The Black Hole of 9/11

As we assess the legacy of the 10th anniversary of America's seminal terrorist attack, it's worth looking at 10 events from the past decade that have actually been more important.

A fireman walks amongst the rubble and the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center 11 October 2001 in New York. An interfaith ceremony was held at ground zero in conjunction with the one month anniversary of the attacks, marked by the short prayer service and a moment of silence at 8:48am. AFP Photo/POOL/Gary Friedman (Photo credit should read GARY FRIEDMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Recently, I’ve started to get calls from reporters doing pieces on the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11. The thrust of the conversations is the same: How were we changed by that watershed moment?

But in responding to their questions and mulling the question in my head, I keep coming back to the same conclusion: 9/11, for all its tragic and heroic drama, is an easy event to overestimate. Indeed, we have been overestimating its significance since almost the moment it happened. (According to President George W. Bush, his chief of staff, Andrew Card, leaned forward to whisper the news of the attack in his ear and said, “America is under attack.” Although factually accurate, the statement was in the language of traditional wars with traditional enemies and implied that the United States as a nation was somehow at risk in ways much broader than was actually the case.)

In fact, the success of Osama bin Laden was in masterminding a low-cost, comparatively low-risk action by a handful of thugs that produced one of the most profound overreactions in military history. Trillions of dollars were expended and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the emotion-fueled maelstrom unleashed by a shaken and clearly disoriented America. Bin Laden aimed for Wall Street and Washington, seeking to strike a blow against symbols of American power, but in so doing he also hit us where it would hurt the most — right in our sense of perspective.

We spoke of 9/11 as though it were somehow equivalent to Pearl Harbor, the beginning of a global war against enemies bent on, and at least theoretically capable of, destroying the American way of life (unlike al Qaeda, a ragtag band of extremists with limited punch). We spoke of cultural wars and a divided world. We reorganized our entire security establishment to go after a few thousand bad guys. We went mad.

And now, as we are recovering our senses, withdrawing from Iraq, and soon starting to exit Afghanistan, having buried bin Laden and hosts of his henchmen, we are beginning to be able to see this. At least in theory we can. For the next couple of weeks, we will witness documentary after editorial mega-feature, interviews with victims and heroes, the American legend machine producing historical bumpf at full blast. That is not, by the way, to diminish the brutal blows struck 10 years ago or the deeply felt human experiences associated with it and its aftermath. Rather it is to say that once again we will seek to frame 9/11 as a great event, the definer of an era, when in fact, its greatest defining characteristic was that of a distraction — The Great Distraction — that drew America’s focus and that of many in the world from the greater issues of our time. That distraction and the opportunity costs associated with it were bin Laden’s triumph and our loss — and our ultimate victory will come as we get a grip back on reality.

One way to demonstrate that restoration of historical sensibility comes if we ask ourselves, looking back over the past 10 years, what other developments took place that exceed 9/11 in lasting importance? What events of the past decade will historians write of that will have them looking past or beyond the attack, its masterminds, or its immediate response? There are scores, I suspect. Here are just 10 that come to me off the top of my head.


10. The American Response to 9/11

While some might consider America’s overwrought response to 9/11 to be proof of its significance, so much of that response was irrational and more directly related to issues in America’s past (the invasion of Iraq, for example) that it needs to be seen as a thing apart. Indeed, we had been directly and indirectly fighting wars in and around Iraq for years. Further, that war was a “war of choice,” just as the violation of our national principles at Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo was purely self-destructive, auto-terrorism if you will. We did more damage to ourselves than did the two-bit criminals who baited us. In any event, our response — which extends on the positive side to our coming to better understand how to combat terrorism (the “intelligence war” and drone attacks bin Laden ended up bitterly lamenting) — was both vastly bigger in scope and in consequence than the events that triggered it.


9. The Arab Spring

We have no idea how the string of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa this year is going to turn out. But we do know that they are a sign of deep change that has toppled more governments in the region than either al Qaeda or the United States could. These revolutions are having a broader social impact than extremism and are linked more directly to the self-interest of the masses in the region — which ought to have us handicapping it with better odds than we’d give fundamentalist murderers practicing their ancient, outmoded, and ineffective trade. The United States was right to focus on the rise of nonstate actors and asymmetric power — it was just focusing on the wrong sources of that power.


8. The Rebalancing of Asia

This trend is related to the No. 1 story of the decade (keep reading), but it touches more lives and will be of far greater impact to global foreign policy than anything that happens in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or anywhere in the Middle East. In fact, the intensive efforts to forge new alliances and open new relationships among all the international players with interests in Asia will probably play a decisive role in AfPak as it encompasses developments like the U.S. embrace of India. That evolving partnership between the world’s two largest democracies will have important regional consequences vis-à-vis the battle against terrorism and containing threats from within Pakistan while at the same time creating an important counterbalance to China. These strategic shifts across Asia touch far more countries than those, however, as they involve creating new alliances and deepened relationships to address, engage with, and at the same time, manage the consequences of China’s rise — as well as that of other emerging powers such as India and, someday soon, perhaps a reunified Korea. It’s complicated, but it’s the big leagues of foreign policy compared with the Middle East, which is attention-grabbing but over the long term strictly second division.


