When it comes to the events of September 11, everyone is an expert and no one is. Everyone, because the attacks and their consequences had the rare character of a universal event. Few in the world have been left untouched by them, from New York City schoolchildren to Kabul shopkeepers. No one, because, as Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda put it in their introduction to The Age of Terror, "this was something new under the sun."
Or was it? Did we lose our innocence on September 11? Were the attacks a turning point in human history, like the smashing of the atom or the fall of the Berlin wall? Will we never be the same again?
These are the kinds of large questions that have been kicking around since September 11, and it's easy to understand, given the suddenness of the attacks, the scale of the horror and the intensity of the response, why they have been posed. My own view, reinforced by a look at five collections of essays written after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is that it is too soon to tell. Some of the initial analysis is already looking dated or much too optimistic about the changed landscape. And in any event, it's important to be careful about the "we" packed into these questions, and alert to signs that September 11 is being used more often to reinforce entrenched views across the political spectrum than to challenge settled assumptions.
In time, books about what happened on September 11 and its aftermath will no doubt constitute a virtual cottage industry, perhaps occupying their own section at the local Borders or Barnes & Noble. For now, though, the first out of the box are compilations of essays and articles. It must be said at the outset that any book conceived and written in the span of a few months is at best an album of snapshots of a moment, and that while each of the books reflects a particular political orientation and sensibility, none of them constitute a sustained argument or a monolithic point of view.
Two of the books emerge from institutions of the establishment center: How Did This Happen?, edited by James F. Hoge and Gideon Rose, the editor and managing editor of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations; and The Age of Terror, edited by former Deputy Secretary of State Talbott (director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, soon-to-be president of the Brookings Institution) and Chanda, the center's publications director.
Despite the fact that no military or national security authority anticipated the stunningly simple way unspeakable damage was wrought on September 11, these two books want to reassure us with "experts." How Did This Happen? promises readers it will answer that question "in all its critical aspects" by bringing together "experts whose insights make the events of that terrible day more understandable, even as we steel ourselves for the conflicts ahead." The Age of Terror promises that an "agenda-setting team of experts" will begin to tell us "what happened here and why," and "examine the considerations and objectives of policy decisions in post-September 11 America."
In other words, Sisters Mary Yale and Harvard Explain It All to You. Except that most of these experts turn out to be men: Only three women are among the twenty-six writers in the Hoge/Rose book, a group that includes a former national security adviser, NATO commander and Secretary of Defense; and only one is among the eight academics in The Age of Terror. (The paucity of female "experts" in these pages, while appalling, is hardly limited to the books in question; a recent report by the White House Project kept track of appearances on the leading Sunday television news and public affairs interview programs and determined that after September 11 the percentage of female guests–only 11 percent to begin with–dropped by 39 percent. That's almost as much of a gender shutout as in prewar Afghanistan under the Taliban.)
The first few essays in the Hoge/Rose book try to explain Islam, marshaling scholars and writers like Fouad Ajami and Karen Armstrong. Walter Laqueur provides a look at "The Changing Face of Terror," and then there are a few pieces each on the impact on US intelligence, security, and diplomatic, military and economic policy. The Talbott/ Chanda book follows a similar template, touching fewer bases.
The three other early collections to emerge since September 11 bear a surface similarity to the Hoge/Rose and Talbott/ Chanda books. They, too, have portentous subtitles ("Conversations in a Time of Terror," "Beyond the Curtain of Smoke," "Solutions for a Saner World"). All the books bear a cover photograph of the crumbling World Trade Center towers (except Another World Is Possible, which has a silhouette of the pre-September 11 lower Manhattan skyline; The Age of Terror also features a Coca-Cola truck amid the Ground Zero debris, perhaps befitting the work of a center on globalization). And they all attempt to survey various aspects of the post- September 11 world. But there the resemblance ends.
If the editors and authors of The Age of Terror and How Did This Happen? seek to explain September 11, in effect, to themselves–to those who take as a given a world led by a benign United States, in other words–those who compiled and contributed to the other three books are accustomed to their marginalization as critics of the prevailing world order. They might well be living in a parallel universe.
