Accessibility links

Breaking News

Dateline: Scholars Offer Reflections on 9-11 Attacks - 2002-06-17

Modern historians believe that September 11, 2001 marked a turning point in the social, political and emotional lives of Americans. At a recent conference, commentators tried to make sense of 9-11 and find out how much America and the world changed since the attacks of that fateful day.

One day we were blissfully safe and unsuspecting. The next we were violated beyond our wildest imaginings. Although the possibility of further attacks remains a concern, whatever form they might take would surprise no one. Life cannot be the same again, but we must carry on, stronger if sadder, with renewed purpose and lasting memory.

Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution in California, is the editor of a collection of new essays on the impact of September 11 called Our Brave New World. "For better and for worse," he said, "that day's attacks continue to be felt and the impact remains overstated, underestimated, is seen as unnerving, demoralizing, the staff of heroism, of cowardice, bringing out the best and worst in us."

Everyone in the United States remembers what he or she was doing on September 11. It was a Tuesday, a beautiful morning in New York City, Washington, DC and the fields of rural Pennsylvania. Then in an instant, everything changed.

The terrorist attacks carried out against the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a commercial jet, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania, marked the beginning of a new era in American history. People started to measure time as "before and after" September 11. Although this date is now engraved in our common memory, remarkably, it is still very difficult to grasp the enormity of what we call now, the "event."

That's the view of one of the contributors to Our Brave New World, Managing Editor of the magazine The New Criterion, Roger Kimball. "There is nothing so unforeseen as an 'event'" he said. "Had I been asked, on September 10, 2001, whether New York's Twin Towers would continue standing for 'the foreseeable future,' I should have answered, 'yes. And so, in one sense, they did. Only my foresight was not penetrating enough, not farseeing enough, to accommodate that most pedestrian of eventualities: an 'event.' "

And this "event" altered us. Scholars say it changed our perception of the outside world, our sense of security, and, on a lager scale, the world's geopolitical landscape.

What makes it difficult to grasp the impact of 9-11 is that it is the first attack in a new kind of war. As Professor Daniel Pipes, Director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum puts it, something "large and complex" happened to begin this new conflict. But our enemy remains still very much obscure. Professor Pipes said, "It's occurred to me in the last few months that we are in something large and complex, not of course nearly as large in the military sense, but many, many times more complex conceptually than World War II and we don't have that fat book yet."

Since we don't have that book, and we find ourselves in the middle of a strange and still-not understood war, all we can do, said Roger Kimball of The New Criterion, is try to interpret this war's many sifting contradictory developments. He, like many analysts, now believes all the elements of the September 11 attack were present long before the strikes actually took place.

"Today," he said, "the events of September 11 can seem almost inevitable. Reasons have been furnished for every detail. Plausible itineraries have been repeated until they seem like predictions. All of those reasons and explanations were available on September 10. A look at the literature shows that some had been propounded for years. But they lacked the traction that events give to hindsight. They were not part of the foreseeable future until that future, unforeseen, overtook us."

To try to make some sense of what happened on September 11 from the Islamic perspective, Professor Daniel Pipes said one has to understand 1,400 years of Muslim history.

In a statement issued on October 7, the day the U.S. began its offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush referred to the "sudden terror" that had descended on the United States just 27 days earlier.

But terrorist leader Osama bin Laden commented that same day that the Muslim world had experienced more than eighty years of "humiliation and disgrace" at the hands of the West. Twenty-seven days versus eighty years sums up the difference between a stunned American sense of broken innocence, and the brooding militant Islamic feeling of epochal betrayal.

According to Professor Pipes, this Muslim sense of betrayal translated into anger, envy, hostility, fear and political extremism. And he warns, terrorism has become the vehicle for the political extremists who sow destruction under the banner of militant Islam. He questions the popular view that a "clash of civilizations" will lead to war between the Islamic and Western worlds. The real battle, he said, is between two Islams - the militant and the moderate.

"Militant Islam," he continued, "is the enemy and I would estimate ten to fifteen percent of the Muslim world subscribes to this ideology. Ultimately, in this regard, it's different from the World War II and the Cold War - and ultimately we are not in the position to argue with them. This is not like us and the Soviets where we had an ideology that we could apply directly to the Soviets and to the others. In this case, because it is framed within the Muslim religion, I would argue that this is not a clash of civilizations but it is a clash of interpretations among Muslims. There are Muslims with different points of view and they in the end must argue this out."

So, a different kind of war requires different kinds of tactics. It also may require a different kind of American foreign policy.

Anne Appelbaum, a freelance journalist based in London and Warsaw, said the new foreign policy that will emerge from 9-11 will more closely hew to the interests of the United States. "Since then," she said, "I think there is a much clearer sense what the point is and what we do it for - by foreign policy, I mean defense professionals, the Army and everybody involved in engagement abroad. You know we know what is for - it's about defending the United States, it's about promoting, I don't want to say an American vision, but promoting our vision of the world."

And what exactly is the "American" vision of the world? Roger Kimball compares the United States of 2002 to the ancient Greeks of Athens in the way both loved freedom, civil liberties, and democratic convictions. He offered the example of Pericles, the great leader of the Athenians. At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, when many of his soldiers perished in a losing battle, Pericles delivered a public oration for them at a state funeral.

Roger Kimball said Pericles could show America the way in her long struggle with an often-faceless foe. "In celebrating what the Athenians had achieved," he said, "Pericles was also reminding them of all they stood to lose. His funeral oration was therefore not only an elegy but also a plea for resoluteness and a call to arms. Pericles was right. The open society depends upon the interdiction of forces calculated to destroy it. 'We who remain behind,' he said, 'may hope to be spared the fate of the fallen, but must resolve to keep the same daring spirit against the foe.'"

According to James Bowman, the American editor of the Times Literary Supplement and Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, ordinary Americans never had any problems with keeping that spirit up. Mr. Bowman said, "In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, most of those who had a public ear were talking of the rights and wrongs of the supposed cause of the events that took place and the rage, as they called it, of the 'Arab street' caused by whatever it was that anyone cared to say it was caused by - racism, poverty, injustice, globalization and the list goes on. But to ordinary Americans, I think they cared very little for such considerations and calmly concluded that we had to hit back if we were to hold our heads up among the nations."

Not all scholars and analysts agree with those sentiments. Some believe the Islamic world has legitimate grievances against the West although they do not justify the attacks. Others think the United States paid a frightful price for years of misguided and ill-conceived foreign policies that ignored and overlooked those who were not like us.

Still more favor the carrot over the stick, or worry the country may lose its cherished freedoms in the name of increased security.

If September 11 is truly a historical and political dividing line for the United States, we know what went before. We're still developing the history that will follow. The scholars, both in America and the world, will make their judgments once it becomes clear what has taken place on both sides of the historical divide that straddles the unforgettable date of September 11.