David J. Rothkopf: The Black Hole of 9/11

Roundup: Talking About History

David J. Rothkopf blogs for Foreign Policyandis the author of Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.His next book, due out in early 2012, is Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government—and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead.

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...

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