In ascending order of marginalization, After 9/11: Solutions for a Saner World emerges from the San Francisco-based Independent Media Institute. Among its contributors are many who have written for this magazine, including its editor, and such stars of the progressive punditocracy as Barbara Ehrenreich, Jim Hightower and Arianna Huffington. It's in many ways the most comfortable to me of these books, more critical of the existing world order than the "expert" editions but more engaged with it than the other two volumes. But it left less of an impression on me, as well. While there is some overlap between it and September 11 and the U.S. War: Beyond the Curtain of Smoke (for example, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy and Michael Klare appear in both), the latter volume, published by City Lights Books and Freedom Voices, delivers us an angrier, more sectarian left–the kind of book that contains an oil pipeline map and ends with a poem telling us that the planes that crashed on September 11 were made by "the same billionaire wing-makers whose jets burned the sky over Baghdad, Panama City, Grenada, the Mekong." September 11 and the U.S. War, like After 9/11, consists almost entirely of brief, Op-Ed-length articles that have appeared elsewhere. Unlike After 9/11 (which is dedicated to "the everyday heroes who rose to the challenge of 9/11"), there is barely room in this volume for a nod to the human toll–in the United States, anyway–of the violence inflicted on that day. The editors and authors get straight to business in stating their "dissent from the bellicose actions" taken by the United States, exposing, as they talk about Eduardo Galeano, author of the lead essay, the "fundamental falsehoods of US militarism and its mirrored evils abroad."
The third of the books by the marginalized, Another World Is Possible, was produced by six activists in their 20s affiliated with the Active Element Foundation. If After 9/11 is Tracy Chapman, and September 11 and the U.S. War is Pete Seeger, Another World Is Possible is Rage Against the Machine. The contributors are trying, in the words of Kofi Taha's brief foreword, to "find a language that evokes love, compassion and critical thought in the face of tragedy," and to recognize "this pivotal moment in human history that will either positively propel us forward or plunge us in ever-deepening despair."
One of the positive things about Another World Is Possible is the way the editors disagree with one another–two of them even question whether its subtitle, "Conversations in a Time of Terror," is too "American-centric." Walidah Imarisha, an artist, poet and "rabble-rouser," doesn't like it because "it's been a time of terror for folks of color, in and out of this country, for centuries." Shaffy Moeel, a former reporter for youth radio, thinks Americans should understand that terror is what is faced by 25 million Africans with HIV who can't afford treatment drugs and by Iraqi children deprived of food and medicine. And the authors here don't always take themselves as seriously as some others on the left: It's refreshing to read that Beka Economopoulos, another of the editors and a trainer for the Ruckus Society, avoided the "sectarian and process-heavy" meetings called by the left in the days after September 11.
Another thing that makes this book more compelling than its counterparts is the contribution of Jeremy Glick, a graduate student at Rutgers and one of the editors. On the one hand, much of his writing seems as "sectarian and process-heavy" as any in the collection's pages (and there is plenty of that). On the other, Glick's father was killed in Tower One on September 11, and he writes movingly of what happened to him in the weeks afterward when he experienced a "complete collapse of the public/private."
Another World Is Possible is also more original and graphically lively than any of the other books, containing interviews, photographs and even a running e-mail exchange among the editors, begun on September 11 when several of them weren't sure whether the Jeremy Glick among the casualties was their friend and contemporary or his father.
One way to measure the appeal of these books–or any, really–is whether they manage to surprise us, or tell us something we didn't know. In After 9/11, I was surprised to find peace activist Riane Eisler, president of the Center for Partnership Studies, telling interviewer Helen Knode that she supports a "military response against terrorist bases in nations that fund and support terrorism," because "if you've got a psychopath lunging at you with a knife, that's not the time to talk about peace and love." I was informed, if somewhat amused, by Dr. Michael Bader's examination of the post-September 11 "terror sex" phenomenon–that "some of us get turned on by disasters…because disasters make us unconsciously feel safe to be sexual." (That made me wish they were still making new Seinfelds–oh, the possibilities!)
In Another World Is Possible, I was taken with the editors' ability to unearth quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. that have been largely forgotten in the process of his near-canonization, like these lines from his 1967 Riverside Church sermon: "I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
In How Did This Happen?, I learned from Greg Easterbrook's piece on airline security that it would be sensible to equip planes with transponders that can't be turned on and off by pilots in a hijacking, except automatically upon takeoff and landing. From Stephen Flynn's sobering article, "The Unguarded Homeland," I got a sense of the vulnerability of the harbors of Long Beach, California, and Port Everglades, Florida, and of what a huge disruption it would be to the residents of those states if the oil tankers docked there were attacked in the manner employed against the USS Cole in Yemen. From Walter Laqueur I learned that suicide bombing is not the exclusive province of Islamic terrorists–Sri Lankan Tamils have a higher per capita rate of them, but they are neither Muslim nor religiously motivated. And William Wechsler, a former adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury, writing about efforts to cut off Al Qaeda's financial support, sheds fascinating light on Osama bin Laden's rise. He didn't attain prestige by "leading an army into battle" or "valor in combat"–the source of his power is his fundraising prowess. So for terrorists, it seems, as for politicians, success increasingly comes through the ability to raise large amounts of money.
In The Age of Terror, I appreciated the fresh and provocative perspective of Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution, writing on the "challenge to science" posed by September 11: that "millions of people in poor nations [who] watch their children die of diseases we have not seen in generations" may not see "the introduction of dangerous biological and chemical agents into our relatively clean environments" as so horrible. Perhaps, Singer writes, "the willingness of terrorists to die for a cause we find unfathomable may be influenced by the fact that life spans in their societies are in any case short."
