The commemorations and endless coverage Monday highlighted an interesting fact. Five years on, America still has not come to terms with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Despite the attacks being televised and despite a moment of stirring unity, life has returned to a “new normal” involving inconvenience but little sacrifice, except among members of the armed forces. The invasion of Iraq was supported enthusiastically at first but is increasingly divisive.
Politicians generally stick to pious platitudes, praising American resilience and the heroism of first responders — justifiably enough — but falling short of a comprehensive appreciation of what the 9/11 attacks mean and how we should go forward from them.
Perhaps this is because we Americans still don’t agree, in the sense of having a widely accepted narrative approaching a national consensus, on almost every aspect of this most deadly foreign attack ever on American mainland soil.
Our differences begin at the most fundamental level. Do we think the terrorists attacked us because of who we are, a free democracy in which some manifestations of freedom are vulgar or offensive? Because we are the most powerful country in the world, and jihadists seek power themselves? Or because we have maintained troops in and exercised undue influence in Muslim countries?
Americans answer that question differently, and on those answers entire worldviews about the appropriateness of what has been done since — worldviews that are often selfreinforcing systems that deny any legitimacy at all to differing views — are often built.
Was the success of the attacks (from a terrorist’s tactical perspective) due to complacency by high officials and intelligence bungling or cleverness on the part of al-Qaida? Was the al-Qaida threat as obvious as it seemed to a few high officials at the time while fools and charlatans ignored it? Or was it only one concern among many that understandably didn’t rise to the highest priority until 9/11 happened? Were there really enough dots to be connected that the attacks could have been thwarted, or is such talk 20/20 hindsight?
In a more sinister vein, did the government consciously let the plot go forward — or do it itself — to unite the populace behind war plans, as a surprising number of Americans are coming to believe?
If you don’t have immediate, definitive answers to some of those questions, you are hardly alone. Furthermore, the attacks were followed quickly by a shooting war that is still ongoing, and wartime is seldom felicitous to dispassionate deep thinking about the longer-range implications of events.
It seems inevitable, however, that an inability to settle on a consensus narrative about what precipitated the 9/11 attacks has affected and will affect policies and debate. Sets of attitudes about 9/11 have fed into differences over immigration, for example, as well as drawn the dividing lines on ongoing issues such as globalism and protectionism, interventionism and more modest foreign policies, security and liberty.
Amid the confusion, some politicians have been tempted to manipulate us through scaremongering.
So how to judge the peril explicit in President Bush’s words Monday night: We’re in a “struggle for civilization” and “We are in a war that will set the course for this new century and determine the destiny of millions across the world.” And, “If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons.”
It is symptomatic of the national uncertainty that a significant portion of the American public will endorse such sentiments without restraint and that others will think them the worst of the political scaremongering we mentioned. It will take years to sort out the truth.