I Want To Believe in the Resilience of American Democracy

Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

It will soon be 20 years since that day. That day, Sept. 11, 2001, when two airliners were hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. To help refresh our memory of that time, I would like to review a few keywords from my notes.

First, there were people who referred to the attacks as the “second Pearl Harbor.” This is an analogy: On a clear morning, a sudden tragedy changed the course of history. However, this was not Hawaii, far from the mainland, but America’s economic heart, Manhattan, which was attacked. For better or for worse, the memory of Pearl Harbor has faded since 9/11. December of this year will mark the 80th anniversary of that attack, but it is unlikely that much attention will be paid to its commemoration.

The Economist referred to 9/11 as “the day that changed everything.” Certainly, when as much as happened on 9/11 happens in one day, it is hard to believe that things could go on without changing.

In America, structural reform to prevent terrorism was carried out, including the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. Intelligence activities were reviewed, and government surveillance of its citizens’ everyday lives was strengthened. For us, too, there was change. That it became such a fuss to board a plane was, of course, because awareness of “security” in every possible environment became the norm.

Another phrase I often heard was “clash of civilizations.” There were numerous optimistic theories in the 1990s. The Cold War had ended, and peace would visit the world. The global economy would keep growing, and the spread of the internet and the IT revolution would change people’s understanding of the world. The power of the individual would expand, the role of the state would contract and multinational corporations and international institutions would come to play a critical role in international affairs.

What occurred instead, however, was a clash of religious and ethnic groups that could not understand each other. Humanity was not as wise as was presumed, and conflict did not end. The role of the state expanded as we became forced to grapple with a number of issues, from aging societies to economic security, climate change and the prevention of pandemics.

The Development of the Internet and the Division It Wrought

The development of the internet certainly brought about numerous new products and services that changed our way of life. However, at the same time, internet spaces have served as a breeding ground for hate speech and conspiracy theories. They have even become a new method for recruiting terrorists. Rather than promoting the increased consciousness of the world’s diversity, the internet has brought about the polarization of public opinion and division. That democracy has a surprising fragility is indeed, one of the lessons of these past 20 years.

Security experts have explained terrorism as an “asymmetrical threat.” If this were a conflict between two countries, the threat of mass reprisals could serve as a deterrent. In other words, if one is attacked, one must attack back. This is the history of war. However, if one’s adversary is a terrorist network, it becomes unclear against just whom one should retaliate. Therefore, it is hard to completely wipe out the threat.

America first attacked Afghanistan, and then Iraq. As per the oft-quoted words of George F. Kennan, “Democracy fights in anger.”

At the time, the neoconservatives, who were proud of American prosperity, argued that to wipe out terrorism, it would be necessary to democratize the Middle East. On the left, liberal hawks proclaimed that it was necessary to focus on nation-building in failed states like Afghanistan. It may be hard to believe now, but at the time, the American military intervention received bipartisan support.

Ten years later, in May 2011, the leader of the al-Qaida group that planned the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, was killed by the U.S. Army in Pakistan. This did not, however, end the threat of terrorism. In the Middle East, the Islamic State Sunni radical Islamist group, which is even more brutal than al-Qaida, emerged.

In spite of this, America withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of last month. As if to abandon all it had worked for, it ended 20 years of fighting in what was the longest war in American history.

With an End to Arrogance, a Fresh Start

Afghanistan has once again fallen into the hands of the Taliban. There are concerns that it may once again become a failed state, and a hotbed of terrorism. Despite this, I think President Joe Biden’s decision was the correct one. To make a fresh start, he had to put an end to the arrogance of the past.

Twenty years on from the 9/11 attacks, I am reminded of the words of James Bryce. While future Japanese Prime Minister Kijūrō Shidehara was serving as counselor to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, he became friends with Bryce, the British ambassador to the United States. Bryce offered the following advice to Shidehara, who was struggling to improve Japanese American relations:

“If we review American history, we can see that there are many examples where America has committed what could be considered wrongdoings against other countries. However, America has always corrected these mistakes of its own volition. It does not yield to the pressure of even fierce foreign public opinion.”

I would like to believe that, even now, American democracy possesses that kind of resilience.

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About Max Guerrera-Sapone 11 Articles
Max has a degree in Japanese studies from University of Edinburgh. His research is focused on Japanese internet politics and media studies. He also has a deep interest in Japanese linguistics, and specifically, the Japanese writing system.

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