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Lest We Forget to Wrap
I hope this is the last year that I write about 9-11
The view from my window, circa August, 2001
This was a short week for me, because Monday I was preparing for Rosh Hashanah, which I celebrated on Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday. I am very gratified that we were able to have services in person. Last year, we did not; some synagogues held services outdoors and/or in small groups, and I really hoped we would do the same, but our services were conducted entirely on line. I found Zoom services to be a real lifeline in the early days of the pandemic, but I really couldn’t bring myself to listen to the shofar blown over the internet, or to spend all day on Yom Kippur staring at a screen. Fortunately, some friends invited my wife and me to join them and a number of other mutual friends for a backyard minyan on both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, and that’s where we spent the holiday last year. I wound up leading about half the service, including both Kol Nidrei and Ne’ilah, and it felt really good to learn that I could do that much. But the main joy was just being with people, singing together, praying together, sitting silently together — being together.
But this year we were back. With masks, yes, with restrictions on seating — but together, and doing the whole service, and doing it with spirit. I was so glad to be back. For all the decline in my observance, it still means something to me. It means a whole lot, actually. Last year’s backyard minyan group decided to gather for a reunion on the second day of Rosh Hashanah this year, and I joined them. It was delightful, and I am very glad I joined, but I’m ambivalent about making it a tradition. If we’ve got something great, I want to share it, not keep it to ourselves. I hope over this coming year we can bring the spirit we found into our shul, so that by the year’s end, we don’t want to do our own thing again, but prefer to cherish the memory and the people who made it happen.
Anyway, here’s this week’s stuff.
A Day Which Still Lives In Infamy
When did people stop commemorating December 7th? I have no idea. I remember the commemoration of the Normandy landings forty years on, but that memorial felt like it was more about the Cold War and the present than about World War II and the past. I think we underrate the degree to which the Cold War helped bring feelings about World War II to such a swift conclusion, both in terms of our reconciliation with our former enemies and their resolution to accept our ongoing role in their societies. Notwithstanding my cheeky suggestion last month about allying with the Taliban (which is already happening in a small way with respect to fighting the Islamic State in Afghanistan), I don’t think that kind of shift is going to help us come to “closure” on the War on Terror. In some ways that war was won a long time ago, in other ways it was lost a long time ago, and in some ways it looks like it will never quite die, just fade away, like Douglas McArthur’s old soldier.
But I do hope this is the last year that I feel obligated to write about 9-11. I took the opportunity at The Week to look back on what, if anything, we’ve learned:
The lesson of Sept. 11 was that we were much less secure than we thought — that in an interconnected world, chaos "over there" could come home. Therefore, we would only really be secure when we had tamed chaos, and made the whole world sufficiently like us that our values and interests would be in harmony. The lesson of the 20 years since is that we not only cannot master chaos, we often sowed it in our wake; that we not only cannot mold other societies in our image, but instead often provoke a reaction that pushes them in precisely the opposite direction.
But the first lesson, of interconnectedness and insecurity, is still true. We still do live in an interconnected world in which things that happen "over there" — from the emergence of a novel virus, to the development of cheap drones, to carbon emissions and plastic pollution — really do affect us over here. Our future, perhaps more than ever before, is not solely in our hands. We just don't know what to do about it. How do Americans live in a world characterized by lack of independence when our country was founded on independence as an ideal?
That, I believe, is the real question before America today. We remain an enormously powerful, wealthy, capable country, and . . . we could well rise to the biggest challenges before us: make a transition to a decarbonized economy, sustain a military and economic edge over China, clamber out of the demographic doldrums, and revitalize our democracy and the egalitarian promise of our founding documents. But even if we succeed in all of that, we're still going to face a massive adaptation challenge from climate change. We will still need to share power with a growing array of countries that do not see their interests as aligned with ours. We will still produce a declining share of world output, and represent a declining share of world population. There will still be pandemics, and terrorists, and disruptive technologies, and demographic change. We will have to adapt to the world far more than we adapt the world to us.
