The 9/11 Anniversary Reader: Liberals vs. Neocons Edition

Reading the coverage so you don't have to -- from left to right.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For all the talk of how 9/11 brought Americans together, it’s hard to think of a more politically divisive event. Conflicts over the meaning of the attacks and the U.S. response remain just as intense today as they were a decade ago, if not more. Here’s how liberal, conservative, and libertarian magazines are covering the 10th anniversary.

From the left:


In the lead editorial for their 9/11-themed issue, the Nation’s editors lament America’s missed opportunity to take advantage of the national solidarity that followed the attacks:

Lost, too, was the chance for a politics built around the kind of social solidarity embodied by those first responders and expressed by the society so moved by their sacrifice. Instead, thanks largely to the administration of George W. Bush, we got a politics of fear that helped launch a long "war on terror," which in turn gave us a lost decade of American life.

Following on the editorial, the pieces in the issue mainly focus on critiquing U.S. overreach in the years following the attacks. Jonathan Schell writes that during the years of George W. Bush’s administration, "the foreign policy as well as the domestic politics of the United States were revolving like a pinwheel around Al Qaeda and the global threat it allegedly posed." David K. Shipler calls attention to the loss of civil liberties in the United States over the last decade. David Cole worries that justice has still not been done for victims of torture in the war on terror. Ariel Dorfman remembers another 9/11, the 1973 coup against Chile’s left-wing government.

An interesting counterpoint to the Nation‘s coverage is Christopher Hitchens’s latest column in Slate. On Sept. 11, 2001, Hitchens was a columnist at the Nation. But over the next few years, disillusioned by what he perceived as the left’s inability to challenge radical Islam, Hitchens broke with the Nation and its fellow-travelers more generally. His new piece, which argues that the defining aspect of the attacks was their evil nature and that "attempts to introduce ‘complexity’ into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions" shows how deep that divide remains.


The editors of the Prospect, which has emerged as something of a house journal for D.C.’s liberal policy wonks, also argues that post-9/11 America suffers from self-inflicted wounds:

Ten years after the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, the United States is in bad shape, but our problems have little to do with what al-Qaeda did to us. America’s troubles stem from what the country has done to itself-or rather, from what our political leaders have done with the nation’s power and resources.

David K. Shipler turns up again with a piece on civil liberties, Kim Lane Scheppele looks at 9/11’s impact on international law, Beenish Ahmed reflects on what the last 10 years have meant for Muslim Americans, and historian Rick Perlstein turns in yet another piece about squandered solidarity.

Soon-to-be-departing staff writer Adam Serwer manages to find a rare original angle, looking at how the post-9/11 security state contributed to Washington, D.C.’s growing economic inequality.

From the right:


In a somewhat uncharacteristically bipartisan move from the magazine that, more than any other, was identified with the Bush administration’s neoconservative foreign policy, the Standard begins its 9/11 issue with a lengthy quotation from President Barack Obama along with Gen. David Petraeus, commemorating the sacrifice of "the 9/11 generation": the Americans who joined the armed forces since the attacks.

The issue’s cover story, by Charlotte Allen, looks at how U.S. college campuses are remembering the anniversary:

Instead, the campus commemorations, many of which will be spaced out for days and even weeks this fall, will focus on, well, understanding it all, in the ponderous, ambiguity-laden, complexity-generating way that seems to be the hallmark of college professors faced with grim events about which they would rather not think in terms of morality: "Historical and political representations," whatever those are (Harvard), "How do we determine truth and reality?" (more Harvard), and "Imaging Atrocity: The Function of Pictures in Literary Narratives about 9/11" (St. John’s University in New York).

