One of the stranger aspects of 9/11 is how long ago it seems – until, once again, it seems like yesterday. Part of the reason for this is that, especially for those of us who were nearby when the attacks came, the physical facts of that day and the weeks that followed were fundamentally unassimilable. How could anyone ever assimilate, for example, the idea that on their way to work they smelled burning flesh? At the time, people often said the whole thing was like a dream. Dreams are stories that hold together, yet never really make much sense.
9/11 was like that.
Americans’ struggle to make political sense of 9/11 has also been dreamlike. Each action and reaction since then served as part of an ongoing story, yet the story as a whole never made sense and still doesn’t. The war on terror, the march of democracy.… The events and raw emotions of 9/11 were so quickly and persistently hitched to one agenda or another that we never had the time to experience and resolve them within ourselves.
Reactions to the mosque
The recent reactions to the so-called ground-zero mosque have felt like some long delayed post-traumatic stress disorder symptom. For that, political or religious demagogy is not good therapy. Indeed, it has been tried enough already, and failed. Instead, we as Americans need to revisit 9/11, in order to see how and why we did what we did. We need to make 9/11 less exploitable. Doing so would help us end the dream so we can again write our destiny in the real world.
If we revisit 9/11 and its aftermath with fresh eyes, we’ll see a series of unbalanced contests: We were in a religious war in which only one side had religion. We were in a fantastically expensive high-tech war against people who lived in caves. We were in a fight for universal values but couldn’t find allies. We were not fighting a nation-state so much as we were fighting terror – a state of mind. Our own state of mind. Just like in a dream.
For these past nine years the non-American world has gone along with its own dreams and its own realities. America has always been exceptional. And for the past nine years it has been exceptionally estranged from the global ebb and flow.
We Americans see the world refracted through 9/11. Nobody else does. And having entered the world nine years ago propelled by 9/11 we are now withdrawing from it, all but abandoned by our allies, with only vague plans for the future. Apparently we have been living through a parenthetical decade.
Destiny of this generation
In a speech last month to disabled veterans, President Obama hit two interesting notes. One was generational: He asserted that this generation – the much-too-young-for-Vietnam generation, basically his generation (and mine) and younger – has, “by any measure….earned [its] place among the greatest of generations.” Have we really? I wonder.
Our soldiers fights as well as ever, of course, but days after 9/11 we were urged to go shopping as an expression of defiant normalcy. And ever since there has been a tendency – frequently contradicted, but stronger than ever today – to minimize the challenges this generation faces.
The other note was transformational: He emphasized American confidence that “our destiny is never written for us, it’s written by us.” But can we really say that we wrote our destiny in Iraq, or in Afghanistan?
Mr. Obama may have reached the right conclusions but he reached them too soon. His generation has not yet run its course, and we are not especially in control of our destiny. This is because most of our foreign policy has been shaped by the tremendous, and justifiable, fears unleashed by 9/11.
Our destiny, in fact, lies elsewhere, in the global power shifts we all recognize yet before which we have been strangely passive.
Leaders in a global change
The movement of political and economic power and ideological dominance away from the West – for centuries, the center of the world – has in recent years become a geopolitical commonplace. Yet no nation or group of nations has undertaken to lead this global process of change that every nation nonetheless realizes is occurring. It is an extraordinary vacuum. And the United States is uniquely suited to fill it.
Why? Because the US has always kept a distance from Europe, for better as well as worse. Because the US is fundamentally anti-imperial and, as a culture, fundamentally open. Because the American project is, by general agreement, unfinished and even unfinishable.
And because its current president is himself uniquely suited to this historical moment. I say that not as a compliment to the man but as a statement of fact. He is the first president to embody this country’s characteristic ethnic and religious openness, its fluidity of identity. He is an exemplar of class mobility. And he knows it. In his celebrated campaign speech on race – indeed, throughout the campaign – he turned what might have been a liability into an unassailable advantage. It was very American. It was the truest thing about him. As president, in his celebrated Cairo speech last year about relations with the Muslim world, he took this American quality onto a global stage: the race speech writ large.
The September 11 attacks were clarifying in some ways, but they were also distorting. They have distracted the country from its real opportunities. Multilateral reforms and global reapportionment are waiting to be achieved. The US can and should lead.
Scott Malcomson is the author of “Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power after 9/11” published this week.