Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9-11: Looking back and looking forward

Last year, on the 10th anniversary of 9-11, I didn't really have much to say. I avoided the subject, more or less, and offered no look back to the moment, no "where was I and what was I doing" kind of article, which was basically what everyone else in both the blogosphere in general and the punditry world in particular was doing. There was also some "what-iffing" going on, pieces wondering what things would be like if 9-11 had never happened.

This year, for the 11th anniversary of 9-11, Niall Ferguson offers a look at a potential world where there was no 9-11. Ferguson correctly notes a great truth that far too many do not know or tend to forget:
Yet to conclude that 9/11 didn’t change much is to misunderstand the historical process. The world is a seriously complex place, and a small change to the web of events can have huge consequences. Our difficulty is imagining what those consequences might have been.
He notes the above in response to polling data from the time before 9-11 as compared to the current world, where--somewhat surprisingly in my opinion--roughly the same percentage of Americans (12-13%) thing the United States should be the lone superpower, the undisputed leader of the Free World, and an even lower percentage are in favor of higher defense spending (33% then, 26% now).

But 9-11 was over a decade ago. And memories are short. Many people who are adults now where not in 2001. Many people who where alive in 2001 have since died. Everyone else is eleven years older, with new concerns, new life stages and problems to deal with, and encumbered by daily concerns--by and large--that are different today, as opposed to then. Thus, the comparison says far less about how things haven't changed and more about how people are quick to fall into familiar patterns and mindsets, how even supposedly significant events fail to move them.

On the Grand Scale of historical change, 9-11 is not one of the most significant events in world history. While it may be an important event in U.S. history, I'm not sure it rises--even there--to the level of significance of other events, like the World Wars, the Civil War, the Civil Right Movement, the Great Depression, and so on. Because what's really critical are those familiar patterns and mindsets, whether or not a given event permanently changes what most take to be the norm for day to day existence.

True, we still deal with repercussions from 9-11, perhaps most notably in air travel and the new lack of convenience in the same, owing to the DHS and the TSA. Air travel is not quite what it was in the time before 9-11. Though it's only fair to note that air travel had risen to new levels of prominence in those years before the attacks. More and more people were traveling more and more frequently. Only a few decades before, air travel was a luxury for the great majority of the populace, something reserved for a special event. And today--despite the added hassle of the experience--Americans are back on the planes in full force, if not even moreso.

Still, 9-11 continues to loom large in the American psyche, but to what end? Apart from the issue being a political football and a "rah-rah" moment, what else is it today? Very little, in my opinion.

Don't misunderstand me, I remember 9-11. And I'm certain I will not forget it. But I remember it for the real lesson it should have taught us all: the world is an unsafe place, there has never been and never will be a world free from the possibility of such heinous actions. Those who cite it for political reasons have lost sight of this for the most part, on all sides of the political spectrum. 9-11 teaches us neither to attempt placating those who would do us harm nor to intimidate the same. Again, it teaches us--or it should--to accept the reality of an always-dangerous world.

And in that regard, the correct response or mindset to 9-11 is a simple thing: a pragmatic willingness to accept the consequences of a dangerous world, of a world full of inequality, full of conflict over resources. Such consequences need not include living in fear or even with unwieldy security measures, such as those currently in vogue at U.S. airports. But they must include a willingness by the U.S. Government to act in its own interests, in preference to either playing policeman to the world or sacrificing those interests in some kind of misguided attempt at being honorable or fair.

So let me lay it out, not doubt to the great and smug self-satisfaction of those who presume me to be some sort of right-wing nutjob: the immediate response to 9-11 was far too mild, in my opinion. Afghanistan--and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia--should have been given a choice: hand over bin Laden and his network, or else. And that "or else" should have been total destruction.

Mankind has been waging war against itself since Day One. The fundamental nature of man has not changed in the least. I say this not as justification, but as simple reality. Some would like to pretend there are always other options, but even when there are, these are short term answers. Others think we--mankind--can rise above our baser natures; they argue that we are not the barbarians we were in the past, hundreds or thousands of years ago. Yet, the World Wars were not even a century removed at the time of 9-11, nor were the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, the Soviet Gulags (and other actions), or even the atrocities in the Bosnian War.

Governments--and nations--rise and fall. They always have and they always will. In a particular moment, the role of any government must be--first and foremost--to protect its citizenry and their interests, for that is how the government perpetuates its own existence. When it or its agents overreach and are unable to fulfill this obligation, all bets are off. Such was the case for the Afghans, quite clearly (and, imo, some other nations like those named above). Is it the fault of the common folk, the powerless and innocent in that country? No, of course not. Do they deserve to die for their government's actions? Again, of course not.

But this isn't a question of morality, of ethics, of right and wrong. It's one of simple pragmatism and expedience. Because in the end, people--innocents--will die. In droves. When a particular end will come is anyone's guess, but--again in my view--the ultimate responsibility for that end rests with all.

Some may say "Do you realize that you're suggesting another nation has the right to bomb the hell out of the U.S., to kill you and your family for the very same reasons you've given, above?" I do realize it, though I am not positing the existence of some sort of "right" to do these things, only the reality of such actions in the world as it actually exists. I steel myself with the knowledge that other nations will not follow such a course because of the peril it involves. And yes, I get to do that because of pure luck, because I happen to live--with my family--in the United States. Once upon a time, others steeled themselves with similar knowledge because they lived in England, Rome, or Imperial China, for example.

All of that said, I am happy that my country--while more than happy to impose its will on others--refrains from resorting to violence at the drop of a hat (though it does so far more frequently than some seem to think), that leaders concerned with overt empire-building are likely to find themselves out of power, sooner rather than later.

But. When those rare moments like 9-11 arrive that demand a truly pragmatic if not vicious response, I would prefer it if our leaders had a better grasp on history, the true nature on man, and the world, if they were lesson given to flights of fancy about world peace and the commonality of all mankind, if a situation requiring simple pragmatism was not so often tempered with ill-conceived ideas about "humanity."

Cheers, all.

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