Nothing in September 11 and the U.S. War surprised me.
A number of the essays in these books, particularly in the two "expert" volumes, seem much too optimistic or have already been superseded by events. In How Did This Happen?, economist Martin Baily calmly assesses the economic impact of the World Trade Center attacks, including the effect on the recession, unemployment and the globalization debate, concluding blandly that "economic fears will be overcome." A few pages later, Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, writes that it will be difficult for Democrats to shift to the left or Republicans to the right, and that "screaming talk show hosts" who blame "their favorite targets" for the World Trade Center attacks will find no one listening. Has he watched The O'Reilly Factor lately? Wolfe observes with approval that "Bush's support has broadened as his proposals have become more inclusive." I would have liked a dose here of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's relentless, dead-on exposure of the way the Bush Administration has used the cloak of war to disguise an ideological agenda of tax cuts for the rich and privatized Social Security.
In The Age of Terror, Yale history professor Abbas Amanat writes of hopeful signs in the calls for "open society, coexistence and rule of law" in Iran. These are hopeful, indeed, and call for a sensitive and nuanced response by the United States. But it is harder to keep such hopes alive when the burgeoning forces of democratization in Iran are greeted with a US policy–set forth by President Bush in the State of the Union address after Amanat's essay went to press–pronouncing that nation one of three countries in an "axis of evil" that the United States must vanquish now that it is finishing up in Afghanistan.
Paul Kennedy, another Yale history professor and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, applauds the post-September 11 disappearance of US unilateralism. It was certainly possible to think, in the days and weeks following the attacks, as Washington set about lining up the support of other nations for its campaign against terrorism, that we had come to the end of a dismal period in which, only a week before, the United States had walked out of the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, having already thumbed its nose at treaties on global warming and the International Criminal Court. But that optimism doesn't seem warranted now, in the mood of US triumphalism surrounding the perceived success of the go-it-alone approach.
Finally, a few of the contributions are, simply put, a bit bizarre. In The Age of Terror, Charles Hill, a former aide to Secretaries of State Kissinger, Haig and Shultz, writes, as if to shake his head at misguided priorities, "In the aftermath of the September 11 mass murders, many Americans admirably rushed to recommit themselves to civil liberties and respect for the rights of individuals who share the appearance, ethnicity or faith of the terrorist enemies of the U.S." On this planet? In the country I'm living in, the Attorney General rushed to apprehend thousands of immigrants without charges or access to public counsel, sent FBI agents to question 5,000 more and impugned the patriotism of those who dared to challenge his policies. The President rushed to set up military tribunals, akin to those we have condemned when used by Peru or Turkey, to try suspected terrorists. Hill goes on: "Over the past few decades, Americans have begun to fall prey to an inverse version of the conspiracy-theory mentality: that virtually every problem in the world can be attributed to some fault of ours." Not that I've noticed. Maybe he's been spending too much time reading September 11 and the U.S. War.
Harold Hongju Koh, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is virtually alone in both of the mainstream volumes in raising the alarm about the serious challenges to civil liberties and human rights brought on by the US response to September 11. Aside from Michael Mandelbaum's essay in How Did This Happen?, only Koh seems concerned about the US tendency to overlook the human rights abuses of "friendly" states, from our allies in the cold war to those in the campaign against terrorism. And only he condemns the rapid resort to "crisis restrictions" on civil liberties and the "oppressive orthodoxy" of "patriotic correctness"–a nice turn of phrase that I hope catches on–that swept the country in the weeks and months following the attacks.
Yet even Koh, in his eagerness to demonstrate that it's possible to combat terrorism and protect civil liberties, overstates the experience of "our fellow democracies like Britain and Israel…in balancing a crisis atmosphere, a forceful response, and strenuous efforts to increase homeland security, with a sustained commitment to domestic civil liberties." For a different view, the latest issue of Index on Censorship, the London-based human rights magazine, reports the testimony of the British rights organization Liberty before Parliament's Home Affairs Committee that twenty-five years of antiterrorism laws in Britain have led to "appalling human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice, and the unnecessary detention of thousands of innocent, mostly Irish, people."
