Yesterday, my day was focused around taking the MCAT exam West Des Moines, so this post is obviously a day late. In a way this was an interesting coincidence since I was sitting in 9th grade biology class when I first heard the news of the attack on the World Trade Center.
It seems clear to me that despite the time elapsed and despite the difference in perspective that that time has brought, the September 11 attacks still weight heavily on the national conscious and probably in no small part due to the New York-centered nature of our national media. In particular, this year, we have seen a great deal of political neuroticism in the issues surrounding the Park51 project’s Islamic community center plans two blocks from what is currently still a pile of rubble in southern Manhattan.
The fury over this issue just so happened to culminate in a threatened demonstration including the burning of Qur’ans by a marginal preacher in Florida on September 11, which was coincident with year’s Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking end of Ramadan and one of the most important Muslim holidays. Fortunately, the event did not transpire, but that didn’t prevent protests from occurring in American-occupied Afghanistan.
Despite the drama, I think that it is useful to use this time to look back at what happened, how we reacted, and what that means for us now. We find ourselves slowly extricating ourselves from one war, still mired in another, and in the midst of a set of economic and fiscal challenges. All three situations can trace, in varying degrees, their causal lineage to the image of two Boeing 767 crashing into the tallest pair of buildings in New York.
That image still has emotional valence today, but the enthusiasm that pushed us into a war targeted at the perpetrators of the attack and the allies that sheltered them has waned. We now see the difficulties with which our choices, what seemed to be very clear choices at the time, leave us. We have a strained military, drained coffers, and a feeling of obligation to prop up the corrupt ineffectual government we helped devise to replace the fundamentalist Taliban regime that we removed for their support and shelter of the group behind the attacks.
Closer to home, the attacks have left a scar in the our view of the world beyond our borders. America is said to be a multicultural nation, but the fact is that many Americans wouldn’t know a Muslim from a Sikh or the distinction between Islam as a religion and Arabs as an ethno-linguistic group. 9/11 may invoke strong feelings, but often how Americans define “the enemy” varies from person to person.
My hope is that as the future advances, America will pull back from its adventures abroad and the frame our foreign policy will move away from one that vaguely approximates an ideological clash between the West and radical Islam with moderate Muslims and Arab rulers acting as both pawns and power brokers in between. We need to restore a sense of proportion to our outlook. By setting violent extremist ideologues as our main focus of attention, we’ve merely taken their view of the world and put it up to a mirror.
And in so doing, we’ve had a great deal of hidden success. 9 years ago, al-Qaeda pulled of a very sophisicated and effective attack, whereas their plan last year was to send a Nigerian to Detroit with explosives in his undergarments, only to see it fail. We can continue to pour our resources into this effort, but we face the law of diminishing returns and in the process our devotion to the cause damages us more than al-Qaeda could hope to.
In time, as the psychological wounds continue to heal and a new wave of challenges approaches us, the fixations of the past 9 years will ebb away. May we have a more measured attitude when the next crisis hits.