7. The Stagnation of the U.S. and Other Developed-World Economies

This trend started a few years before 9/11 with Japan’s economic meltdown. But it really gained momentum in the 2000s, when the United States experienced its first-ever decade of zero net new job creation and declining median incomes. Europe also spluttered, especially in the south — and this weakening of the pillars of the post-World War II world clearly fed a reordering of geopolitics. Entering an age of limitations is forcing big powers to work together differently and has put the kibosh on the momentary and misguided unilateralism of the Bush era in the United States.


6. The Invention of Social Media

What’s more important? Knocking down the World Trade Center and killing several thousand innocents or linking half a billion people together as never before (as Facebook did)? Passing notes from cave to cave in Waziristan or fueling a Twitter revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square? It’s not even close.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

5. The Proliferation of Cell Phones and Hand-Held Computing Devices

As big as the advent of social media is, the big technology story of the past decade is the unprecedented, mind-boggling, world-reordering spread of cell phones. In 1991, 10 years before 9/11, there were 16 million cell-phone subscribers worldwide. Today, we are rapidly approaching 6 billion cell-phone subscribers. Eight trillion text messages will be sent in 2011. Within three or four years, more people will access the Internet via phone than via computer. And growth is fastest in the emerging world. There are more cell phone cameras today than all other forms of camera added together. Everyone is connected. Everyone is a witness. Everyone is part of a global news network, an instant coalition, a mob, an electorate.


4. The Crash of 2008

The Dow Jones industrial average fell from a peak of 14,164 on Oct. 9, 2007, to 6,469 the following March, a decline of 54 percent. It took 17 months to “recover.” (The jury is still out on what’s next.) The U.S. housing market, which peaked in 2006, has plummeted virtually unabated ever since, and some experts expect that those past highs may be unattainable for years, if ever. The resulting tens of trillions of dollars in losses sent hundreds of millions of people deeper into poverty, crushed retirement accounts, impacted the well-being of billions of people, and called into question the viability of countries and companies in ways that cannot yet be calculated. It also had political and policy implications — from reconsidering national priorities to changing global views toward “American capitalism” — that will dwarf those associated with 9/11.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

3. The Eurozone Crisis and the Crash of 2011-2012

Don’t believe point No. 4? Well, keep watching. The weakening caused by the decline of developed-world economies, the crash of 2008, reckless overborrowing by European governments, and lax management of the banking sector (as well as localized national problems such as the failure by the Spanish to learn the lessons of the U.S. housing crisis) has led to a crisis that could undo the European Union, blow up the euro, and — even if neither of those things happen — send the world’s economy into another tailspin that could recall or exceed 2008’s crash. If it does, it will have an even more devastating impact on already weakened economies worldwide; and if it undoes the European experiment, which has helped ensure decades of peace on a continent previously riven by conflict, well, then it will again on totally different grounds easily trump 9/11.


2. The Failure to Address Global Warming

While evidence piled up that man-made warming was accelerating in ways that outstripped all models and all precedent in human history, while the scientific community united in its agreement that the crisis would be existential for many forms of life and coastal communities where billions of people live, while the entire planet was threatened as never before, the leaders of the world were otherwise engaged. If global temperatures rise another degree or three this century, 9/11 will be seen as a comparative footnote to an event that could remake the nature of life on Earth and lead to a toll many, many times greater than either 9/11 or the wars it triggered.


1. The Rise of China and the Other BRICs

The only reason global warming is not No. 1 is that we haven’t seen its full effects yet. But its contours — and that of economic growth and political power on the planet — will be shaped increasingly by the influence of the “new” powers of the 21st century, led by China, India, Brazil, and others. Of course, they’re not new: China and India were the world’s largest economies from the dawn of time until almost the mid-19th century. But still, on September 11, 2001, they were considered players to watch — in the distant future. The past decade has seen them emerge to the point that they are now the engines of growth that will determine whether a market crash of 2011 occurs, whether the United States and Europe can borrow to fund their ailing economies, whether the world will reach an agreement to manage greenhouse gas emissions, whether we will truly contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and what the real future of international institutions and agreements will look like. The BRICs rose while the United States was distracted by bin Laden’s sideshow; now, America’s future will depend on how quickly Americans can refocus on what’s really important.

So, does all this mean 9/11 was not important? Of course not. It was a significant day in the life of America, a turning point in our view of our vulnerabilities and of the nature of threats and real power in the world. It led us to question many of our assumptions about the nature of our country, our alliances, our military capabilities, and our worldview. It and its aftermath have had a horrific human cost — on victims of the attack, on the families of our soldiers, and on the many victims and their families of the wars we subsequently conducted in the Middle East. It has changed America, taught us our limitations, and forced us to question ourselves. We have been diminished by it, raised up by the noble examples of individual Americans — and in the end we have learned much from it. Foremost among those lessons, however, must be that we as a nation need to summon the discipline in times of great national challenges to frame events in the broader context of time and our larger interests. We cannot allow single isolated events to warp our view of all around them, like historical black holes twisting the fabric of adjacent time and events. It is important to our process of consigning 9/11 to history to understand both what it was and what it was not, why it was important and why it was just one of many even greater stories of the past decade.

Nelson Ching/AFP/Getty Images

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

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