If on the morning of September 12, 2001 we’d been asked what we hoped to see happen in the United States over the coming decade, we’d have said something like: a forceful and proportional response to the perpetrators of the deed (but only the perpetrators of the deed); a true effort toward multilateral action against terrorism; a firm rededication to our best values, on the understanding that they are the ultimate source of our strength; a call for citizens to make some sacrifice at this time toward a larger, common project; a dedication on the part of judicious leaders to the idea that politics really does stop at the water’s edge, combined with a genuine effort toward reducing the bitterness in our politics; and the establishment of a general climate in which we could debate affairs without people being accused of committing treason or hating freedom.
Today, that reads like a laughably naïve list (although it is worth noting that some serious people wrote that they expected such things to happen). On virtually every front, we went in the opposite direction, and even contrived to find new lows: One of the few salutary instincts George W. Bush pursued after 9/11, visiting mosques and reminding Americans that we were not at war with Islam, has lately been reversed by a hell-bent minority that fires the word “Muslim” as an (incorrect) aspersion at the President and howled like animals over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.”
It’s been a sad, lost, and enervating decade. We’ve had a few successes. No further successful attacks have been visited upon us. We have done serious damage to Al Qaeda, including the breathtaking assault on its leader. It’s probably not a coincidence that the major successes of the last 10 years have emanated from the one public institution in this country—the military—that is not the subject of constant pitched ideological warfare. But the decade has taken its toll even on the military. It is, we think, very hard even for the most fervent neoconservative to argue that, years into two wars that will likely never be “won” in the conventionally understood sense, America is a stronger country.
What happened? And are there any solid reasons to hope the next decade will be any better? We asked 11 distinguished thinkers and experts to ponder the 9/11 decade and to think about what is ahead of us. Their reflections are not exactly laden with optimism, but they are certainly penetrating. They cover a wide range of topics, from the nature of the foreign-policy establishment, to the use of fear, to the impact in the political realm of confronting mortality so operatically, to how future historians will look at the decade past, and much more.
If a theme runs through them, it is perhaps the importance of citizenship in the classic sense. The contributors who lament particular things that have happened in America are really lamenting in different ways their disappointment that here finally, after years of toxic political arguments that culminated in debates over semen-stained dresses and hanging chads, was an event that should have summoned the best qualities from our political class, and in us; but alas, too little oxygen existed in our system for those best qualities to open up and flourish. The contributors who look elsewhere, at the larger world, see a hopeful aspiration toward citizenship in the Middle East, but one that was, if anything, delayed by the aftermath of 9/11 and the regional traumas that the United States had a hand in generating. But everyone agrees that there is much work to be done.