Historical anniversaries are strange things, requiring a measure of solemnity and attention that most of us are either too busy or apathetic to muster. Small wonder last year's tenth anniversary of the 9/11/01 bombings did not, at least in my experience, pique the collective American psyche, apart from the families and friends of the victims, of course. Yet imperfect anniversaries provide the seeds for subsequent improvement. Maybe one way to commemorate 9/11/01 is not through remembering how we have felt, but summarizing what we have learned. In this vein, for the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, on a Tuesday with blue skies very similar to those in New York on that awful day, I offer my take on the top 11 lessons of the post-9/11 years:
11. Emergency services rock! Firemen, the police and other domestic first-responders have enjoyed a boost in popularity and portrayal in popular culture since their heroic actions in New York and elsewhere on 9/11. I still see those commemorative New York Fire Department shirts all over the place. This seems totally reasonable.
10. Other public employees don't rock. Teachers, government officials, the clergy, and other public folks who struggled after 9/11 to restore order and make sense of what happened on that dark day have not exactly been praised for their efforts. Instead, at least some Americans appear to hate their government and want teachers to lose collective bargaining rights and other benefits. This seems crazy.
9. Islam is not the enemy. But we already knew that, right? Or, at least those increasing numbers of Americans who are Muslims or know Muslims do. Sadly, Islamophobia still seems to play well in certain segments of American media culture.
8. We haven't really won the war on terror. I have enough friends in Homeland Security and the Pentagon to appreciate the strides the U.S. has made in understanding and deterring potential extremist attacks. Yet, what fuels the attacks seems to relate to broader questions of ideology and conditions abroad, some of which are discussed below.
7. Freedom can still be free. If, as many believe, Islamist extremism depends more on foreign issues of ideology and opportunity, it's not clear what justifies all of the ongoing restrictions on Americans' freedom that have persisted since right after the attacks. Indeed, in light of the domestic sources of mass attacks in the U.S. in the past several years, maybe increased government monitoring of guns, instead of routine information, would help prevent more widespread violence.
6. International law matters. Americans' popular dislike for international law, and umbrage that somehow a global legal standard can tell our country what it should do, helps explain why the U.S. hasn't signed onto useful international legal mechanisms like the new International Criminal Court. And yet, the international support for the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban in 2002 and reluctance to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq the following year had a lot to do with the former's much greater justification, and the latter's blatant illegality, in international law. Nor did the U.S. do itself globally any favors by straining to find reasons that torturing Guantanamo Bay detainees could be legal during President Bush's first term. Legality, even in the international system, actually is increasing in the difference it makes in global political outcomes.
5. The Road to Jerusalem wasn't through Baghdad. Many of Bush's foreign policy advisers argued that forcibly democratizing Iraq would solve the region's problem areas, such as Iranian regional ambitions and the Israeli/Palestinian standoff. Experts like me with deep experience in the Middle East disagreed strongly. Unfortunately, we were right.
4. What's (Bin) Laden Got to Do With It? The evil 9/11 mastermind is dead, Obama did it, and the Democratic Party is trying to make a big deal of this. But, is it just me, or do most Americans not to care so much that Bin Laden is gone? Maybe the country doesn't care that much about the war on terror in the long run, which is another reason to go back to number 7 above.
3. It's about the Economy, stupid. To re-purpose the famous Clinton presidential campaign slogan, though I'm no economist, the trillions of dollars that the U.S. and other countries spent in Afghanistan and Iraq seems to have had at least some connection to the real challenges of the global economy, which hit right before the 2008 election. This is something about which clearly Americans do care.
2. It's about Autonomy, stupid (part 1). One of the things that HAS helped the war on terror is that most people in the Arab countries from which the 9/11 hijackers originated did not approve of these extreme acts of their disaffected countrymen. We have seen consistent and decreasing support for extremism in the Middle East and North Africa. And it's had little to do with how much the repressive Arab regimes -- some of which the U.S. once supported -- tried to force people into rejecting political Islam.
1. It's about Autonomy, stupid (part 2). Indeed, Arab popular dissatisfaction with highly coercive Arab governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and now Syria, is perhaps the most significant development in the Middle East in the 11 years since 9/11. And, as I hope Americans know by now, Arabs staged democratic uprisings all by themselves. Or perhaps with a little help from the ideals of freedom and the rule of law for which the United States has been famous. At least before 9/11/01.