The 9/11 Anniversary Reader
We sift through the glut of 10th-anniversary coverage, so you don't have to.
With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, it seems like everyone’s going big with reminiscences of the day and reflections on the events that followed. There are memorial editions of magazines, newspaper packages, television specials, and expert panels galore — all remembering, debating, and ruminating on where we’ve come in the decade since. And, of course, we’re not immune to this moment of reflection here at Foreign Policy. But to help you sift through the mea culpas, I-told-you-so’s, we-should-have-knowns — and the obligatory photo essays, memoirs, and in-depth packages — here are some of the highlights from this week of 9/11 coverage. We’ll be adding more commentary and best/worst picks throughout the week:
The most ambitious multimedia project of the anniversary is probably New York magazine’s The Encyclopedia of 9/11, a collection of the events, people, and ideas associated with that day. The encyclopedia covers everything Abbottabad (the "pastoral deathplace of a terrorist mastermind") to Zazi, Najibullah ("the face of terrorism to come?"). In between, there’s airport security and freedom fries, the reform of Islam and the return of Saturday Night Live, "Let’s roll" and "never forget." It’s an effort to encompass both the major themes of the last ten years and the small tidbits readers may have forgotten. The package includes contributions from FP Editor in Chief Susan Glasser and Afpak Channel editor Peter Bergen.
Accompanying the encyclopedia is Frank Rich’s reflections on the past decade:
Now, ten years later, it’s remarkable how much our city, like the country, has moved on. Decades are not supposed to come in tidy packages mandated by the calendar’s arbitrary divisions, but this decade did. For most Americans, the cloud of 9/11 has lifted. Which is not to say that a happier national landscape has been unveiled in its wake.
Back in 2006, Rich took some shots for a piece analyzing a 9/11 photo of young people chatting on the New York waterfront with the World Trade Center burning in the background, which he inferred as a sign of disaffection among young Americans. He seems a bit more cautious in his assessments this time around.
As someone who began the decade as an outspoken hawk and unapologetic booster of the Iraq war and ended it as an Obama supporter and one of the Bush administration’s sharpest critics, blogger Andrew Sullivan is a logical choice to take stock of the past decade’s triumphs and failures. In his Newsweek cover story, Sullivan asks, "Did Osama Win?"
We need to understand that 9/11 worked. It worked as a tactic to induce American self-destruction, even if it failed spectacularly as a strategy to advance Al Qaeda — and its heretical message of suicidal warfare — across the globe.
The same issue features an oral history of a more recent milestone, the killing of Osama bin Laden, from those inside the White House Situation Room, including President Barack Obama. Another feature checks in on families still grieving for victims of the attacks, and filmmaker Michael Moore reflects on a decade of causing controversy.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Having now officially stepped down as executive editor and moved to the opinion page, Bill Keller revisits one of his most controversial positions, his advocacy of U.S. intervention in Iraq. Back in 2003, Keller christened what he now calls the "I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk club," a bevy of left-of-center commentators who, shocked by the 9/11 attacks, found themselves favoring aggressive military action to counteract global terrorism. Keller doesn’t entirely renounce his former position, but certainly reconsiders the wisdom of it in hindsight:
I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly, but I could see that there was no clear plan for — and at the highest levels, a shameful smugness about — what came after the invasion. I could not have known how bad the intelligence was, but I could see that the White House and the Pentagon were so eager to go that they were probably indifferent to any evidence that didn’t fit their scenario. I could see that they had embraced Chalabi, the exile cheerleader for war, despite considerable suspicion within the State Department and elsewhere that he was a charlatan. I could have seen, had I looked hard enough, that even by the more dire appraisals of Hussein’s capabilities he did not amount to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called in a very different context "a clear and present danger." But I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.
Keller’s critics don’t seem convinced. The left-wing Nation calls it the latest in a long line of "mini culpas" from Keller on the Times‘s Iraq war coverage; the libertarian publication Reason gets a bit closer to the ad hominem, remarking that Keller’s argument is admitting that "he did not feel manly enough to keep his daughter safe in a post-9/11 world."
The Times also checks in on some of the names in its celebrated "Portraits of Grief" series; book critic Michiko Kakutani looks at how 9/11 changed art and culture; and Randy Kennedy visits the construction workers rebuilding the World Trade Center.
THE NEW REPUBLIC
Fellow member of the "I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk club" Paul Berman revisits the ideas that informed his now classic article and book, Terror and Liberalism, which posited that Islamism — like communism and fascism before it — was the latest in a series of real and vexing threats to Western liberalism. Berman, for the most part, stands by the thesis, but sees hope for liberalism in recent events in the Middle East:
The anniversary of September 11 reminds me that, before I come up with a gloomy word to conclude my sentence, it might be useful to recall the Middle Eastern landscape of ten years ago. It was not a spectacle of hope. The whole region seemed to be veering in terrorist directions, with battles almost everywhere going on between Islamists of different stripes and mukhabarat regimes, likewise of different stripes, ranging from the bad to the ghastly. And ten years later? Dismal still, in a kaleidoscopically different pattern. Anyone can think of doomsday possibilities — an Iranian order to Hamas and Hezbollah to launch a regional war, and so on. Still, two new elements, which you could not have found ten years ago, figure nowadays on the landscape. Here and there around the region you can see democratic institutions, shaky as a leaf — threatened by terrorists and Islamist militias in Iraq, trampled underfoot by an Islamist militia in Lebanon, still merely a project for the future in Tunisia, and feebler yet in Egypt, given that, if the Egyptian elections go ahead, they will probably bring the wrong people to power. Democratic institutions nonetheless amount to a new element. And something else: the ineradicable fact that liberals, relatively isolated and weak as they are, have made a mass appearance on the public stage, and the liberals left a good impression on the rest of society, and they even demonstrated the ability, for a moment, to shape events, and their day may not be over yet.
More than any other publication, TNR embodied post-9/11 liberal hawkishness with its support of the Iraq war. In 2004, it even devoted an entire issue to the question, "Were We Wrong?" Perhaps because it has so extensively mined this debate already, the magazine’s coverage of the anniversary has been relatively muted.
Elsewhere in TNR, Eric Trager ponders the stubborn persistence of 9/11 conspiracy, Lawrence Kaplan revisits the short-lived sense of post-9/11 civil responsibility, and FP contributor Peter Bergen reflects on his 18 years of following bin Laden.
THE NEW YORKER
Nearly the entire Sept. 12 issue is devoted to 9/11 content. Editor in Chief David Remnick leads off with a reflective piece that, in true New Yorker fashion, compares the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack to the city’s previous worst disaster, the 1904 fire and subsequent sinking of the steamship General Slocum, in which more than 1,000 died. Suffice to say, the impact of 9/11 was somewhat more profound:
But, for all the recent moments of promise, this tenth anniversary is a marker, not an end. It is a time to commemorate, consider, and reconsider. A decade later, we pay tribute to the resilience of ordinary people in the face of appalling destruction. We remember the dead and, with them, the survivors, the firemen and the police, the nurses and the doctors and the spontaneous, instinctive volunteers, the myriad acts of courage and kindness. A decade later, we also continue to reckon not only with the violence that bin Laden inflicted but with the follies, the misjudgments, and the violence that, directly or indirectly, he provoked — the acts of government deception, illegal domestic surveillance, "extraordinary rendition," "enhanced interrogation," waterboarding.
The issue also includes pieces from regular contributors Ian Frazier and George Packer as well as a long list of guests that’s heavy on novelists including Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, and Colum McCann.
Smith writes of that day, "About one thing, though, we could all agree: everything had changed. Or had it?" In reading through the best of the coverage in the American press, it’s clear we’re no closer to that answer 10 years later.