The 9/11 memorial services came and went yesterday, with the appropriate solemnity and words for those who lost loved one, and for the rest of us who, as Tom noted, were also affected by the terror attacks. I talked again with a couple of my kids of their memories of that day, and mine, and of a family member who watched it happen live from the roof of the building where he worked in downtown New York. I think it’s good, and cathartic, to relive that occasionally and really remember how strange and terrible it was.
But it’s September 12th today. It’s after. The past decade has been one of conflicting ideas of how our country has gone and should have gone following those events. Over the weekend, I read an article that got me thinking; we’ve actually done pretty well.
With the headline “9/11: the decade since the September 11 attacks has been one to celebrate”, Richard Fenning (CEO of Control Risks, a firm advising on political, security and integrity risks), writing in the London Telegraph, reminds us that the past 10 years, while having its own set of concerns and political arguments, has actually been good for the US.
Al-Qaida and its affiliates continued to plan attacks. Some succeeded, others were frustrated by massive international counter-terrorism efforts. But we became conditioned to the inevitability of future attacks. This anxiety was used to justify forms of intelligence-gathering - extraordinary rendition, water-boarding - we had previously preferred not to know about.
Public support fractured. Moral clarity was partly replaced by cynicism in the West as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became less about building shiny new nations and more about bringing our troops home with a modicum of dignity intact. Western opinion seemed to oscillate between aggressive defensiveness from the political right and hand-wringing contrition from the left. There seemed little space for consensus.
In the Muslim world, responses varied. In countries like Saudi Arabia, pragmatic support for the US remained firm, founded on shared animosity to Iran, and fear of local, radical Islamism. In Pakistan, the Afghan spillover ruptured fragile political stability, culminating in the killing of bin Laden by US Special Forces a few miles from a top military establishment. The prospect of an enduring peace between Israel and Palestine remains pretty much where it was ten years ago: nowhere.
But to everyone’s surprise - including a deflated al-Qaida - the decade ends with the ‘Arab spring’ dispatching rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. Syria hangs in the balance. Theirs is an unfinished story in which unpredictability is the only certainty.
Fenning’s business is one of managing risk, so he obviously stresses those situations where things are shaky. But I would point out the good news:
- There have been no major terrorist attacks in the US in the past 10 years. Say what you will about the measures that have been taken, if anyone, during the year after 9/11 that we’d be completely safe from anything close to that for 10 years, they would have certainly hedged any bet on that.
- It’s the Arabs that are having a “spring”. It is they who are overthrowing their longtime dictators. Indeed, as Fenning notes, what’s to come is still uncertain, but the upheaval that bin Laden was hoping to cause here was very short-lived, relatively speaking. Instead, the Middle East is busy tearing down its autocrats, while Israel and the US are as stable as ever (economic self-inflicted wounds here notwithstanding).
- And speaking of bin Laden, he’s no longer with us.
There are still those out there that wish to harm us, and have succeeded, on occasion, to a very small extent. But we have emerged from this ordeal with, I think, a more sober view of the world and of our “untouchableness”. The realization of who the major enemy is has been understood to varying degrees by most people.
And the feared mass persecution of Muslims never materialized. There may have been an uptick in violence, and there are those now who (fairly or not) still regard Muslims in airports with additional scrutiny, but the fact remains that the trend worldwide is still that Christians are the ones most persecuted (75% of incidences in a recent report).
I believe we’ve taken this tragedy and turned it around. Granted, as fallible human beings, not all the lessons to be learned were, and not all the changes made were for the better. But in the big picture, I think we’ve done pretty good with the hand we were dealt in 2001.
And that’s worth remembering, too.