On this tenth anniversary of 9/11 it is hard not to say anything, and Peter asked for reflections any of us may have had. So these are mine.
After 9/11 events accelerated to such an extent that they became hard to speak of, but I will try to give a properly solemn reminiscence.
The horrific events of that day are burned into my imagination. I cant forget the image of people on live television jumping from the burning twin towers. I think of the people trapped on planes as it became evident that their hijacked trip would end all too poorlywhen flight attendants had their throats slit with box cutters and the buildings which make up the Manhattan skyline were shown all too closely outside their window seats. This was the stuff of nightmares, and the more I thought about what I saw on live TV and imagined from reports of the facts surrounding the story, I think as a result I had a few nightmares myself. I had never seen (and consequently never imagined) such a horrific act as what was done on that day.
Of course I should mention the heroism of the New York policemen and firemen who died that day doing their job under the most unforeseen of circumstances. This surely is an example of heroism and not mere professionalism (although it was that too). I had never considered doing ones ultimate in civic duty in such an extreme manner of deadly attack, but these individuals did it. I think of Aristotles conception of the virtue of courage (andreia). In order to so act, one must be well educated and properly so disposedone must have a good education which includes a habituation in doing the right thing despite fearful danger, and then one must actually do it. But courage, being the first and most elementary virtue, doesnt allow for such contemplation, and these men nonetheless did what was rightly required. To enter the twin towers in order to save the lives of others after jumbo jets had flown into them at top speed was true excellence in the face of real risk of life and death. Many died, but the heroism they exhibited is greatness beyond this attempt at good words, and it is right that they are still celebrated.
And when the twin towers fell to the ground with such immense power and destruction, I watched with breathless shock and sorrow. Knowing that thousands surely had died, I remembered my own youthful excursion to the top of World Trade Center in the 1980s. I remember being impressed with the height of the buildings (albeit with weak knees) as I stood atop the roof of the Big Apple on the 100 plus floor observation deck. I was in awe at this wonderful city and the vista that these buildings provided. Years later, as I watched the twin towers crumble on live TV, I could not help but imagine what I would have done had I been stuck in such a situation. No doubt, I was simply a tourist, and most who perished that day were good people who were dutifully going to work on any given week day. However, watching people jump to their death as they escaped the roaring fire bearing down on them made me think of how lucky I was. Like I said I had nightmares after seeing this terrible crime.
So the immediate fact of the events of 9/11 (and we shouldnt forget the horrors of the Pentagon and the heroism of the members of the plane in western Pennsylvania) left indelible images in my head. I was angry at those who committed these deeds, and I generally agreed with what may have been Bushs finest moment, when atop the rubble he said that those who committed these acts would hear from us. At that moment I said yes, they will hear from us and they ought to. But it was disconcerting to say the least that such nihilism could show its face in a way that had to be dealt with militarily, and that a case had to be made politically to make it so. I was uncertain of what should be done, and even further doubtful of whether such a course of action could be persuasive to many. As everyone knows, in the aftermath there was much unity in the country, but eventually disputes over fundamentals raised their head leading to such deep divisions already latent in our country that it seemed that there were at least two different Americas talking past each other over what this country was all about in the first place.
Regardless of my own doubts over what was to be done after 9/11, the attacks led to political choices which were primarily instigated by President Bush (but also confirmed by Congress). One can criticize these choices all one wishes, but given the circumstances of terrorism the U.S. found itself in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq nonetheless. In 2008, then candidate Obama spoke of the good war in Afghanistan and the bad war in Iraq. Even he agreed that somehow war was to be fought, and the question remained about how far this war needed to be pushed. When a mere fraction of the population actually fought the war or felt its immediate affects as friends and family, stories of military action seemed remote, and unfortunately they still feel remote today. Still war was the reality, and needed to be fought. But who was and is the enemy? Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, Islamism, Saddam Hussein, terrorism? We are still unsure how this question should be answered, and the usual suspects of answers seem inadequate. Hence we are also confused about how best to fight it.
Still, like the police and the firefighters, one cannot say enough about the fraction of the population which has undertaken the immediate burdens of actually fighting this war, viz. the American armed forces. Some have suffered irreparable loss, and these men and women should not be forgotten. It is cliché, but it should still be mentioned that so much has been asked of them that has not been asked of most, and that their sacrifice only shows itself to be so great when it is compared to the rest of us, i.e., to the incredibly divided populace that is more or less united in its great support for them.
In defense of this claim of division, let me speak of some popular extremes from a few years ago. When the attacks happened and the wars began, some righties thought that Americans were so spoiled that they could not adhere to war aims that would need to last many years and which would take many lives. We were spoiled and hence doomed, and it would require more than presidential admonitions to go shopping to be successful. Righty Dinesh DSouza got Lefty Bill Maher in trouble for agreeing on ABC that the courage of the suicidal hijackers provided an obvious negative example in comparison to the character of most Americans.
On the other hand, some lefties like Michael Moore said that we would not be at war in the first place if Bush had never been elected president (or had he never stolen the office outright). These voices implied that had Gore not had the presidential election stolen from out under him, he surely would have handled the situation with greater reason and in accordance with the latest scientific studies. I say scientific studies and not prudence because Im not sure Gore has ever exemplified prudence, but then not being president, maybe he has never needed to do so with any degree of authority. Regardless, the stolen election showed that the actions taken by this so-called constitutional government were unworthy of anything like respect or even compliance. In this view, Gore at his best would have nominated Noam Chomsky for Secretary of State, and the U.S. could have begun its long penance for decades of alleged crimes which were the reason for attacks like as 9/11. Rather than war, if only the U.S. acknowledged its role as being the roost to which chickens returned, then there would be no need for war and we could be good friends with al Qaeda and the rest of the world.
At the end of the day, all this questioning of the feasibility of the war and its aims was idle speculation. I suspect that after 9/11 we would have been at war in some shape or fashion as Bush did itwhether the argument was against weapons of mass destruction and for spreading the natural and divine love for freedom in every breast, or whether it were for more sober reasons like something had to be done to stop terrorism and show that the U.S. was not a pushover. We would be involved in both wars and perhaps even more wars regardless of who was presidentgiven what happened after 9/11 and given recent American history as well as the geo-political-economic realities. Saddam and the 1990s no-fly one was an untenable situation that could not continue indefinitely. The best that could be said for the Bush administration was that they realized this fact no matter how unpersuasive they ended up being in regard to their own actions, let alone to how poorly the war was executed under their watch.
Nonetheless, these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to great loss in human life (6,000+ Americans and untold innocents). It has cost an immense amount of money, but from what I understand, President Obama spent more in his $900 billion stimulus package than in both wars over several years combined (I could be wrong in this). Over time, the prestige of the nation as shown in the office of the presidency and its apparent global influence had been diminished. We were told that the cowboy Bush presented a naïve belief in the conflation of American force with American goodness. This was something that needed to be remedied, and Obama tried to reset the agenda, not only with Russia, but also with the whole Arab world in his Cairo speech. His refined education, nuance and sensitivity would be a boon for American prestige.
But what has Obama really done to improve this diminished reputation? Early in his presidency he had his confrontation with the leader of what WR Mead calls the axis of the ankle bitersHugo Chavezand he looked like the fool. In the exchange where Chavez gave Obama an untranslated copy of Eduardo Galleanos Open Veins of Latin America, Obama looked like an idiot. Luckily the media did not harp on Obama for this, which was not entirely Obamas fault anyway. Still the new and youthful, brainy president immediately lost some prestige. This event would make him look weak and/or sillyin a similar fashion to Kennedy and Krushchev, except that Chavez was a two-bit, motley postmodern caudillo with no nukes aimed at America and posing no threat to Western Europe (or anywhere else for that matter). In a way, it made Obama look even weaker than had he been bullied by a Krushchev, but then there is no Krushchev in the world today, is there.
As many pundits have noted, despite President Obamas campaign promises, he has been pretty strong in keeping up the Bush tactics of fighting terrorism. After all, he was the one to call for the mission that assassinated Osama bin Laden. Abstractly considered this continuation can be a good thing, but in the abstract the president has not presented a unified doctrine. Perhaps this is good too, given that the facts on the ground of international affairs usually do not follow agreed upon rules that guide or limit what the actors can or will do. Doctrines can after all make one doctrinaire, denying the needed latitude proper for statesmanship.
The Bush Doctrinei.e., treating terrorists and nations that harbor terrorists as one in the same; the willingness to use pre-emptive military force against such nations (as well as rendition, unwarranted wiretapping, waterboarding, and detention without habeas corpus against said terrorists); and all this done in the name of democracy promotion, even while it also meant that this required an uptick in domestic control for the purposes of homeland security under the Patriot Act and increased TSA surveillance and interrogation at airportshas more or less been continued by the Obama administration. Though, without a doctrine of his own, to what end is the current president pursuing these policies? To be sure, the days of waterboarding are over, and for Obama democracy promotion rhetorically halts when it is confronted with ostensible democratic uprisings in Iran and Syria. This is not easy to criticize, and times are surely extraordinarybut the willingness to keep Guantanamo open after promising to end it, while at the same time previously speaking to the citizens of the world in Berlin of the need for shared global sacrifice in the name of human rights during his presidential campaign (!), shows a confusion borne out of subsequent events which seem to be in the drivers seat. The president must have a doctrine, and we wonder what it is. Right now, if we follow the president, it seems to be s**t happens.
So what can we learn from the last ten years? It may be true that we as a nation overestimated the problem of al Qaeda and the terrorist threat, and that we may have overreacted to whatever real threat may have been there. To me this is understandable given the sheer size and symbolism of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Perhaps American foreign policy needs to be rethought in the aftermath of the Cold War, but Im not sure what else could have been done at that time Yes, it is a matter of principle. The so-called end of history which is today much pilloried, and for which Im not sure Fukuyama even deserves as much derision as he receives, has not happened. Here is a question for suggestion: Is not the conduct of the debate over much of foreign policy not similar to the way Last Men would conduct it? Are these the proper principles, i.e., democracy promotion, R2P, universal declarations of rights requiring endless peacekeeping, UNism, neoconservative or neoliberal globalism, etc.? Are they the best for us or anyone else?
Peter, in his points regarding 9/11, mentions a growing religious belief (in America and worldwide). This surely throws a wrench into the belief in the inevitable growth of rationalist liberalism and modern enlightenment, at least if that liberalism and enlightenment rigorously holds to the public reasonableness of John Rawls or the communicative action of Jurgen Habermas or the ironic liberal self-fashioning of Richard Rorty. Such discourseeven if one introduces Derridean differance, Foucauldian discourses of truth/power, Deluezean rhizomatic nomadism, Laclau and Mouffes or Nancys emphasis on melee, or Hardt and Negris notion of random decentered resistance to decentered empiresimply shows theory-bound, post-political understandings of what fate has thrown our way. None of these “late modern” and “postmodern” thinkers allow for statesmanship that simultaneously recognizes circumstance and principle. None surely offers any inspiring action towards what needs to be done when meeting the ongoing threat of terrorism. If 9/11 has shown anything, it has seriously called into question the thoeretical and practical insight of these particular thinkers. But in their absence, what are the principles guiding our foreign policy?
It is no good thing when a knowledgeable, intelligent, and thoughtful historian like James Kloppenberg presents President Obama as excellent because he represents the precise kind of cool, postmodern academic who looks like he is pragmatic, but who holds a pragmatism of sorts that is entirely of the academic kind for which there is no truth or good other than the consequences of strategic and tactical action and belief. No doubt, philosophically speaking, the truth and the good are hard things to deal with and come by. The distinction between theory and practice is surely a philosophical conundrum. At best, in politics one can perhaps only hint at the fundamental questions and problems of the truth and the good (and the beautiful), but it is hardly a one-way street, let alone a dialectical one to direct action. Rather than philosophy understood in this way, a president with the executive power surely needs to know something other than the complexity of the world and how philosophy can paint its grey on grey. But, if the pragmatist is concerned with consequences alone, then regardless of how grey things may be, he or she could make them happen regardless of means. If the president is only a pragmatist, then who knows what he is willing to do to bring about consequences he thinks are good?
To follow Peters lead, I agree that the U.S. in its culture and politics is surely too much in a decades long libertarian drift for some collective fascist or communist despotism whether hard or soft to emerge. But could one so wish to bring about an individualism in terms of private choice as an end in itself that in ones own pragmatic concerns for achieving its consequences, one could require actions which unbeknownst to ones own stated intentions seemed to contradict the very things (principles?) that one thought one stood for in the first place? This is a problem, but we should feel blessed that such confusion would require a justification to most people. Like Thrasymachus, such academic pragmatism’s pride in complexity and nuance would render it impossible in terms of persuasion. In this way, pragmatism is sheer confusion, and is exemplary of what in the 1970s President Carter meant by malaise, even if he never used that actual word, and was himself part of the actual problem of that he diagnosed.
I suspect that the confusion in President Obamas foreign policy is likewise indicative in his domestic economic policy too. The jobs speech of a couple of nights ago is too little too late, and more or less the same stimulus notion of 2009, albeit with less money spent and a few tax breaks included. Im skeptical of this approach once again. However, as an alternative I should say that Rick Perrys bravado regarding his supposed excellent tenure as Governor of Texas and his calling out Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” do not inspire much confidence in this regard either. Even if it is a “Ponzi scheme” in some regards, it is not a “Ponzi scheme” in the regard that matters most—it is not illegal.
Ten years after 9/11, we hear much of American decline. The signs are not good, and one need not be an exceptionalist and believer in Manifest Destiny to avoid dismay for the diminishment of ones own county. Rampant confusion in foreign and domestic policy by both parties, coupled with intense demands to do something right here and now, leaves me both unpersuaded and worried. I recognize that I am just one person in this regard, but even I found Mark Steyn’s “happy declinism” in After America a bracing read. By the way, he is not all doom and gloom, he just doesn’t want to shortchange them in his account.
So apart from remembering the facts of the horrific attack of 9/11, the ten years remembrance ought also to require the rethinking of the fundamentals of politics that are already there and perhaps always there. In this light, one must ask what truly important questions confront this nation beyond terrorism. At the beginning of this post, I noted that after the attacks, things accelerated to such an extent that it was hard to speak of them. Barring another terrorist attack, perhaps the tenth anniversary is an opportunity that can afford some time out to think things over.
Of course action is required, but so is deliberation about the best means to a good that could be understandable by most, if not all.
However, current political divisions in this country may be as such that this is impossible. Kants nation of devils and all that that entails may be the result of our incessant emphasis on autonomy.
So Peter may be right in simply pointing out a growing religious belief in the U.S. and elsewhere. It may well be the best hope for achieving a community capable of deliberation with a view toward what is good.