Part two of this post is here.
First, a few thoughts on what to avoid:
I am increasingly suspicious of stuff from the mainstream foreign affairs crowd: Council on Foreign Relations, CSIS, Brookings, and (especially) the conservative think-tank set. They are so Washington, predictable, and establishmentarian (because the all want gigs in the next administration of their choice), that you already know what you will read: no suggestion that the 20-year US massive presence in the Gulf infuriates Muslims and Arabs and helped catalyze 9/11; laundry lists of expensive ideas for the US to ‘do more in the region’ rather than to let locals be themselves; little hint that America’s relations with Muslims would improve dramatically if we were more even-handed on the Palestinians; no suggestion that America might have been better off doing much, much less in response to 9/11; full endorsement of the liberal internationalist-neocon position that 9/11 is a once-in-a-generation justification for continuing America’s massive globocop presence after the Cold War; minimal criticism of the massive Bush national security state overkill in response; shameless exploitation of 9/11 to prevent reductions in America’s gargantuan national security budget, etc. Stick with Foreign Policy, the American Review, the Atlantic, Slate or the New Republic (sometimes) for views that at least challenge the status quo and don’t just recycle what Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and the rest of the DC pundit class will tell you.
Next, avoid the emotional manipulative 9/11 retrospectives. This may sound callous – it was an awful day for everyone, and a truly horrible day for some. But far too often since 9/11, politicians, especially W, played to our emotions from that day, and used and manipulated them to support policy we would almost certainly not have agreed to otherwise, and which we will regret with shame in the future. Here’s the Wall Street Journal telling you that ‘Old Glory’ waved on 9/11 (you’re a patriot and love America, right?), and that’s why they called it the Patriot Act. But then the ACLU and Democrats sabotaged the GWoT, cause they hated W over the Florida recount. So the American left, completely out of power from 2000 to 2006, nonetheless made us ‘less safe’ – for a personal vendetta no less. This is Rovism, wrapped in the flag, but still manipulative and hardball. Further, I have little doubt that, just as we look back today in shame at the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII, we will do the same in 20-30 years when look at how we tortured people in the GWoT. Don’t let torture’s defenders – Yoo, Cheney, Thiessen – emotionally roll you by telling you they stopped the next 9/11 and more grieving widows by ‘legalizing’ waterboarding, ‘walling,’ and generally beating the s— out of people in the name of ‘America.’ Keep your wits (and it ain’t true anyway).
In line with this resistance to inevitable grandstanding, posturing, and macho heroics, my own sense is that 9/11’s importance is wildly over-exaggerated – perhaps because I live in Asia, and I increasingly see the Chinese challenge looming for decades to come. But know this – as just about any American living in Asia can tell you – the Chinese sure are happy that we got lost in the Middle East for a decade.
There are a million possible ‘lessons’ from 9/11, but the big one is actually a non-lesson – 9/11 actually changed very little (beyond the changes we made for ourselves, like Iraq and torture). As early as 2006, we were starting to realize just how much we had over-hyped 9/11. The tectonic plates of international relations change slowly. Al Qaeda could not in fact dent unipolarity. (China can, but that is another story.) The stock market didn’t crash. The US military didn’t suddenly collapse. The actual material loss on 9/11 was ‘only’ about $100B out of a $12T economy, and 2700 people from a citizenry of 300M+. (I don’t intend to sound cold; every life is ontologically unique and valuable. But from a national point of view, these numbers are small. Recall that almost 38,000 Americans died in car accidents in 2001.) 9/11 did not unravel NATO or US alliances. US GDP in the proximate quarters continued to expand. China and Russia did not suddenly become nice or nasty. Bin Laden’s much hoped-for Islamic revolution did not occur (one goal of the attack was to spark a global Muslim revolution with al Qaeda in a leninist ‘vanguard party’ role). The much-predicted ‘wave’ of terrorist attacks and plots against the US did not occur, at home or abroad. (Bush defenders will say this is because Bush improved US security at home, but what about the roughly 6M Americans living outside the US? If there really was a global Islamist conspiracy to kill us, there’d be kidnappings and assassinations of US businessmen, students, and tourists all over Eurasia. It never happened.) In the end, well over 99% of the population went to work the next day; unipolarity rolled on.
In short, from a national power perspective, 9/11 is more like Hurricane Katrina – an awful yet manageable one-time disaster – than Hiroshima – a city-breaking catastrophe that promised to be the first in a pattern leading to national collapse. 9/11 was a sucker-punch – a cheap shot al Qaeda managed to slip in because the US wasn’t paying attention (even though the CIA warned Rice and Bush a month earlier). 9/11 did not galvanize the Muslim world, nor provoke a fiery revolt. And given even reasonable homeland security measures (far less draconian than what we choose), repeat attacks at that magnitude are unlikely. In the end, the real reason 9/11 is seared into everyone’s mind is not its catalyst effect toward a global war or clash of civilizations – it is because it was a surprise attack, and because it targeted civilians.
That we permitted that one-shot sucker-punch to drive into us hysterics, to capture our dark imagination, zealous vengeance, and righteous fury is where 9/11 really changed things. American psychology – perhaps insulated too long from the world by US power and distance from Eurasia’s problems – is what changed, not the world.
Continue to part two.