The base of the Washington's statue after September 11, 2001
During the days immediately following September 11, I found myself irresistibly going over in my mind the opening passages from the Declaration of Independence, with its self-evident truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It struck me, once again, how bold a statement it was—how deeply radical in its implications, and how subversive of the closed world of privilege it still was after so many centuries and setbacks to its full realization; how confident it was in its self-evidence, brazen in its association of life with liberty and both with happiness. I reveled in its combination of frontiersman ethos and eighteenth-century idealism, on how it saw happiness as a pursuit—both a vain, headlong chase toward an unreachable goal and at the same time an avocation, a considered task befitting the wild romantics and hard-headed rationalists that “Americans” have sometimes imagined themselves to be when they look at people like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Benjamin Franklin, Dale Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, and other determined fighters for self-improvement for all and champions of the individual brilliance of the solitary citizen.
I was drawn deeply to its promises to extend liberty—an American liberty—to all men, and then people, wherever they were, whether they were citizens or not: the right to be free, to think, to congregate, to speak, to practice whatever faith they chose. In the wake of September 11, I too agreed with Le Monde
when it declared that we were all Americans now. America was the people—all the people, wherever they were from, whatever they believed, whatever work they did—who died in the towers. If that was America, then, yes, I also was an American.
Within my immediate world, the events of September 11 shifted slightly over time, and became more intimate. I discovered that, while no one I knew directly had died in the towers, a friend’s brother had, and I later on met a woman who had lost a son. Neither the friend nor the woman saw what had happened to them as a cause for chest-thumping patriotism or a flailing anger. Nor did the young man from Calcutta, India, who came into my office two or three weeks after September 11 to sell me web services and who it transpired had been working in the towers when they had been hit. His story of survival and faith moved and galvanized me and we together published a book about that day and his life a year later (Do You Know Where You Are Going?
)—as we did the work of a Taiwanese Buddhist nun (Safeguarding the Heart
) and a Catholic monk (The Transformation of Suffering
), reflecting on the various meanings that day had to someone of their faith.
In the aftermath, I found it hard to draw any political meaning for the event beyond a weary “welcome to the world.” Having been raised in England during the 1970s and 1980s, I was used to thinking of terrorism as a threat you lived with—an occasional headache and inconvenience that disrupted your life to a greater or lesser extent, but not something that governed your every waking moment. Even though the United States and Europe had lived through the Cold War, with its attendant deep anxieties and absurdities surrounding mutually assured destruction, somehow it seemed to me the United States had escaped the anxiety and mild fatalism of, for instance, Germany (with its Red Brigade), Spain (with Eta), Greece (with the November 17 group) and the United Kingdom (with the Irish Republican Army). To be sure, the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army had captured headlines and a few hostages, and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was still fresh in all of our memories, but the U.S. seemed incurably optimistic and open to the possibility that the world might be improved and that people could change and be changed. That was part of the attraction for me, and I imagine generations of immigrants: that the United States was the place you fled to in order to escape the pogroms, the deliberately induced famines, the genocides and cleansings of Europe, or southeast Asia, or Africa.
For weeks after September 11, Union Square became one of the main locations in New York for people to gather to reflect on what had happened. The missing persons signs proliferated until they covered seemingly every surface of the southernmost part of Union Square. The base of the statue of George Washington, sitting atop his horse and pointing a metal finger downtown to the financial center and Federal Hall where he was inaugurated, was covered with flowers and flags, and there were candles everywhere. With a group of friends, I attended a candlelight vigil held a few days after September 11, and “Give Peace a Chance” mingled with “God Bless America” and even “America the Beautiful.” On that night, and seemingly for weeks afterward, Union Square wasn’t a place for Left versus Right, or Us against Them. Instead, a space was created where you could be angry and mourn and pray for peace or justice and still be an American and an internationalist.
I watched from my office as President Bill Clinton walked downtown through Union Square, surrounded by well-wishers and people applauding him for being there, and there was something poignant about a former head of state offering counsel and his presence. It made you feel that the ship of state weren’t going to sink any time soon.
It is difficult to imagine now, five years on, how rich in potential and possibility that moment was—how wounded and vulnerable and, paradoxically, how attractive and powerful America was. I kept waiting for a big plan that would reshape the world in a way that would draw a line under the Cold War, and its fragmentations and emergent nationalism. I hoped that this would draw a line under the feverish, monied decades of the 1980s and 1990s, and bring forth a new paradigm: a reinvigoration of the idea of the community of nations; a new energy policy that would radically reshape the Middle East and alleviate the even greater threat of global warming; an intense re-engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a recognition of decades of American hypocrisy in propping up dictators and an establishment of principled foreign policy that would in all ways foster the same spirit of freedom, even when the freedom and democracy espoused was not comforting to the United States.
Instead, what emerged over the next few years was, I felt, a narrow and unimaginative policy gussied up with high-toned rhetoric. The response to September 11, 2001 became almost solely an American event, using American materiel and money. The attack became not an assault on the very meaning of pluralism, but on the nation state itself, and, as a result, it was nation states rather than individuals who had to be punished. What could have been a global policing operation combined with an extensive diplomatic campaign, became a militarized theological struggle—specifically a crusade—against Evil in a world of extreme opposites and simple divisions. The result is that the United States is more vulnerable to attack than before and that terrorism has spread to areas where it formally was not to be found.
In the course of the next five years, the window of change, where the world waited poised to follow enlightened American leadership (as it had in World War II) closed—just as it had closed after the euphoric days following the end of World War II or the Prague Spring or the collapse of the Berlin Wall or the end of the Soviet Union. America went it alone, and what had once been an almost universal sympathy with what occurred on September 11 turned in a few short months into almost universal antipathy, as the world refused to accept the Manichean, theologically driven view of the world promoted by the White House.
The possibility of establishing a new world order focused on principles of freedom and the rule of law descended into an ill-considered foray into nation building and both good will and capital were squandered by an incompetent and an ideologically blinkered administration that let rhetoric substitute for planning. Within the country itself, that sense of solidarity dissolved into bitter partisanship. With a weak opposition cowered into submission by the politics of fear, the government determined that freedoms needed to be curtailed, torture tolerated, individuals denied their rights to a trial. Even within its own Republican party, the government quashed dissent and allowed foolish decisions to be made without due consideration for their consequence.
Tomorrow, Part IV