Symposium | A Decade Squandered

When the Great Decline Began

Tagged Terrorism

September 11, 2041: Historians are a contentious bunch. Give them a truly momentous change or event, and they will argue endlessly about why it occurred. Scholars still don’t agree about the causes of the French Revolution or World War I or, for that matter, why the Shanghai Pandas (the old Detroit Tigers) won five straight World Series championships in the 2030s. So why would one expect them to reach a consensus about why the United States declined so rapidly as a world power during the first decade of the twenty-first century?

Nearly a year into the first term of President José Patel-Sanchez, the debate continues to rage. Some historians blame the disappearance of well-paid industrial and manufacturing jobs, others point to the irony that an increasingly unhealthy population was at the mercy of a bloated and unaffordable health-care system, others focus on the partisan deadlock that made it impossible to carry out needed financial or structural reforms, while still others heap responsibility on the dysfunctional education system that produced millions of graduates capable of handling no technological task more complex than playing video games on their mobile phones.

Certainly, every historian agrees that the first two presidents of this century utterly failed to provide the leadership the nation needed. George W. Bush was too much of an ideologue and a confrontational “decider,” while Barack Obama offered no coherent idea at all about where he wanted to lead the country and shied away from confronting his right-wing opponents, who believed the federal government should do little or nothing to address the mounting problems America faced.

But, according to most historians, the most critical failing lay in the self-destructive, wildly expensive decisions the U.S. government made at home and around the world in the wake of the attacks by 19 well-trained suicide bombers on September 11, 2001. As every home-schooled child knows, the United States responded by undertaking one of the most massive mobilizations in its history. Close to a million Americans got security clearance to work on “anti-terrorist” projects. More than 250,000 U.S. troops occupied and fought in two sizeable nations across the globe for over a decade. Even after the leader of the terrorist group that organized the 2001 attacks was killed, the wars continued. They ended up costing close to $2 trillion and left Iraq, Afghanistan, and its neighbor Pakistan all engulfed in civil war.

In retrospect, it seems bizarre that the first two presidents of the twenty-first century devoted so much treasure, so many lives, and so much political energy to a problem as minor as “Islamic terrorism.” Subsequent research revealed that Al Qaeda, the group that carried out the attacks in 2001, had fewer than 1,000 members and was quite incapable of repeating anything like those horrendous acts again. The organization quietly dissolved in 2013, two years after U.S. Special Forces assassinated its charismatic founder. At the time of the attacks, some critics argued that the United States should have handled the entire problem much as Europeans had earlier responded to the terrorism of such groups as the Irish Republican Army and the Red Brigades in the late twentieth century: with small, specially trained commando groups and good police work.

Instead, the ways in which both the Bush and Obama Administrations did respond to 9/11 ruined America’s image as a benevolent, rational power—while accelerating its economic decline. As the British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in 2003:

A sudden gap appeared between the way the USA and the rest of the world understood what had happened on that awful day. The world merely saw a particularly dramatic terror attack with a vast number of victims and a momentary public humiliation of the USA…. [But] Washington announced that September 11 had changed everything, and in doing so, actually did change everything, by in effect declaring itself the single-handed protector of a world order and definer of threats against it.

The result was a debacle that weakened the United States both militarily and ideologically. The fast-growing, more vital nations of China, Brazil, and India wisely took little part in the ill-defined “war on terror.” While America struggled to find its bearings, the rest of the world sprinted toward the future without it. In the Middle East, young Arabs began agitating for democratic rule. If 2001 to 2010 was the 9/11 decade, 2011 to 2020 became the “Decade of Tahrir,” when the people of the Arab world overthrew dictators and monarchs across the Middle East.

During their own lost decade, Americans did manage to retain one national characteristic that impressed the world: their tolerance for, even embrace of, ethnic and religious diversity. Of course, there were occasional outbursts of hatred. But in the main the United States did not get caught up in the same wave of Islamophobia that, in 2019, resulted in the expulsion of large numbers of Muslim immigrants from several European nations. In fact, it became routine to see women in head-scarves and even the chador on the streets of most American cities and in nearly every institution. Although some local mosque builders encountered resistance, both legal and occasionally violent, almost all the mosques in question were authorized and built. In fact, from 2001 to 2010, the number of mosques in the United States nearly tripled from about 700 to almost 2,000. Just as anti-Catholicism was once a response to the institutional strength of Catholics in religious and political life, so too did anti-Islamic sentiments in the early twenty-first century betray a fear of losing an argument.

The demography of the Muslim population in the United States functioned as a brake on Islamophobia, as did a basic American respect for cultural pluralism. The two-thirds of American Muslims who were immigrants came from more than 60 different nations, and most belonged to middle-class families and had some college education, either here or elsewhere. So this was not an easy group for either the media or public figures, in or out of politics, to demonize.

As President Patel-Sanchez, born in 1991 to a Muslim mother and a Catholic father, put it in a recent e-holograph, “We may not be number one in the world anymore, but everyone in the world sure feels welcome here.” The President made no reference in his speech to rumors that the Administration was preparing to send crack units of its Internet Security Corps to join the Brazilian-Chinese-South African assault on the Maldive Islands, now just 17 square miles because of the rising ocean levels but still large enough to serve as headquarters of the pirate band that routinely hacks into the World Wide Cloud.

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