Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fifteen Years Later: Thinking About the Lessons of 9/11

Before last fall, I had not visited the site since the spring of 2002
I did a bit of media stuff the past few days that prompted me to think a bit about 9/11 and what we have learned.  Also, as I was thinking about the annual 9/11 post, I was trying to figure out what to say that would be different or just repeat the usual story.  This year, a key part of my 9/11 story resonates more than ever before--that the officers I was with were desperate to get back into the building so that we could deposit our classified documents rather than take them home.   Thanks to this election, we are all now far more aware of classified materials and the need to be responsible.

Anyhow, over dinner a couple of days ago, I happened to talk to Mrs. Spew about an exercise I did on the first day of class when I was teaching smaller classes.  I would ask the students what their first international political memory.  You can tell how long I have been in the business by tracking the evolution of the answers:
So many first responders died, devastating NYFD and PD.
  • Started with either Grenada or Falklands
  • Moved on to students first memory being Iran-Contra
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall lasted for a few years with the Gulf War of 1991 starting to resonate more
  • Then Bosnia and Rwanda dominated the answers up until
  • 9/11
And then I realized that if I taught such classes now (only grad classes these days), 9/11 would no longer be in the lived memory of the new generation of undergrads.  International events rarely impact three year olds.  Wow.

Anyhow, I have realized that as time moves us further away, the stories of that day move me more and more.  See here, here, here, here, and here.  Indeed, it gets mighty dusty in the Spew cave when I read such stuff now.  I didn't cry on 9/11.  Probably too shocked, stunned and angry.  Now, I am mostly sad when this stuff comes up.  Why?  First, the stories are very sad, about the heroes who lost their lives.

Second, they gain greater resonance as we seem to be unlearning the lessons of that day.  One of George W. Bush's greatest contributions (he had a few) was making it clear that Islamophobia was not the right response to 9/11.  Alas, politicians, not just Trump, have decided to scapegoat Muslims for the crimes of their less moderate "kin".
Part of the memorial

Third, 9/11 and the fear mongering since have created perceptions that we are more in danger now than before 9/11.  Well, it depends on your point of comparison, but Americans are not really that much more at risk--the number of Americans killed by Islamist terrorism every year is quite low and lower than the number killed by white supremacists.  For Europeans, things seem much more dangerous, but the danger is comparable to the 1970s, yet they didn't panic and seek to exclude large groups back then.  It is far more dangerous in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya.  But not in the West, so perhaps we should try not to overreact.

Fourth, speaking of the Mideast and beyond, I am sad that the US got distracted by the Iraq fixation.  I am not sure we could have been successful in Afghanistan, but I am pretty sure we would have had a better chance had we done more earlier.  Obama's surge came many years too late.  Lots of lost opportunities.

Fifth, I am sad because 9/11 facilitated Iraq (no, 9/11 was not caused by Bush, but his team took advantage of it), and Iraq was not just so very costly to Iraqis and to Americans and to our allies, but also this mistake is what caused ISIS to exist.

Sixth, we will never know what the US could have done with the political capital, the support, accumulated in the immediate aftermath of the attack.  It was wasted as the Bush Administration focused on Iraq and precious little else.  And that makes me sad.

So, I have many reasons to be sad on this day every year, as do we all.  15 years have gone by, and the impact of that day continues to reverberate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suspect that the current 18 year olds are much like the 18 year olds in, say, 1973. For them, America has always been at war. They don't remember 9/11 any more than the earlier generation remembered anything about the origins of the war in Southeast Asia.

Come to think of it, this generation has never really had a 9/11-JFK-Challenger-John Lennon moment. Let's hope they never do. But realistically...