Even with the anniversary approaching, reading about 9/11 feels like a matter of duty, not desire. Especially with the anniversary, in fact: Magazines and PDF printouts devoted to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 accumulated on my desk for more than a week before I found the will to do more than stare at them. Eventually, the work ethic asserted itself, and this column will digest some of the recently published material on 9/11.
But this spell of hesitation bears mentioning, because a temporary failure of nerve was probably more than my idiosyncrasy. The event itself is hard to think about -- just as it was at the time. My recollection of that day has is not primarily one of fear, though there was plenty of that. (We live in Washington; according to a news report that morning, a car bomb had gone off downtown; this proved false but it stuck with you.) Rather, it was a state of extremely vivid confusion -- of being keenly aware of each passing hour, yet unable to take in the situation, let alone to anticipate very much of anything.
Who could? The experience was unprecedented. So much of the past decade of American life can be traced back to that day: wars, drones, security, surveillance, detention, “enhanced interrogation,” torture porn, the extremes of public emotion about having a president whose middle name is Hussein…. One thing that changed after 9/11 was that, after a while, people quit saying that “everything changed” on that date. But something did change, so that it is difficult to consider the way we live now without returning, sooner or later, to 9/11.
It is a date that names an era. Melvyn P. Leffler’s essay “9/11 in Retrospect,” appearing in Foreign Affairs, tries “to place the era in context and assess it as judiciously as possible.” That means from the perspective of an unexcitable centrism, with an eye to calculating the long-term effects on U.S. power. Leffler, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, is co-editor, with Jeffrey Legro, of In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy After the Berlin Wall and 9/11, published this summer by Cornell University Press. (At the time of this writing, his article is behind the journal’s paywall.)
Against those of us who believe that George W. Bush came into office with the intention of taking on Iraq, Leffler maintains that the administration was overwhelmingly preoccupied with domestic policy before 9/11 and improvised its doctrine of “anticipatory self defense [or] preventative warfare” out of “a feeling of responsibility for the public and a sense of guilt over having allowed the country to be struck.” In shifting gears, Bush and his advisers “had trouble weaving the elements of their policy into a coherent strategy that could address the challenges they considered most urgent.”
The combination of tax cuts and increased military expenditures “seriously eroded” the country’s “financial strength and flexibility,” even as occupations and counterinsurgencies undermined U.S. credibility as a force in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. “Iraq was largely eliminated as a counterbalance to Iran,” writes Leffler, “Iran’s ability to meddle beyond its borders increased, and the United States’ ability to mediate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations declined.” Meanwhile, “China’s growing military capability” began “endanger[ing] the United States’ supremacy in East and Southeast Asia” -- which was probably not high on Osama Bin Laden’s agenda, but history is all about the unexpected consequences.
The attacks on 9/11 “alerted the country to the fragility of its security,” Leffler concludes, as well as “the anger, bitterness, and resentment toward the United States residing elsewhere, particularly in parts of the Islamic world. But if 9/11 highlighted vulnerabilities, its aftermath illustrated how the mobilization of U.S. power, unless disciplined, calibrated, and done in conjunction with allies, has the potential to undermine the global commons as well as protect them.”
“It’s been a sad, lost, and enervating decade,” says the editorial note introducing the discussion of 9/11 in Democracy, a quarterly journal calling for “a vibrant and vital progressivism for the 21st century.” With contributions by 11 academics and journalists -- running to 35 pages of the fall issue -- there is too much to synopsize, but the title sums things up reasonably well: “America Astray.” (The symposium is currently posted online, in advance of the print edition.)
But two interventions stand out from the prevailing tone of frustration and worry. Being the gloomy sort myself, I want to emphasize them here, just to see what that’s like.
Elizabeth Anderson, who is a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, writes with evident disappointment that Bush’s legacy lives on: “Overall, Obama’s record on executive power and civil liberties diverges little from his predecessor. In certain respects it is even worse....” She refers to continued domestic spying, huge expenditures for the National Security Agency, the prosecution of leakers “on an unprecedented scale,” and Obama’s targeting of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, for “extrajudicial killing … even outside any battlefield context.”
