we have seen, when events change us, we face momentous choices — all of us, not just presidents but passengers in taxi cabs and strangers passing each other in the street. And we have seen that when we let our irrational impulses drive those choices, even if they are well-intended and heartfelt, we inevitably end up making serious errors of judgment. Fortunately, time provides distance, and distance makes room for rationality.

If we are lucky, the year ahead will start tp afford us just such distance and rationality. Unfortunately, given the events, rhetoric, and reignited hy

steria of the week just past, we all should see that unless we act to seize this moment and regain a grip on ourselves, that will not happen.

Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters.  They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan.  What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not “It is odious…” but instead “It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms…”  I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to.  As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo.  Apologies.

A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled “What America Has Lost.” It was subtitled “It’s clear we overreacted to 9/11.” As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post “Top Secret America” series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has “created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together.”

Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic — nearly sacrilegious, in fact.

Yet I believe that Zakaria’s column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America’s security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.

We see that impact, for example, in the appalling displays that have dominated U.S. national news during the past couple of weeks: the debate over the building of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan and stories about the repugnant hate-mongering of some fly-speck of a country preacher trying to make a name for himself by threatening to burn Qurans. The impact of 9/11 flows in and around these issues in countless ways that show how twisted and ugly the scars are that the attacks have left on our society, both on its surface and far beneath. There is hatred and distrust and racism on one level. And there is, even among reasonable people, a continuing desire to use 9/11 as an excuse to suspend our constitution, to infringe upon American’s most basic rights and values.

We talk about the “sacredness” of 9/11 and regularly forget the more sacred commitments to tolerance and freedom on which the country was founded. Talking heads rail about this vile man who degrades every Bible on which he thumps in Florida, and argue that since he poses a threat to our troops he should be arrested or otherwise prohibited from his self-expression — even though his right to express himself is precisely what those troops are actually risking their lives to protect.

The same is true of the ill-considered plan to build that cultural center in lower Manhattan. It is odious, but if our freedoms do not extend to those whose behaviors we disagree with, then they are not freedoms at all. And of course, if we compromise our values in times like these we really do play directly into the hands of our enemies.

Cooler heads have urged that the rallies that will take place to mark 9/11 be de-politicized and that the day be devoted to reflection on the lives that were lost. That is as it should be. But we need more than a day to reflect on what 9/11 has done to America — and what we have allowed it to do to us.

We should take this entire year between now and the 10th anniversary of the attacks to try to consider the blow that was struck and our response to it with some perspective — not just about what happened, how it happened, and why, but about what kind of a nation we want to be going forward.

It is easy to hold on to our values when all is going well. It was easier to trumpet them when we felt we had the wind at our back as a nation. But we are now in a world in which the anger provoked by the evil actions of that day in September nine years ago has begotten fear and insecurity — and one in which new insecurities are appearing daily, compounding our national case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Our fear of terrorists at our borders thus turns into fear of immigrants who might take scarce American jobs, and our willingness to compromise our values and laws in one case leads to a willingness to do so in the other. Our unsteadiness about what people might come across our borders translates into a fear of what goods might come across them, and we are drawn to measures that compromise an international system of laws we helped create in order to punish the source of those threats without regard for how our actions may be used against us.

History will judge our response to 9/11, and — looking at the invasion of Iraq, the abuses of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and countless renditions, at the Patriot Act, the building of the security state, the prioritizing of terror over other far greater threats to our security, the spending of trillions to fight terror that undercut our fiscal health, our willingness to contradict the spirit and the letter of our constitution and the values that set America apart — and it may determine that we indeed entered a period of national hysteria during the decade that followed. It is too early to say whether the attacks achieved the terrorists’ ultimate goal of permanently damaging our standing in the world. But it is not too early to conclude that it might have, that it’s possible we will never be the same.

Of course, after such a tragedy, perhaps it is best that we were not again the same. There is much to learn from 9/11 that can make us stronger and safer and help us to better understand the nature of the world in which we live and the threats with which it is rife. But as we have seen, when events change us, we face momentous choices — all of us, not just presidents but passengers in taxi cabs and strangers passing each other in the street. And we have seen that when we let our irrational impulses drive those choices, even if they are well-intended and heartfelt, we inevitably end up making serious errors of judgment. Fortunately, time provides distance, and distance makes room for rationality.

If we are lucky, the year ahead will start tp afford us just such distance and rationality. Unfortunately, given the events, rhetoric, and reignited hy
steria of the week just past, we all should see that unless we act to seize this moment and regain a grip on ourselves, that will not happen.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf