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“On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world. A patch of blue sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline…. the heavens were raining human beings. Our city was changed forever. Our country was changed forever. Our world was changed forever.” So wrote Jonathan Schell in the first issue of The Nation following September 11, 2001.
At The Nation‘s office, in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, like everyone else in America we watched television–horrified, saddened, angry. People wept, and at the same time took notes and got on the phones. For we had an issue closing the next day. We quickly learned that our communications links to the outer world were severed–our phone lines had run under World Trade Center 7. So, in those first days, we had no incoming calls and the office computer links to the Internet were down. The facts were sketchy and causes of the attack shrouded in a pall of uncertainty thick as the smog rising from the demolished World Trade Center.
The issue that we assembled and put to bed the next day struck a tone and purpose that the magazine has striven to maintain in the past five years. Paying respect to the human reactions of anger, hurt and grief, our editorials in that first week, and in the ones that followed, have made the case for an effective and just response to the horrific terrorist acts. We argued that such a response may include discriminate use of military force but that the most promising and effective way to halt terrorism lies in bringing those responsible to justice through nonmilitary actions in cooperation with the global community and within a framework of domestic and international law. As Richard Falk warned in his indispensable “A Just Response,” the “justice of the cause” would be “negated by the injustice of improper means and excessive ends.”
As the US military response unfolded in the ensuing days, there seemed to be more questions than answers. Who is Osama bin Laden? What is the involvement of the Taliban? What are we doing in Afghanistan anyway? Did US foreign policy create historic resentments and injustices abroad that spawned the terrible attacks? What is the best way for this country to address the root causes of terrorism? What are the aims of the war on it? What are its limits? What is the potential political and human fallout? Who are our allies? What role should the United Nations play? How to limit civilian casualties and provide humanitarian relief? As autumn in New York merged into Ramadan and Afghanistan’s winter, these questions only deepened. It is striking how the essential themes laid out in The Nation in those initial weeks, far from being outrun by events, have gained in resonance.
One of my roles as editor has been to figure out the bridge from personal to political. How do you balance individual grief and anger at the attacks with proportionality, justice and wisdom in response? How do we reconcile legitimate fear of future attacks with protection of civil liberties, and carry on a political debate that doesn’t ignore concerns of economic and social justice?