The 9/11 Decade

7 Sep

As we draw near to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the commentariat have begun looking back at the decade that was, investigating how it has shaped the United States and, more broadly, the global community.

While there is surely much more to be written as September 11 fast approaches, two extraordinarily good pieces have caught my attention. The first is Frank Rich’s article in New York Magazine. In his opening sentence, Rich quips, “It was ‘the day that changed everything,’ until it didn’t”.

In retrospect, the most consequential event of the past ten years may not have been 9/11 or the Iraq War but the looting of the American economy by those in power in Washington and on Wall Street.

In such an alternative telling of the decade’s history, the key move Bush made after 9/11 had nothing to do with military strategy or national-security policy. It was instead his considered decision to rule out shared sacrifice as a governing principle for the fight ahead. Sacrifice was high among the unifying ideals that many Americans hoped would emerge from the rubble of ground zero, where so many Good Samaritans had practiced it. But the president scuttled the notion on the first weekend after the attack, telling Americans that it was his “hope” that “they make no sacrifice whatsoever” beyond, perhaps, tolerating enhanced airline security. Few leaders in either party contradicted him. Bush would soon implore us to “get down to Disney World in Florida” and would even lend his image to a travel-industry ad promoting tourism. Our marching orders were to go shopping.

By framing the events of 9/11 in these terms, Rich suggests, the Bush administration unwittingly helped to exacerbate the current economic crisis in the United States:

By portraying Afghanistan and Iraq as utterly cost-free to a credulous public, the Bush administration injected the cancer into the American body politic that threatens it today: If we don’t need new taxes to fight two wars, why do we need them for anything?

The intervening years since 9/11 have evidently provided the benefit of perspective. This is illustrated nicely in David J. Rothkopf’s piece for Foreign Policy. In a similar vain to Rich, Rothkopf writes:

Indeed, we have been overestimating its significance since almost the moment it happened.

That is not, by the way, to diminish the brutal blows struck 10 years ago or the deeply felt human experiences associated with it and its aftermath. Rather it is to say that once again we will seek to frame 9/11 as a great event, the definer of an era, when in fact, its greatest defining characteristic was that of a distraction — The Great Distraction — that drew America’s focus and that of many in the world from the greater issues of our time. That distraction and the opportunity costs associated with it were bin Laden’s triumph and our loss — and our ultimate victory will come as we get a grip back on reality.

Rothkopf goes on to suggest 10 events of the past decade which are, culturally speaking, more important than the tragic events of 9/11. He suggests that with the benefit of time, we are now, collectively, able to look beyond the attack to other milestones that have shaped (and are continuing to shape) us.

Rothkopf nominates the following ten events:

10. The American Response to 9/11
9. The Arab Spring
8. The Rebalancing of Asia
7. The Stagnation of the U.S. and Other Developed-World Economies
6. The Invention of Social Media
5. The Proliferation of Cell Phones and Hand-Held Computing Devices
4. The Crash of 2008
3. The Eurozone Crisis and the Crash of 2011-2012
2. The Failure to Address Global Warming
1. The Rise of China and the Other BRICs

Food for thought, indeed.

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