It’s not uncommon to hear that “everything changed” on September 11, 2001. While it is not true that policies that came after September 11 were always different from what was done before, the tragic attacks on that day did lead to major changes. As we remember the events of ten years ago, we should also reflect on how to build a better world.
The attacks brought a disturbing feeling of vulnerability to Americans. A major question became how much liberty “we” should trade for safety. It was far less common to ask the underlying questions of how much it is even possible to trade liberty for safety, or how the circumstances of such a trade would affect real world outcomes.
Politicians sought to lead Americans in recovering from the sense of vulnerability through displays of force and forceful talk. Power was projected outward against the “Axis of Evil,” and projected inward by the fortification and surveillance of everyday life, with comforting symbols and words to reassure us of our greatness: the flag, “Liberty,” “Homeland,” and “God Bless America.” But this was just the continuation of politics in trying times.
Post-9/11 foreign policy was informed by a self-serving shortsightedness that was not really that different from what came before. The temporary stability of dictatorships that were “with us” continued to be supported. The people living under American-supported power in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere paid with their freedom and with the security that government power undermined. For Americans the cost was more hostility directed at the United States in the long-term. But rather than seriously considering the role that resentment against earlier power projection could play in motivating the murders of September 11 and the rejection of things considered Western, Americans are told self-serving tales of backwards foreign people who just hate freedom.
But when does the post-9/11 era end? Are the Arab Spring disruptions of international politics-as-usual putting an end to the post-9/11 “with us or against us” world?
Or can we mark the end earlier? Did the death of Osama bin Laden kill the old reasons for continued war? Have Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks created a new political environment? Did the 2008 economic disaster define the next era? Did the post-9/11 Era end when public support turned against its partisans and a vain attempt to reject the neocon agenda was seen in the 2006 US Congressional election?
Or will the post-9/11 Era end when the World Trade Center construction is completed, America’s security-industrial complex is restrained, and the association of every Muslim with terrorism stops being a common feature of life? Will it be when the torture sites are closed, victims of war are viewed as more than “collateral damage,” and US foreign policy withdraws to a peace dividend?
Certainly the answer depends on how one conceives of the post-9/11 world. While the attacks brought out much good in Americans — courage, empathy, helpfulness, reflection on what matters — they also brought exclusionary and belligerent behavior more to the forefront of national identity.
The fact that things could have been worse does not hide the reality that when “we came together as Americans,” it often meant that those who counted as Americans got to be better than everyone else, and those who did not fit political or ethnic orthodoxies were not allowed in. We can do better than this. And when we do better we’re relying on the human decency and respect for liberty that post-9/11 paranoia could not destroy.
As politicians take the spotlight at the World Trade Center on Sunday, we should be thinking about what the post-9/11 era is and how it will end. Perhaps the fact that the first responders to the WTC attacks are being crowded out of the ceremony so politicians can have more security for their leader acts is a sign that some things have not changed since the tragic attacks ten years ago.
But then again, politics didn’t start on September 11. When there is less looking to the authorities for protection from problems that the authorities have often helped create, we will certainly be entering a new era.