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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?
To deal with those complex issues, I was fortunate in being able to call on some of the most respected figures on the progressive left. They responded with a series of thoughtful, informed and provocative essays that have appeared in our pages. Among them: the late scholar-philosopher-activist Edward Said demolishing the clash of civilizations argument; Mary Kaldor on the new wars and civil society’s role in halting terrorism; Michael T. Klare on Saudi-US relations and the geopolitics of oil; Ellen Willis on homefront conformity; Chalmers Johnson on blowback and the role of US foreign policy; William Greider on war profiteering; Bill Moyers on Americans’ restored faith in government; John le Carré on why this war can’t be won. Our regular columnists weighed in with their independent takes. And peace and disarmament editor Jonathan Schell filed a weekly “Letter From Ground Zero”–lucid, illuminating, frightening, humane essays that advanced the case for sensible and moral nonmilitary actions.
The Nation has a long tradition of providing a forum for a broad spectrum of left/progressive views, which sometimes erupted in spirited debates in those weeks after 9/11. Christopher Hitchens’s column, “Against Rationalization,” which castigated those on the left who drew a causal relationship between US foreign policy in the Middle East and the terrorist acts, provoked a heated exchange with Noam Chomsky. This exchange ran on our website and drew a raft of comments, with readers almost equally divided. Richard Falk’s article “Defining a Just War” also provoked numerous letters pro and con.
As a fog of national security enveloped official Washington and the war front and the mainstream media enlisted in the Administration’s war–flag logos flying–the need for an independent, critical press seemed never more urgent. The speedy passage of the repressive PATRIOT Act, with scarcely a murmur of dissent in Congress, the secret detentions of more than 1,000 people and the establishment of military tribunals were troubling signs that a wartime crackdown on civil liberties was under way and called for vigorous opposition. Criticizing government policy in wartime is not a path to popularity. Our independent stand on the war and criticism of what we called “policy profiteering” by conservative Republicans in Congress (who sought to use the war as a pretext to push through their own agenda) drew virulent attacks by the pundits and publications of the right, who questioned our patriotism and trotted out the old chestnut of the left’s “anti-Americanism.”
Such attacks are nothing new. The Nation has always marched to a different drummer, opposing US involvement in the Spanish-American War and World War I and the Vietnam War, while giving all-out support to the US effort in World War II. Former Nation editor Ernest Gruening of Alaska was one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to the Vietnam morass. As Eric Foner wrote in the days after the attacks, “At times of crisis the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil liberties, the right to dissent.” Also in times of crisis, the enduring concerns of this magazine and progressives take on new relevance: the dangers of American unilateralism, corrosion of civil liberties, authoritarianism in any nation, dependence on Big Oil, military quagmire and the urgent necessity of international law and institutions.
The commentary this magazine has published in the five years since the 9/11 attacks was designed to inform honest debate in this country on key questions that confront us and to enable us to ask hard questions of policy-makers and the media. It is my hope that the ideas expressed here will guide and enrich the policies that will–and must–come.