The Legacy of 9/11

tags: foreign policy, war on terror, 9/11, militarism

Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting faculty fellow at Yale Law School. He is the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy (Harvard).

Twenty years after terrorists infiltrated the world’s sole superpower, turned passenger aircraft into guided missiles and reduced the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon to rubble, has the truism of that moment—that 9/11 “changed everything”—proven to be false?

For all the solemn odes to the day’s significance that will be heard on its looming 20th anniversary, the truth remains: September 11 did not, as it turned out, inaugurate a new age of massive terrorist attacks in the United States. Even the initially unimaginable scale of the attacks themselves has slowly come to look less shocking. The 2,977 souls lost now rank alongside the successive tolls of Hurricane Katrina and the coronavirus pandemic. The latter has claimed well over half a million American lives already. According to official statistics, on 38 individual days of the pandemic more Americans died from Covid-19 than perished on 9/11. 

Nor was September 11, lest we forget, what sent the US military into the Middle East. A full decade earlier, in the wake of its first war against Iraq to liberate Kuwait, the United States had already begun to station tens of thousands of troops in the region, a grievance cited by Osama bin Laden when he declared war on America in 1996. America’s pursuit of military dominance—dividing the region into friends and enemies—would have happened regardless of 9/11, albeit to less deadly effect.

But 9/11 has turned out to matter, profoundly, in the country where the horrific attack occurred. Expect an unnerving nostalgia to accompany the anniversary in a now-divided country: to some, the memory of a nation roused to collective action in the wake of 9/11 may offer a measure of comfort. And Americans were not wrong to experience that day as a seminal event, which would define who they were as a nation. “In a single instant,” President George W Bush declared in the months following the attack, “we realised that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty, that we’ve been called to a unique role in human events.” In this regard, in shaping America’s sense of itself, 9/11 might well have “changed everything” as momentously as was assumed—just not in the direction intended.

Those who had seemed best positioned to bend history to their will—America’s ruling elites—seized on the tragedy as an incomparable opportunity to demonstrate that the United States was “indispensable” to human affairs. America had been targeted, they argued, because of the power of its example. And it would respond by delivering the example of its power, regaining the initiative and driving world history forward. 

Yet spectacular ambitions produced interminable conflict. Shock and awe yielded to endless war. The very bid for indispensability left Americans doubting both their power in the world and their status as an example to it. Now a new president, Joe Biden, has ordered a full withdrawal of US soldiers from Afghanistan by 11th September, a date chosen not because any mission will have been accomplished, but because two decades seems like long enough. Twenty years on, America will therefore be reversing one of its errors and entering a new era. A rethink that should have taken place a generation ago can finally begin. September 11 was the moment that postponed everything, but it is unlikely to serve that function much longer.

Read entire article at Prospect Magazine

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