Roving thoughts and provocations

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America, Achilles

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Activists of Jamaat-e-Islami protesting, September 11, 2011, Lahore, Pakistan

Walking in, watching the flames shoot upward, the first thing I thought was that I was back in the Third World. My countrymen are going to think this is the end of the world, the worst thing that’s ever happened. In the Third World this sort of thing happens every day: earthquakes, famines, plagues. In Orissa, on the eastern coast of India, after the cyclone, the dead were piled up so high and for so long that the dogs couldn’t eat any more; they lay about waiting for their appetites to return. Lazily looking at each other. Fifteen thousand died in that one. Seventeen thousand people died in the earthquake in Turkey. In Afghanistan, in the earthquake there, five thousand. And then, of course, there were the forty thousand who perished in the fighting in Kabul. I don’t think I was the only person thinking this, who had the wider perspective. All those street vendors working nearby, from all those different countries, selling falafel and shawarma—when they heard the crash and saw the buildings, they must have thought the same as I did. That they’d come home.

This rumination comes from The Forever War, Dexter Filkins’s chronicle of the “war on terror.” Filkins is an American journalist who had already spent several years of reporting from South Asia before fate happened to bring him to New York City just in time to witness the horrors of the September 11 attacks. Certain readers might dismiss this passage as callous: surely, I can hear some of them object, Filkins is pushing some sort of Orientalist myth that people in other societies don’t take death as hard as we Americans do. But I don’t think that Filkins had anything like this in mind. I think he was making an observation that is provocative in its simple factuality. There is a sad sense, he suggests, in which our own experience of mass death actually brought us closer to the experience of the world at large.

It is entirely right—as so many of us did last weekend—to commemorate and mourn the victims of that terrible day. It was a crime of epic proportions and demonic intention—and so the comparison with natural disasters, at least in this sense, is misleading. Its perpetrators were men, the adherents of a specific political ideology that—though it sought to legitimize itself through reference to Islam—cannot be accounted for as an expression of faith. What makes Filkins’s visceral reaction useful, though, is that it reminds us that 9/11 shocked us precisely because it happened on our own soil.

Until September 2001, North Americans had not witnessed the spectacle of mass death on their own territory for at least a century. The great world wars left our continent untouched. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and their occupation of US. territories in the western Pacific during World War II were a long way off from the heartland. Emperor Hirohito’s forces did manage to hold a few remote Aleutian islands for a time, but most Americans barely noticed. It has been many generations since people in this country had to contend with the possibility of foreign invasion, much less occupation. Then, in September 2001, our enemies suddenly staged a devastating attack on some of our most significant places. That was a trauma—on top of the sheer loss of life—that seemed impossible to swallow. As we sent our armies out into the world, we felt that our actions were automatically legitimized by our new awareness of our vulnerability. Surely, we felt, this was self-evident; it required no further explanation. Quite understandably, Americans were desperate to prevent a second wave of attacks, and our government was ready to do almost anything—even something as misguided and counterproductive as the invasion of Iraq—that seemed to serve that end.

But what has the rest of the world made of this response? For a brief moment, to be sure, even the French felt sympathy—witness the now-legendary headline in Le Monde. Yet the window closed quickly; the invasion of Iraq, and the troubles that followed, saw to that. Today the rest of the world sees us, straightforwardly, as the country that spends more on its military than the next eighteen or so nations combined. (US defense spending accounts for a bit less than half of the entire world’s military expenditures.) The rest of the world sees us as the country that has ten times as many aircraft carriers as any current rival, the country that continues to demonstrate its technological edge with drones and satellites and missiles, the only country with the expeditionary capability to shift entire armies across the globe at a moment’s notice. Our economic power may have diminished markedly since 2008— especially relative to the rise of China—but the armed forces of the United States still have no serious challenger for the foreseeable future. It should not come as a surprise that the rest of the world sees us as omnipotent even at the moment when we feel ourselves to be humiliatingly constrained by our domestic economic and political woes.

Much of the world has never been able to believe that we were so easily bloodied on September 11. There’s just no way, say the Arabs and the Iranians and the Pakistanis, that nineteen Arabs with box cutters could take out the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; it had to be Bush himself, or the equally superhuman Israelis, or both. (Needless to say, you can also find plenty of French, Russians, and, yes, Americans who put their faith in comparable conspiracy theories.) How often, during my own reporting during the Iraq war, do I recall Iraqis telling me that it was the Americans behind all those suicide bombings and rampaging Shiite militias: it was obvious as they saw it that the US Army could stop all the trouble in a heartbeat if they really wanted to, but Washington clearly preferred to foment the lingering instability as a pretext for prolonging the occupation.

Last week, just in the time for the 9/11 commemoration, a Radio Free Europe colleague published a remarkable piece exploring Afghan attitudes about the September 11 attacks. He found that many of his interviewees—exactly analogous to the Iraqis I encountered—believed that Washington must be covertly supporting the Taliban. Surely the Americans, with all their amazing technology and power, had the capability to snuff out an authentic insurgency. If they chose not to, surely that meant that they were using the Taliban threat as an excuse to remain.

The clash of civilizations predicted by so many on that horrible day has never come to pass. Some parts of the Islamic world, such as Yemen or Syria of Pakistan, are in violent ferment; some, like Egypt or Tunisia, have rejected US-sponsored dictators in the name of the democratic values we claim to profess; and one, namely Iran, has experienced a powerful, non-violent protest movement against a ruling elite that claims “Islam” as its validating argument. There are countries with Muslim majorities or pluralities—Turkey or Indonesia or Bangladesh—whose political and economic patterns of development seem to be entirely specific to themselves. Al Qaeda ideology smolders on, to be sure, but its significance remains peripheral. These days the participants on jihadi websites seem to spend much of their time complaining about their inability to attract recruits. Last week the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center published a poll showing, among other intriguing results, that the citizens of Muslim-majority are no more likely to support attacks on civilians than anyone else. (Among the countries that expressed the most intense disapproval of such attacks was Egypt.)

Yet there is unquestionably a profound military gap between the United States and the rest of the world. Nowadays we can even strike at our enemies using robots, negating any risk to our own soldiers. So it makes sense that many outside the US do not understand or share our sense of woundedness. They merely see the giant lashing out, often in ways that make an already horrible situation worse. Most of the people who live in Iraq or Afghanistan do not long for renewed rule by the Baath Party or the Taliban. But the fact is that our haphazard state-building efforts in both countries have generally had little tangible effect.

As for our war dead: we value their sacrifice, and we should. But we can hardly expect the people in these countries to share in that appreciation. They have their own dead to mourn. Tens of thousands of civilians have lost their lives in the turmoil unleashed by 9/11 and the US response to it. We are not directly culpable for all of these deaths; surely the jihadis and the militiamen who have done so much of the killing—often explicitly targeting civilians—should be held to account for their own acts. (Over the past ten years, for example, some 35,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks inside the country.) But we must still acknowledge our responsibility for the conflicts we have unleashed. If we want to take credit for the good things we have done as a result (like toppling odious regimes or improving freedom), we must be prepared to accept responsibility for the bad things as well (the wedding parties bombed to bits, the torture inflicted on detainees). That is the price of being a great power.

Filkins is right. Yes, our losses on September 11—and in the ten years that followed—have exposed us to the sorrows of the world. But perhaps the rest of the world can sometimes be forgiven for its failure to notice.

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