And the topic that seems to demand the most understanding, at least in terms of the obsessive amounts of time and resources that college professors and administrators will be devoting to it, is Islam. There will be so many campus lectures, panel discussions, teach-ins, and photo exhibits devoted to the Muslim faith, Muslim communities in America, and the real or imagined violent acts against Muslims in the wake of 9/11 (there has actually been only one revenge-slaying since that date — of a man who turned out not to be a Muslim — and the perpetrator was convicted and executed) that if you had just rocketed in from Venus, you might think that Muslims had been the chief victims, not the sole perpetrators, of the massacre that day — as well as an estimated 67 alleged terrorism incidents or attempts in the United States during the decade that followed.

Elsewhere in the magazine, Matthew Continetti remembers witnessing the attacks as a student at Columbia University.

In keeping with Allen’s critique of efforts to "understand" the attacks or put them into context, the Standard seems to have largely taken a pass on providing a big-picture take of the political decisions of the last 10 years and avoids praise or criticism for Presidents Bush and Obama — on this topic, anyway.


If the Weekly Standard editors were more subdued than normal, their fellow neocons at Commentary came out swinging. Abe Greenwald kicks things off with a full-throated defense of post-9/11 counterterrorism policies, including the Iraq war:

Over the course of the 10 years, American authorities foiled more than two dozen al-Qaeda plots. Those averted tragedies were not foremost on the minds of revelers who gathered to celebrate Bin Laden’s demise on May 1 at Ground Zero, Times Square, and in front of the White House. But if a mere few of the plots had materialized, those spaces might not even have been open to public assembly.

Not only have U.S. authorities managed to keep America safe from al-Qaeda for a decade; by the time he was killed, Osama bin Laden was barely a leader. Among the items recovered at his compound in Abbottabad were some recent writings, in which the former icon lamented al-Qaeda’s dramatically sinking stock and pondered organizational rebranding as a possible antidote.

His growing insignificance as a global player was not the product of chance. The marginalization of the world’s principal jihadist was the result of audacious American policy — indeed, the most controversial and hotly debated policy undertaken in the wake of 9/11. In the words of Reuel Marc Gerecht writing in the Wall Street Journal, "the war in Iraq was Bin Laden’s great moral undoing."

Nothing else in the current issue is explicitly 9/11-related, though Joshua Muravchik’s piece on the neoconservative response to the Arab Spring and Max Boot’s reflection on Robert Gates’s tenure as defense secretary certainly touch on post-9/11 themes.

From the libertarians:


Libertarian monthly Reason‘s September issue largely eschews politics to look at 9/11 from the perspective of business and culture. Editor Matt Welch argues that the terrorists’ biggest mistake was underestimating the dynamism of American capitalism:

On September 5, 2001, The New York Times described a new Kodak ad campaign emphasizing the great picture quality of high-end film. "Low-end film is a commodity," the president of the company’s consumer imaging unit explained to the Times, "so we have to trade people up." The share price for Eastman Kodak, itself a two-time target of antitrust lawsuits, closed a bit more than $45 that day. Thirty-one months later the stock was down below $26, and Kodak was unceremoniously booted out of the Dow Jones Industrial Average after 74 years. At press time, Kodak’s share price has not been north of $4 since January 2011, when the company, reeling from the disastrous consequences of trying to trade its unwilling customers up, ditched its onetime signature product, Kodachrome.

The business of America isn’t necessarily business. It’s change. Constant, creative, destructive, entertaining change. As we look back over the last 10 years since that awful, still-indigestible morning of September 11, 2001, it’s tempting to make the counterintuitive claim that we’re the same country as ever, gossiping about the sex lives of politicians, enforcing no-fly zones against Middle East dictators, tuning in to The Simpsons. Much of that is true. But on a daily basis we vastly underestimate how dynamic America is, particularly in comparison to the aims of the Islamic medievalists who turned commercial aircraft into flying death machines 10 years ago.

The issue also features two interesting pieces on post-9/11 art. Nick Gillespie argues that U.S. artists and entertainers failed to help Americans make sense of the attacks in the years that followed. Shikha Dalmia has a more optimistic piece, positing that Bollywood films may be a greater threat to the future of Islamic terrorism than U.S. military force.

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