Civil liberties are under greater strain in the United States than at any time in recent memory; the Taliban are nearly routed in Afghanistan. That much is clear at this writing. Beyond that, it's almost impossible to predict the longer-term impact of the World Trade Center attacks. In fact, what's remarkable to me about some cataclysmic political events of the past few years, which totally absorbed public and media attention for months on end and which were widely assumed to have altered the political equation in fundamental ways, even calling into question the legitimacy of all three branches of government (I'm thinking here about the impeachment and trial of President Clinton and the crisis over the 2000 presidential election, finally resolved by a highly suspect ruling of the Supreme Court) is not how much they changed American life and politics but how quickly they faded from consciousness, and how little enduring impact they seem to have had. September 11, we are endlessly told, transformed George W. Bush into a leader and erased any lingering doubts about his legitimacy. But in fact, for most Americans, whatever they thought of his competence or policies, doubts about his right to be there had virtually evaporated by the time of the inauguration, and only weeks into Bush's presidency it was quite easy to forget the extraordinary means by which he had reached it.
President Clinton was supposed to be fatally wounded, first by Kenneth Starr's disclosure of what he did with Monica Lewinsky–few public figures aside from Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee have had to endure such a detailed public account of their sexual activities–and then by having to stand in the dock for it. There is no doubt that Clinton's energies and attention were diverted by the trials visited upon him by the independent prosecutor and the Republican-controlled House and Senate. But life went on, and it's hard to see any enduring damage to the political system. Monica Lewinsky is a minor celebrity, popping up on HBO and Larry King Live, and Hillary Clinton chums it up in the Senate with dozens of colleagues who voted to oust her husband from office.
A historian might say it is too soon to assess the impact of either the impeachment or the election, and some may think it trivializes the crimes of September 11 to discuss them in the same breath with the perfidies of Kenneth Starr and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Perhaps it does, and I recognize that the events of September 11 sent waves far beyond the shores of US politics and culture. But it is possible to think that the political and diplomatic consequences of September 11–not the personal trauma of thousands of lives forever disrupted by murder, or the psychic scars borne by millions from the violence witnessed and spawned that day–may be far less significant than the conventional wisdom now allows, or at least that it is too soon to tell.
I must also confess skepticism, after reading so many thousands of words written about September 11, from across the political spectrum, that anyone's view of the world has been very much changed. What strikes me most forcefully is how virtually everyone with an opinion or an orientation has cut 9/11 to fit his or her preconceived agenda. The crude and outrageous assertion by Jerry Falwell that gays and abortion-rights activists are to blame for the attacks on the World Trade Center was roundly denounced from all quarters, but there are plenty of other people using the events of September 11 to ride their favorite hobbyhorse.
In The Age of Terror, for instance, Niall Ferguson, an Oxford professor of political and financial history, starts out usefully enough, challenging the military historian John Keegan's assertion that he could not find parallels for September 11. (Ferguson cites the Japanese kamikaze pilots, German use of anthrax in the First World War and the rash of 1970s hijackings.) But by the end of his essay he is urging a "proper role for imperial America" in "imposing democracy on all the world's 'rogue states.'" At the other end of the spectrum, Wendell Berry, writing in September 11 and the U.S. War, hopes that the attacks ended "technological and economic euphoria."
But since, as I suggested at the outset, everyone is entitled to be an expert on this subject, I would like to ride two of my own hobbyhorses for a moment.
The first is about the "we" that the editors and most of the contributors to the two mainstream volumes claim to speak for and to. The brief introductory essay by Hoge and Rose in How Did This Happen?, for example, laments the loss of the "open, secure life Americans took for granted"–a frequently voiced sentiment in recent months that seems unobjectionable at first. But did all Americans take such a life for granted before September 11? Did young African-American men feel secure on the streets of New York City after Amadou Diallo? Or single mothers in East New York who put their children to bed in the bathtub to keep them safe from drive-by shootings at the peak of the crack epidemic?
That's not terrorism, one might respond. Fair enough. Did doctors and nurses working in abortion clinics feel the benefits of an open and secure life after Dr. Barnett Slepian was gunned down? Did such shootings, and a wave of arson and bombing and anthrax threats, have the desired effect of suppressing a woman's right to choose in many parts of the United States? You bet they did. Some communities have always lived with the threat of terror. One thing September 11 did was democratize the fear.
The second hobbyhorse is closely connected, and it has to do with the media's–well, ultimately, the democracy's–failure to do its job in equipping citizens to exercise any meaningful stewardship over the country's role around the world. The disconnection of US foreign policy from democratic discourse is profound. On this point, After 9/11 is strongest, providing a forum for Danny Schechter's argument that "the structure and orientation of our media system and its abandonment of international news…has fueled two cultures, virtually segregated from one another. A small elite operates globally with a 'need to know,' and most people are in effect told they do not."
Is there any chance this picture will change? That Americans will insist on being better informed about the world and the US role in it, and on a foreign policy that respects international law and institutions and the need to act in concert with other democratic nations? That the spirit of community and "everyday heroism" that moved New York and the nation in the weeks after September 11 has sparked a deeper and more enduring sense of civic responsibility and a more inclusive sense of community? That politics-as-usual will be set aside in order to address enduring inequities, here and around the world?
Too soon to tell.