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On the Twentieth Anniversary of 9/11

Romanticizing 9/11 may prevent us from fully learning what it has to teach us.

Key points

  • We tend to mythologize the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in ways that ultimately fail to benefit us.
  • If we are to effectively learn from the attacks, we need to able to put them in perspective.
  • Putting the 9/11 attacks in perspective presents a challenge to both the political right and the political left.

In response to an article I wrote on the end of the war in Afghanistan, several people contacted me and asked if I had thoughts to share on the response in the United States to the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I didn’t respond immediately because I recognized that my observations were unlikely to be much appreciated, and I wasn’t sure they would be that helpful. But, on reflection, I think the question very much warrants comment.

With today’s fresh attention given to the terrorist attacks, the common sentiment has been that we “must never forget.” For a long time, I have argued that the more important task may be almost the opposite. We need to get beyond them. I wrote a lengthy white paper immediately following the attacks that, in an indirect way, made that point. I was concerned that our response to the attacks could very easily make things worse. The attacks had shattered the American myth of invincibility and left the population frightened and disoriented. It would have been very easy for the U.S. to respond by making the Islamic East our new “evil other” (to replace the Soviet Union) and react in ways with tragic consequences. There is a sense in which that is exactly what happened.

Part of what has me now deciding to respond further relates to reflections in Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord. There, I emphasize the importance of thinking in ways that leave behind the knee-jerk ideological assumptions of both the political left and the political right. Looking back, I see how observations that I made in the original white paper challenged both liberal and conservative beliefs of the time. The prescription I offered had two main points, with each most difficult to hear for one political persuasion. We succeeded surprisingly well with one and ultimately failed badly with the other.

Two Points

The point that we at least adequately addressed was the importance of taking global terrorism seriously and applying protective measures, the “homeland security” task. It is important to appreciate that getting there required actions that would naturally not sit well with many on the left. Needed surveillance approaches came much closer to ethnic profiling than many on the left would have preferred. (In fact, they did often reflect ethnic profiling, and needed to.) Protective initiatives also often required preemption, taking action not in response to terrorist actions but in anticipation (often with less-than-perfect intelligence, and with less-than-perfect outcomes). I argued that the way today’s increasingly globalized world was bringing people from very different cultural realities into conflict was making the need for such often troubling choices inescapable. While we had to take immense care in making such choices, they could not be avoided. The fact that we have not had major attacks on U.S. soil since suggests at least basic success in this regard.

The second point: Emphasizing the importance of not making the Islamic world the new enemy. Note the trickiness of addressing the first point effectively without falling for this trap, a balancing act that tends to be particularly hard for those on the right. Here, initially, we did not do too badly. While some political types turned immediately to demonization, the average person seemed to make the effort to separate the Islamic faith from Islamic terrorism. But eventually, we had George W. Bush’s misguided decision to instigate the second Iraq War with all of its tragic consequences.

Today’s Task

What is our task today? Is it to not forget? For those who directly suffered in the attacks, the need to grieve appropriately continues. And, of course, we need to remember the lessons, of both of these sorts. But, beyond that, I think the counsel to “not forget” is simplistic and misguided. This is, even more, the case now than it was at the time of the attacks.

I then warned that if we wanted to provide leadership in a global world, we needed to keep the event in perspective. The collapse of the towers was unquestionably horrific. But I noted then that while something close to 3,000 people lost their lives, nearly three million people died in Cambodia’s killing fields (only one of several examples). Today, we have a comparison that strikes much closer to home, more than 650,000 U.S. citizens have died from COVID-19 (one in 500). And too often we have not done what is needed to quell the carnage.

If we are not careful, our accepted, indeed prescribed, sentiments with regard to 9/11 become more symbolic than an accurate reflection of significance. And what they symbolize doesn’t necessarily serve us. Yes, the fall of the towers reflected a loss of innocence, a loss of perceived invincibility. But, if that is our concern, then the loss we are grieving is in fact for something that all along was an illusion. And it was an illusion based on a kind of self-aggrandizement that ultimately separates us from the rest of the world and makes us vulnerable to misguided decision-making.

Looking back, I now see that 20 years ago we would have needed to be further along toward the more “grown-up” kind of understanding that Creative Systems Theory describes with the concept of Cultural Maturity to fully appreciate what I wrote. Besides requiring us to avoid mythologizing our own kind and finding enemies in the world, such appreciation would demand that we better accept limits to what we can often know and control. And it would require that we get beyond the knee-jerk ideological assumptions of both the political left and the political right. Today, I might hope that we could be a step further along toward the needed more mature posture in the world.

I have a favorite quote from Ernest Hemingway on my writing room wall: “Everyone is broken by life. But afterward, some become strong at the broken places.” Yes, there is a way in which 9/11 “broke” the United States. But when we in effect romanticize it, we get in the way of fully learning what it has to teach us. There is no reason for us not to use the experience to make us stronger. One way we will know that we have succeeded in doing so is that we will move on.