This is not the first time I’ve written about 9-11, of course. For those who are interested in seeing how I have changed, you can find what I wrote on the tenth anniversary, here, a piece called “The Mind Killer”:
[T]he attacks meant almost nothing, at least in terms that would mean anything to us (which are the terms that matter in this case). They were not a sign of some kind of essential decadence or weakness. Al Qaida successfully exploited a series of simple loopholes that allowed an unprecedented attack to succeed. If we had had almost any kind of screening for passengers, the attacks would have failed. If cockpit doors had been routinely reinforced, the attacks would have failed. If the officers and crew had imagined that terrorists might not hijack or blow up a plane, but instead want to use one as a flying bomb, the attacks would have failed. And so forth – the attacks succeeded basically because we had no defense in place at all against such an attack, and preventing a recurrence was actually trivial.
The political significance was similarly nugatory. Al Qaeda’s political goals were outlandish to the point of absurdity. Afghanistan was more like Grand Fenwick than it was like the Empire of Japan. Fight Club was probably a better movie to watch to understand the people who attacked us than The Battle of Algiers. All the efforts to ascribe a meaning to the events – the terrorists hate our freedom, or they hate that we are supporting dictators in their region, or they hate that we are infidels, or they hate that we are engaged in wars of aggression against Muslims, or whatever – were responses to our need for meaning rather than to the events themselves. But the indifference of reality to our needs – in this regard as in most – is comprehensive.
In retrospect, what suffered the most lasting damage from the terrorist attacks of ten years ago was my belief in my own rationality. I believed that I was thinking things through seriously, and coming to difficult but true conclusions about what had happened, what would happen, what must happen. . . . But I wasn’t doing anything of the kind. I was engaged in a search for meaning in which reason was purely instrumental.
The great intellectual victors in the immediate post-9-11 period were the people who could imbue it with meaning. To do that required a plausible explanation and the confidence to advance it. Nobody would have that confidence without the explanation being pre-packaged, ready to be deployed in any available circumstances. In other words, the very fact that there was so little we knew, and that what there was to know wasn’t very satisfying in terms of imparting meaning to events, very naturally empowered those whose views didn’t depend on knowledge. That’s how we wound up in Iraq. The advocates of war did not begin advocating for war on 9-11 – “finishing the job” in Iraq had been on the agenda for the entire decade prior. Nor did they need to prove any connection to the 9-11 attacks. We wound up in war in Iraq, in a very real sense, because “finishing the job” in Iraq imparted an appealing meaning to the terrorist attacks. And opposing the war felt like it tore the meaning off that terrible day, leaving its empty horror naked before us. That’s how it felt to me, at the time, when I think back.
And that’s what I mean by saying that what suffered the most lasting damage was belief in my own rationality. Or in anybody else’s.
And if you want to go further back, to the days of my solo blog, here is what I wrote on the one-year anniversary, a post that includes what I wrote to my family several days after the attacks.
The World Elsewhere
A smattering of other people’s writing on the 20th anniversary that I think is worth grappling with:
Damon Linker’s column describing the 9-11 attacks as the dramatic opening shot to a century of inchoate worldwide populist anger and discontent.
Francis Fukuyama’s geopolitically-oriented piece, briefly but brutally delineating how our reaction to 9-11 did far more damage to the United States than the attacks themselves did.
Dan McCarthy’s column arguing that we Americans were the real religious warriors, more so than al Qaeda, in the sense that we were fighting for truly otherworldly ends.
Noah Smith’s post argues against the “Great Man” theory of 9-11 that credits/blames either Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush with shaping history.
My only post on here this week was Thursday’s reactions to Biden’s new proposals to mandate vaccinations.
I stand by all of what I wrote there — but I do want to add one thing. A lot of people have noticed that the Delta wave seems to be waning, and wondering whether it even matters to keep pushing so hard on the vaccination front. They’re right that cases are dropping — and not just in the places where it hit hardest over the past few months; they’re also dropping in places like in New York where Delta never got totally out of control. But I am skeptical that the wave here has actually crested nationally. There’s a good chance that there are big seasonal effects with Delta just like we’ve seen in previous waves, and if that’s the case then in a couple of months we’ll see cases rising across the snow belt, at least in areas with low vaccination rates. There are plenty of places like that in the Midwest, and some (though fewer) in the Northeast. There are even neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
So I wouldn’t count our chickens just yet. Let’s debate vaccine mandates as if they mattered—because they still do.