“The traumatic experience of 9/11 lies behind all of these [actions and policies],” Anderson writes. But the revival of “public demand for privacy, civil liberties, and greater transparency is likely -- one hopes, anyway – to override the fears that underwrite state violations of constitutional rights.” The profound demographic shifts of the coming decades means that political parties “will soon see that they have more to gain by integrating immigrants and their American children into society than by pandering to anti-immigrant prejudice.”
Well, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future (as Yogi Berra said, or should have) but the notion of moving beyond the post-9/11 rut is certainly appealing. The other Democracy contributor to offer an encouraging word is Fawaz A. Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, who recapitulates some of the argument from his book The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda, just published by Oxford University Press.
“The Arab Spring reinforced what many of us have known for a while,” he writes. “Al Qaeda’s core message is in conflict with the universal aspirations of the Arab world…. Bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, neither speak for the umma (the global Muslim community) nor exercise any influence on Arab public opinion.”
The organization has shrunk from three or four thousand fighters to perhaps a tenth of that, with its best cadres now either dead or “choosing personal safety over operational efficiency.” While Zawahiri is dangerous, Gerges says, he lacks Bin Laden’s charisma or strategic sense. The best way to undermine what remains of the organization would be to withdraw American troops from Muslim countries.
Far bleaker is Michael Scheuer's assessment in “The Zawahiri Era,” published in the new issue of The National Interest, a conservative policy journal best known as Francis Fukuyama's venue for proclaiming “The End of History” in 1989. Scheuer is a former CIA analyst and the author of Osama Bin Laden (Oxford University Press, 2011). While noting Zawahiri’s “potentially debilitating personality traits and leadership quirks,” Scheuer also calls him “a rational, prudent, brave, dedicated and media-savvy leader,” fully capable of rebuilding the movement.
But that assumes Zawahiri can attract new fighters. Whatever recruitment spike Al Qaeda enjoyed after 9/11 has long since exhausted itself, to judge by the excerpt from The Missing Martyrs by Charles Kurzman appearing in the September-October issue of Foreign Policy (which is something like Foreign Affairs' younger, better-dressed sibling). Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As with Gerges and Scheuer, his book is from Oxford University Press. “By my calculation,” he writes, “global Islamist terrorists have managed to recruit fewer than 1 in 15,000 Muslims over the past quarter century and fewer than 1 in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11.” (The article is available to subscribers.)
Mohammad Atta and his associates were not riding the wave of the future, then: “There aren’t very many Islamist terrorists,” Kurzman says, “and most are incompetent. They fight each other as much they fight anybody else, and they fight their potential state sponsors most of all. They are outlaws on the run in almost every country in the world, and their bases have been reduced to ever-wilder patches of remote territory, where they have to limit their training activities to avoid satellite surveillance.”
So much of the discussion leading up to this anniversary looks to the present or the future – as if 9/11 were not in the past, but rather something that still abides. As Jurgen Habermas said in an interview a few years ago, 9/11 may have been the first event to be experienced, as it was happening, on a really global scale. That may have something to do with the way it seems to have irradiated everything, and to linger in the air.
In their article “The September 11 Digital Archive,” appearing in the fall issue of Radical History Review, Stephen Brier and Joshua Brown seem to echo the philosopher’s point. “One difference demarcating September 11, 2001, from previous epochal historical moments,” they write, “was its status as the first truly digital event of world historical importance: a significant part of the historical record – from email to photography to audio to video – was expressed, captured, disseminated, or viewed in (or converted to) digital forms and formats.”
To preserve these traces for the future was an undertaking both urgent and vast. Within two months of the attacks, the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University began working to gather and store such material, as well as thousands of recollections of the day submitted by the public. (Brier was a co-founder of the ASHP and Brown is currently its executive director.)
While still under development – adding adequate metadata to the files, for example – the September 11 Digital Archive is available online and should be taken over by the Library of Congress in 2013. It should not be confused with the LoC’s September 11, 2001, Web Archive, which has screen shots of websites around the world that were taken, according to the library’s description, between September 11 and December 1 of 2001. Unfortunately the collection is rather primitive and unreliable. A number of items are actually from late 2002 and have no bearing on 9/11; some entries in the register turn out to have no corresponding webpage.
No doubt a much better digital archive for 9/11 is on an NSA server somewhere. It may be some while before historians get to see it – maybe by the centennial? In the meantime, the rest of RHR's special issue "Historicizing 9/11" can be downloaded here.