Reflections on September 11, Ten Years After

It is a rare opportunity to be asked to reflect on an essay written a decade ago, now with the benefit of hindsight—of knowing what has happened, rather than anticipating what might happen—and with the tempting prospect of saying “I told you so.” But the truth is that the meaning of September 11 continues to recede just as the tenth anniversary arrives, or remains as difficult to fathom now as it was then. The quotation from Conrad’s The Secret Agent that I began my 2001 essay with still strikes me as entirely relevant—“the criminal futility of the whole thing, doctrine, action, mentality,” a bloody and yet fatuous carnage “impossible to fathom [in] its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.”1 It was what I again thought when I saw the video of Bin Laden released by the US military after his assassination—tugging at his beard, observing himself on a twenty-year-old box TV, more or less alone, and as we learned, lacking even rudimentary armed protection. The nihilist contemplates his nihilism, posthumously, as it were, and thus his own annihilation and most likely the death of his entire project.

The last decade has taught that Al-Qaeda is a much less formidable outfit than people thought after 9/11. Imagine, an organization that tries to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 using a rented van, and after the explosion, the renter, Mohammed A. Salameh, goes back to the rental agency to get his deposit back? Or shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who fumbles with trying to light his sneakers on fire while various airline passengers observe his efforts? Or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underpants bomber who succeeded only in singeing his own crotch? Behold: the evil Islamic terrorist as clueless klutz. Not a single verified Al-Qaeda attack has happened within the United States since 9/11. It seems more and more apparent that on that beautiful and terrible September day, nineteen hijackers got lucky.

For what? What did the terrorists gain from killing three thousand innocent individuals? I think they gained more people like them—more nihilists with malignant intent and capability and no plan for what happens next. I have followed international affairs closely for four decades, and this past decade has been the least interesting, the least hopeful, the least edifying, and the most infuriating. Every day we open the newspaper to the latest mayhem: funeral mourners blown up by a suicide bomber in Pakistan; a car bomb in a market in Iraq, and then ten minutes later, another one to kill and maim those who ran to the rescue, resulting in dozens of deaths; a barely adolescent daughter with her nose and ears cut off in Afghanistan because she would not marry an eighty-year-old widower. This is redolent of nothing less than a new Dark Age, where every standard of progress or modernity or democracy, or simple human decency, is canceled by the daily news. Every day I hope I never read about another suicide attack, but occasionally I recall that I barely knew what such a thing was back in the supposedly bad old days of the Cold War.

Back then we had two kinds of modernism competing head to toe, with two top-to-bottom models of what the good society ought to look like. It was interesting and often fascinating; it was a fateful but also hopeful contest, and it was deeply human. One side won, and the other took its defeat with a dignity, resignation, and humanity that never could have been predicted or even imagined. November 9, the day the Berlin Wall fell, was a tribute to human freedom and resilience. September 11 was “a brazen cheat exploiting the poignant miseries and passionate credulities of a mankind always so tragically eager for self-destruction,” in Conrad’s words.2 That brand of terrorism has run its course for a decade, and what has been the outcome? The 2011 Arab Spring, an entirely modern movement, has about as much to do with Al-Qaeda and suicide bombers as Moorish remnants in Spanish Andalusia have to do with Bin Laden’s fantasy of a new Islamic emirate.

Because I like to think of myself as rational, though, and could not put myself in their place, I was entirely wrong in suggesting a dearth of young people willing to annihilate themselves: “It remains hard to believe,” I wrote, “that there are so many naifs willing to commit suicide in the prime of their lives for goals that have not and cannot be attained.” In the past decade, a multitude of them have wrecked their own lives, and those of innumerable innocents. But the question remains: what have they gotten in return for their bloodthirsty and insensate human sacrifices? The answer might well be, nothing.

I do think I was right about the American containment system, however, when I wrote about “the politically shaped containment compromises that have characterized America’s wars since 1945, and the likelihood that the current war will lead to a permanent American commitment to try to stabilize the most unstable region in the world: the belt of populous and mostly Muslim countries stretching westward from Indonesia all the way to Algeria.” The essential point was that however our wars may end, the troops and bases do not come home—not from Japan, or Germany, or Korea, with the one anomaly being the war we so clearly lost in Vietnam. The “current war” was, of course, the one in Afghanistan, and ten years later it is entirely obvious that the Pentagon plans to stay there for the long term and to utilize as many bases as possible there and in former Soviet territories, like Kyrgyzstan. No one knew in 2001 that 9/11 would also prompt an American invasion of Iraq, but there, too, the Pentagon has spent billions to build dozens of bases, and even though the Iraqi government has not yet committed to the permanent stationing of US troops, a complete and total American military withdrawal from Iraq is inconceivable. Finally, Algeria may not be on our radar screen (yet), but its neighbor Libya is: yet a third war, which at this writing has destroyed Qaddafi’s regime but whose future is decidedly opaque.

Here we come to a bipartisan unity on the efficacy of military force: if conservatives like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld thought the US military could make quick work of defeating Saddam’s army and pacifying Iraq, liberals like Hillary Clinton and her aide Samantha Power thought a massive use of force—beginning with the protection of civilians but quickly proceeding to decapitation and regime change—would serve humanitarian goals and create a new Libya. We shall see.

In this manner, the “War on Terror” has led to a vast distension of the American global archipelago of bases (our newest command is AFCOM, for the African continent) and an incomprehensible (to my mind) belief that military force can solve political problems, deepening our undeniable role as global policeman, with the accompanying bills (now utterly unaffordable) coming due every minute. I wrote in 2001, and still think today, that Americans as a people are ill-fitted to such a hegemonic role; a tiny percentage of people fight the wars and man the bases, while the vast majority remain a fundamentally provincial people who can be stampeded into wars like Iraq because they lack knowledge of the world and a countervailing sensibility that could produce a substantial critique. Many still reach back for comforting but entirely misleading analogies, like conflating 9/11 with Pearl Harbor: the large billboard in Chicago that I referred to in my 2001 essay (two dates—December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001—and the slogan “Americans Will Not Forget!”) still stands along the Dan Ryan Expressway.

A better analogy is with the home front during the four decades of the Cold War, when a global conflict that was highly unlikely to erupt in a superpower war (the singular exception being the Cuban Missile Crisis, the denoument of which proved the rule) was used to frighten and sometimes terrify the general population and grossly expand the power of the executive. McCarthyism was one obvious result, but there were many others—the 1950 McCarran Act, which provided for concentration camps for dissenters; the invocation of “national defense” to justify everything from interstate highways to graduate fellowships in exotic languages; and a proliferation of inchoate threats and fantasies peddled by crackpots (fluoride in the water, the Rockefellers and the communists in a global conspiracy) and Hollywood (creatures from the black lagoon and invasions of body snatchers). The worst excesses of the Bush administration—Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, ubiquitous surveillance through Echelon and other programs that vacuum up communications on a world scale, unprecedented intrusions into the private lives of citizens, gross aggrandizement of executive-branch powers—are testimony to the permanency of our national security state and the acquiescence of most Americans to almost any extension of its power if done in the name of national security.

Paradoxically 9/11 may have been a more effective rationale for all this then the Soviet threat, precisely because Al-Qaeda is so invisible. The ubiquitous nature of the terrorist menace vastly compounds the problem of a provincial America in a threatening world. The communists, who were so visible abroad and so invisible at home (thus the necessity to look for them), gave way to an inchoate enemy who might be here, there, and everywhere: in Yemen or Kyrgyz or down at your corner convenience store. If Americans did not fathom the historical roots of foreign communist movements, how could they understand an operator like Osama Bin Laden? “There is always an imbalance between the nationalist outcry and the reality of the threat which it meets,” Louis Hartz wrote, but after a thousand treason trials and congressional investigations, “the Martian remains”—and through his invisibility “he keeps coming closer all the time.”3 Today the Martian is a nihilistic terrorist, he’s closer all the time, and at least some of the Martians know what they are doing: “All we have to do,” Bin Laden said in 2004, “is to send two mujahedeen to the farthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written Al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses.”4 This critical imbalance poses a dire threat to the free institutions of this country because everybody and everything can be a suspect in somebody’s tableau—as the generals stretch American power across the globe to the breaking point.

I would not want to leave readers with the idea that an unaware or badly informed American populace is the cause of our foreign quagmires. The problem begins at the top. We see it in the alacrity with which the Obama administration (to Dick Cheney’s delight) has kept in place many of the executive arrogations developed during the previous administration. I saw it personally at a conference at Stanford University in October 2003, when, to my surprise, George Shultz showed up (we were in the George Shultz room of the Asia-Pacific Research Center). I asked him why, as a Republican statesman known for his moderation, widely credited with keeping the Reagan foreign policy on a more or less sensible course, he had written editorials in 2002 supporting the (illegal, immoral) invasion of Iraq? He did not like the question, of course, but his answer was that 9/11 changed everything, we were living in a new world where we could no longer count on realpolitik or the rationality of our enemies to preserve stability or the balance of power. We had to go after and preempt our enemies, even if the probabilities of our being attacked were low. He was wrong, I believe, but that is not the point: our post-9/11 world is so different not because of Al-Qaeda but because of knee-jerk resorts to force that mask an old and deep-running American refusal to cast aside our own solipsism and join a complex world very different from our own imaginings.


Bruce Cumings teaches international history, modern Korean history, and East Asian political economy at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1987 and where he is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor and chairman of the History Department. He recently published Dominion From Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power (Yale University Press), which was ranked as one of the top 25 books of 2009 by the Atlantic Monthly.

  1. Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (New York: Methuen and Co, 1907).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Louis Hartz, The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia, with contributions by Kenneth D. McRae, Richard M. Morse, Richard N. Rosecrance, and Leonard M. Thompson (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), 13, 22.
  4. Quoted in John Tierney, “Osama’s Spin Lessons,” New York Times, September 12, 2006.