President George W. Bush, Davenport ’68, loved to say that “9/11 changed everything.” This is true on a micro-level, but less so on a macro. That day had so many competing influences on us, each pushing us in a different direction, that it’s not clear where we are now relative to where we were before.
At the turn of the millennium, it was easy to speak of the “End of History.” The nationalist passions and ideological challenges to democratic liberalism that had long driven global conflict looked largely exhausted. The multiplying volume and importance of trade in goods and information made the new global elite decidedly cosmopolitan — national origin was, for the educated and affluent citizens of the world, a happenstance, rather than the essence, of identity.
The destruction of the twin towers briefly interrupted this, and bared our previously hidden, lingering national attachments. Even Yalies, who typically define themselves in opposition to the earnest flag-waving of Middle America, felt strange surges of emotion on behalf of victims with whom they shared “nothing but citizenship” — as they did again after bin Laden’s death.
The 9/11 hijackers were obviously not representative of the Islamic world as a whole, but they directed our attention to places that were successfully resisting History’s end — where women are things, homosexuals and apostates are hung, the murder of 3,000 innocents is cheered on the streets, and genocidal anti-Semitism is a winning stump speech. Where, in short, it is impossible for serious people to be culturally egalitarian moral relativists. 9/11 was a reminder that we are good and they are evil. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” replaced Fukuyama’s “End of History” as the global catch-phrase.
As America went to one war, and then another, progressives complained of a nationalist hysteria washing over the country. And this complaint grew so modish as to become a self-refuting discourse. After all, if all of us were victims of aggressive patriotism, then how numerous and powerful could the perpetrators really be? In fact, it was during the time of this nail-biting that young Americans abroad began to ostentatiously disown their country, sewing Canadian flags on their backpacks and affording Noam Chomsky a strange new respect. Rather than redoubling our patriotism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aggravated our culture war. The specter of a syntax-challenged, ostensibly Texan, ostensibly Christian Yalie unilaterally initiating invasions of Muslim countries was like the collective hallucination of Cambridge, Mass. (or coastal, latte towns more generally) on a bad LSD trip. Even as 9/11 disrupted the promise of post-national cosmopolitanism, it also engendered controversies, coastal-heartland divides and American guilt over over-stepping, all strong enough to erode our patriotism.
9/11 produced a small, angry, and marginal reaction against Islam per se from small, angry, and marginal people. More significantly, this reaction allowed aggrieved activists to make improbable, and successful, claims to victim status for Muslims. The end result is a strange dynamic in which a cadre of bloggers fulminates over every new mosque, while socially respectable people are unwilling to have a serious conversation about the problems that characterize Islamic societies without resorting to synchronized rehearsals of condescending and illiterate pieties, or random affixations of prefixes to the suffix “-phobia.” See, exempli gratia, Yale University, and its cancellation of the Initiative on the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism.
9/11’s ties to religion fueled what may, in the long run, turn out to be the day’s most profound influence: The emergence of aggressive and popular “new atheists” who have guilted mainstream religion by association, and a youth that as a result finds religion repulsive. It is a little-noticed irony that in the same decade that saw endless media hand-wringing over “ascendant evangelicalism,” the statistics showed a run-up to newly high levels of religious non-affiliation in America. By accelerating secularization, then, 9/11 may over the long term accelerate “The End of History.”
9/11 showed us both the necessity and limitations of American power. The necessity, because it reminded us of how many irredeemably evil, ugly people there are in the world, and how transnational institutions can be too listless, compromised, and distracted by anti-American and anti-Israeli resentments to combat them. And the limitations, because from Korea to today America has not really won a war. Afghanistan remains a quagmire. Iraq is joining Iran’s sphere of influence. America exhausted international political capital getting Saddam Hussein. Seven thousand coalition troops died to catch Osama. And almost simultaneously, in the year of the 10th anniversary, the Arab Spring showed how social media, rising food prices, simple demographics, and autochthonous sentiments can be more effective in deposing dictators than laser-guided missiles (which are also, incidentally, of limited use in installing democracy).
And after all that effort, as America’s treasury is drained by foreign adventures and domestic sclerosis, and the West shows no signs of bouncing back from the financial crisis, it has become clear that the real challenge to liberal democracy was never posed by self-destructive illiterates in Kandahar, but will come — if it will come at all — from China, which has seen another decade of astonishing growth under one-party rule, while being comparatively ignored by Washington.
How has American identity and America’s place in the world changed in the last 10 years? Both are weaker and more confused.
Matthew Shaffer is a 2010 graduate of Davenport College.