I don’t know how to put the diagnosis any more courteously, but the West has lost its mind since Sept. 11, 2001. It ceased behaving rationally and allowed a man directing a jihadist group from his caves to derail it from the real challenges of the future. The West is paying for it and will do so for a long time.
The world has changed a lot in the last ten years, but surprisingly few of those changes have to do directly with 9/11 or the world’s self-expectations in the immediate aftermath.
No, that day did not change the world in the sense that people wrote about cheaply back then. Osama bin Ladin was a big threat, but he was not a new Hitler, as he was labeled, a direct threat “to our civilization, our freedom and our way of life,” as Bush said.
No, Osama did not make great history; he only made great headlines.
Osama the Switchman
He was not the man who had the greatest influence on the history of the beginning of the millennium because he threatened the West. He succeeded only in one thing: he adjusted the rail switch which sent the West onto the wrong track.
I still remember how the news was rewritten every time Osama spoke from his hiding place. Those were the weeks when Dick Cheney said that further terrorist attacks were unavoidable, FBI director Robert Mueller warned Americans to prepare for another wave of attacks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added that sooner or later terrorists would acquire access to weapons of mass destruction.
If you'll remember, those were the times when newspapers regularly ran articles on what would happen if an atomic bomb exploded in New York, and how jihadists might produce one and transport it there. It seemed there were terrorists all around. And anthrax was everywhere, too.
A group of fanatics directed from a cave became a direct existential threat comparable to the Nazis during the Second World War and communism during the Cold War.
“They will terrorize themselves”
We enlarged the shadows and then we fought with them. We lost our sense of proportion. To be perfectly clear: Al-Qaida was a genuine threat, and even though it had been brought to its knees, it still remained a threat.
We were snookered by their plan even when they themselves revealed it. In a 2004 video recording, bin Laden boasted that he would make America hurt itself. “All we have to do is send two mujaheddin ... to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaida’ in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.” Elsewhere he proclaimed, “The Americans will terrorize themselves.”
“[I]t would remain for the United States to spring the trap,” wrote the legendary television announcer Ted Koppel. “Through the initial spending of a few hundred thousand dollars, training and then sacrificing 19 of his foot soldiers, bin Laden has watched his relatively tiny and all but anonymous organization of a few hundred zealots turn into the most recognized international franchise since McDonald's. Could any enemy of the United States have achieved more with less?”
What it cost
On the other hand, America has suffered thoroughly. The shock from 9/11 was inexpressible, and the reaction corresponded to that shock. The overthrow of the Taliban was correct, vigorous and necessary, but then came the grave mistake in Iraq. Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, torture. All sanctified by the great mission of fighting the deadly threat in the “War on Terror,” a term which America finally, quietly tossed into the wastebasket. But the damage was already done.
Immediately after 9/11, America had the moral support of most of the world, which it then squandered in Iraq. Today it sounds unbelievable that after the fall of the Taliban people spoke of America as the new Rome of the twenty-first century. Now America is tired, because the following years revealed the limits of its power, which was well demonstrated in Libya, where the U.S. was merely a bystander to NATO action. And now Americans applaud even Republicans who call for bringing the troops home.
It all cost huge sums of money, not to mention lives. To break up one terrorist group, the U.S. has spent as much as $4 trillion, which, as The Economist figured it, is the sum of all the budget deficits from 2005 to 2010. And these expenses became one of the reasons for the financial crisis, which (again, words are cheap) has shaken faith in the feasibility of the Western paradigm.
But the results extend to different levels. The hysteria of the first years and the scandal over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which were never found, also led to distrust towards politicians. People are much less likely than before to believe the government when it informs them about terrorism, finances or the future — even when it is telling the truth. As if to say, “don’t believe anything unless it is officially denied.”
The media have likewise not acted as a counterbalance. The American press obediently parroted politicians’ claims about Saddam’s missiles and poison gas and al-Qaida’s dirty bombs. People who read books on World War II will be surprised to learn that American journalists of that time were much more critical and more thorough in their research than journalists during the “War on Terror,” even though back then everything was indeed at stake: freedom, civilization and millions of lives.
Some even speak of the beginning of the American decline. I don’t believe in it, personally. America will remain a superpower, but it no longer has the might to determine the direction of world events on its own.
The main film was playing elsewhere
While America was in the side theaters attending to its box-office hits named Afghanistan and Iraq, the main film of the decade was playing elsewhere.
Many Americans said bitterly after Vietnam: While we were running around in the jungle, the Japanese were busy selling motorcycles in Saigon. And while headlines may have belonged to bin Laden, the future was being written in China, India and Brazil. The critical issue for the future is not Islamic terrorism, but the shift of power from west to east. The world order no longer belongs solely to the West.
There is no doubt that the “War on Terror” has saved the world from further attacks, but the expended effort was often overwrought and disproportional to the threat. Even the bravest team of Navy Seals, like the one that got Osama in the spring, can never bring back America’s — or the West’s — ten lost years.
Ten years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001 and that is enough time for America to finally get over its catharsis and liberate itself from that day once and for all. Its future depends on how quickly it refocuses on what is really important. It should start looking forward and not overhead for fear of more airplanes.