The attacks of September 11 were many things. Among the most important, we can see now that a decade has passed, is that they were a portal into a phantasmal world, in which the United States has wandered ever since.
The great crime itself eerily foreshadowed the trend by fusing the real with the unreal, the actual with the apocryphal. With its use of passenger-laden aircraft to smash into giant buildings filled with office workers, it was designed to create blood-soaked spectacle, to bring movie-type horror to life. The World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were clearly chosen for their symbolic value. And then, in a chance twist, unanticipated even by the attacks’ planners (one is tempted to say “producers”), the consequences expanded further into the realm of fantasy when not one but both of the towers fell, as if mischievous gods had sided for the moment with the evildoers.
The United States, as if picking up Osama bin Laden’s cue, keyed its response to the apocalyptic symbolism, not the genuine but limited reality of the threat from Al Qaeda. It accepted bin Laden’s brilliantly stage-managed inflation of his own importance. Soon, the foreign policy as well as the domestic politics of the United States were revolving like a pinwheel around Al Qaeda and the global threat it allegedly posed. Al Qaeda was absurdly likened to the Soviet Union in the cold war and Hitler in World War II, and treated accordingly. “Threat inflation” has a long history in US policy, from the “missile gap” of the 1950s to the Vietnam War, but never has it been so extensively indulged.
Now real, immense forces were in play, for the power of the United States was real and immense, and what it did was truly global in reach and consequence. In his address to Congress nine days after the attack, George W. Bush expanded the “war on terror” to states, declaring, “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” The policy of “regime change” was born, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were launched in its name. There was more. In a speech a few months later, Bush announced, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” In other words, he claimed nothing less than an American monopoly on the effective use of force in the world. The famous White House policy paper of September 2002, the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” touted the American ideals of “freedom, democracy, and free enterprise” as the “single sustainable model for national success.” Politicians and pundits explicitly embraced a global imperial vocation for the United States.
Yet no sooner had America’s global imperial hegemony been proclaimed than it began to disintegrate. The two regime-change wars, designed as warnings to other governments that might consider crossing the will of the United States, quickly turned into the studies in bloody futility that they remain a decade later, with no clear end in sight for either. No sequels were feasible, either militarily or politically. The pseudo-threat had given rise to a pseudo-empire, which was no sooner launched than it began to crumble. The newly proclaimed American empire rose and flopped in the same motion. The price in suffering for those caught up in this performance, whether in Afghanistan and Iraq or elsewhere, was incomparably higher than that in the United States.