The sounds and images of 9/11 haven’t lost their power to shock. In audio tapes released this week, a flight attendant on one of the doomed planes tells an air-traffic controller what’s happened. Her voice is low key, factual. The plane has been hijacked, the pilot has been stabbed, perhaps fatally. She may still think the hijackers intend to land the plane. No one knows they’ll all soon be dead.
The 9/11 attacks were an existential wound to America’s psyche. They were bound to provoke an existential response. Americans, and their government, were overwhelmed. They lost their bearings. They vastly overestimated the power of the enemy to threaten their way of life. But a wounded giant is rarely rational. Over the next decade, the U.S. paid a steep price in blood and money, in moral capital and in international prestige. And the wounds it suffered after 9/11 were largely self-inflicted.
After the U.S. wiped out the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, it embarked on wars of choice that were driven not by vengeance, imperialism or oil but by an outburst of idealism. The best analysis of American motives is laid out in a brilliant essay called Reflections on the 9/11 Decade, by Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest.
According to the Bush-Cheney doctrine, Muslim extremism was the result of a democracy deficit. Oppressed by their own leaders, young Muslim men took refuge in the mosque and embraced jihad. The ultimate solution was to sow the seeds of democracy throughout the Muslim world. Democracy would cure these toxic cultures of their various pathologies. America at war after 9/11, as the late journalist Michael Kelly wrote, became “a secular evangelism, armed.”
In the fall of 2003, a few months after the U.S. military had deposed Saddam Hussein, I was in Iraq. Baghdad was crawling with civil-society builders and democracy promoters – hundreds of people from all kinds of NGOs intent on helping to set up democratic elections. Many of these same people turned up later in Afghanistan. They were incredibly enthusiastic and (it seemed to me) stunningly naive. They seemed to believe that you could apply democracy to a country like a coat of paint, and that it would stick. The violence soon drove them out.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was Osama bin Laden’s dream come true. He drew the giant into a costly foreign war that turned into a quagmire. Foreign fighters flocked to Iraq to join the battle against the infidels. Democracy failed to spread throughout the Middle East. You could almost hear the guy cackling in his cave.
But in the longer run, he lost. The Americans had disrupted his money flows as well as his training camps. And his central assumption proved wrong. He believed the U.S. invasion of the Middle East would inspire millions of Muslims to rise up and attack the West. They didn’t.
The biggest surprise of the decade after 9/11 is how singular an event it was. If you’d predicted there’d be no subsequent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil over the next decade, would anyone have believed you? (I’m not counting the massacre at Fort Hood, carried out by a lone gunman.) After all, the lesson we learned from of 9/11 was how vulnerable we were. And terrorism was so easy: Anyone with a backpack could blow up New York’s subway. But, despite devastating terrorist attacks in Bali, London and Madrid, no one did.
Why not? Heightened vigilance and enhanced security clearly played a role. But surely another reason is that the allure of bin Ladenism isn’t that strong after all. Yes, a few young Muslim men are attracted by extremism. But hardly any of them, in North America at least, are actually willing to blow themselves up. As terrorism expert Bruce Schneier concludes: “There aren’t very many Islamist terrorists, and most are incompetent.”
By the time Osama bin Laden was killed, his power was seriously on the wane. He’d been pre-empted by the Arab Spring. Reform is coming to the Middle East, and it has very little to do with us.
In many ways, the aftermath of 9/11 is far less dire than a lot of us expected. Apart from the farcical theatre of airline security – and the blood shed by too many Canadian men and women in Afghanistan – there’s been very little impact on our way of life. Our borders are still open. Our societies are still free. Our civil liberties are reasonably intact. Despite many warnings and much alarm, a backlash against Muslims in North America never materialized. Islamist terrorism is still a threat, of course. But it doesn’t seem to be a very big one.
The events of 9/11 defined a decade. But we’ve moved on, to other threats and other nightmares. The challenges that will define our next decade – debt crises, job crises and leadership crises in the Western democracies – don’t arise from a murderous ideology that ripened far away. They come from within.
Follow us on Twitter: