A lot of the commemorations on 9/11 were just that -- thinking about the past. We Americans, as a somewhat older population now, tend to wax nostalgic more than we normally have, rather than as a nation that has been known for thinking more about the future. It's healthy to reflect on the past, but we tend to remember, and then forget again the morning after. When I was once asked why I wanted to study history, my response was: "How can you know where you are and where you're going unless you know where you've been?" That doesn't happen, by the way, quickly. Reflection takes time. In many ways, Americans are still trying to figure out what the end of the Cold War, just a dozen years before 9/11, should mean.
I got a chance to think again about 9/11 when I took my motorcycle trip around the United States last year to link my personal experiences with history. Sure, I had already realized on that September day that "the world has come to America; now America must come to the world." I meant, however, with an open hand and not a clenched fist. Instead, predictably, we sent out the cavalry looking for the Indians, with some disastrously costly results. Our responses, as much as the attacks themselves, have risked a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam.
While stopping off in Salinas, California at the John Steinbeck museum, however, I came upon a revealing quote about the raising of the Berlin Wall, the 50th anniversary of which we took note of just last month: "I'm amazed that anybody would confess so completely that he failed. That's what this amounts to. A failure in competition..." This led me to think about 9/11 in a different way.
In the same sense, wasn't 9/11 and acts of terrorism of its kind an admission of failure - the temper tantrum of a group of sociopathic outsiders pursuing a perverse, anti-modern, exclusionary ideology of religious extremism that cannot compete, head-to-head, with the core ideals and values of the largest, most successful liberal democracy in the world, with its open, inclusive, multicultural society and dynamic, innovative economy, all rooted in the core value of personal freedom?
We have often interpreted terrorism as a tactical or operational threat -- the refusal of "irregulars" to go toe-to-toe with the unparalleled military power of the United States and thus choose "asymmetric" methods like terrorism and insurgency to level the playing field. The larger truth, however, is more strategic. The "soft" power of moral suasion did more to end the Cold War than the "hard" power of military and economic coercion. The same could be true in this century. But Americans don't think strategically -- we tend to respond to events rather than shape them.
America's adversaries are not really most afraid of its military or even economic power. They are most afraid of its moral power, because they can't compete with it. Yet, we have often overlooked and taken this for granted. But Americans want to see results, and see them quickly, so we look for technical solutions and throw money and hardware at the problem. Send in the Marines.
The likes of Osama bin Laden have been very well aware of this, then as now. Because they can't compete with us ideologically, they pick a fight with us instead, poking us in the eye, knowing how we would respond. And so far, we've taken the bait, playing global Whack-a-Mole with the bad guys, all the while draining our resources and diminishing our international standing.
Want to know what "asymmetric warfare" really is? The direct and indirect damages of 9/11 are nearly 1½ trillion dollars. Add to that the 2½ trillion dollars it's cost us to chase down a couple hundred of these guys by draining the swamps in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the "War on Terror". Put those four-trillion or so dollars against the few million it cost them to put on that little operation ten years ago, and a few more million in other operations to keep us running scared, and you there you have it. We can't go on like this, as our current debt crisis is proving.
Things have certainly changed since 9/11, but many of those changes were already well underway by then. On 9/11, security for Americans became clearly globalized - no longer something "over there". Not so readily apparent was that security, for most of the rest of the world, had also already become more humanized. Security itself had transformed into something more local and personal.
Much of what many abroad are calling "security" is what many of us here are calling threats to our own way of life. Rising social unrest in response to everything from food prices, public pensions, poor educational and other opportunities, and wealth disparities, to natural disasters and disaffection with obsolete approaches to governance in general, demonstrate that security, prosperity, and social welfare had become intertwined. Security is now everybody's business. The Arab Spring has not only undermined the message of violent extremists that only their way can bring about change. It has pointed out that interconnected people can be more powerful than governments.
That means any discussion of 9/11 must be a globalized discussion between people and not just governments. That's why programs like the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Fellowship Program and other such people-to-people exchanges go further to promoting security than billions of dollars of military hardware. Rather than relying on the media, dozens of international fellows from around the world gain a more thorough understanding of attitudes, politics, business, culture, and society by meeting a variety of people, participating in their way of life, and applying the lessons learned in the their capacity of leadership in their home countries.
In today's networked world, it's more about the power of ideas - but more importantly, how ideas could be communicated and made to work in people's lives. Moral power.
That's good news for us, because the truth is that the foundation of America's strength has always been moral. Unlike most countries, America is about an idea, not a human category. America's greatest natural resource and comparative advantage is its dynamic, multicultural society drawn together by a unifying concept that transcends human categorization - e pluribus unum. This unique amalgamation of both an immigration and assimilation culture is at the heart of the American ideal. It's what makes the United States a moral superpower. Even if China has twice our gross national product or builds more aircraft carriers, they cannot pirate this societal software.
But, the way we approach the world through our foreign and national security policies is woefully inappropriate and counterproductive. And we can no longer afford it. Our overpriced military-industrial complex, predicated on global dominance and an abundance of cheap technology and capital, is no longer part of the solution set but part of our problem set, along with our sclerotic government processes. And the greatest enemy of all is the fear that has gripped our culture since 9/11.
Those who dislike America do not dislike it so much because of its freedom or modernity; they dislike it most of all because of the gap between the talk we talk and the walk we walk - between what we say we're about and what our policies actually have us do, at home and in the world. The larger the gap, the less credibility we have - and the less our moral power.
Now more than ever, our moral power should underwrite our approach to the world - more what we're about than what we're afraid of and more about opportunities than threats, strength than power, and people than things. The death of bin Laden, the outbreak of popular uprisings in his part of the world, and even the 9/11 commemorations are an opportunity for us to get back on the right side of history, if we first replace our culture of fear with our more trademark eternal optimism. By re-connecting itself with and reaffirming its foundational moral strength and character, the United States can transform its leadership role most appropriate for a new age and a new world it no longer dominates, but no longer has to.
Living well is indeed the best revenge, but not by going back to the shopping mall. Rather, we need to become more of the country our enemies fear and our friends would like to admire openly again.
Never forgetting means to never stop learning, in order to have better mornings after.