By Jonathan Fried
This year, One World Trade Center will finally open its doors to the world as rebirth incarnate, an immensely powerful symbol of American resilience and strength. It has endured its fair share of criticisms: its 1776-meter height is unauthentic and unambitious; it is alienating and dull; its fortified base smells of paranoia and fear. Yet the simple truth is this: nearly thirteen years after the fall of the Twin Towers, Americans have rebuilt their lives and moved on. The face of our nation has changed dramatically, and our collective national psyche continues to grapple with the effects of 9/11 and our military response. We have engendered and endured a tumultuous twelve years, and despite our divided politics, we are a much wiser nation today than we were in 2001.
Many of our present-day American psychoses, from foreign policy to domestic economic policy, stem from the titanic gap between our machismo overcompensation after the attack on the Twin Towers and the catastrophic lows of self-doubt and depression that followed. This aftermath includes our responsive constitutional violations, xenophobia, and overzealous investments. We were united by catastrophe, but in our hubris we sowed the seeds of division. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed Congress by a cumulative vote of 518-1, while the Patriot Act, now considered one of the most controversial laws of the past decade, cleared the congressional hurdle 455-67. We eviscerated Clinton’s surplus and held down interest rates, and we did so with little or no criticism. We shrugged off the malaise of the dot-com bubble and carried the boom of the 90’s forward because we were the greatest nation on Earth and we did not know what else to do. We looked into our unified soul and found power, strength, and resilience; but also fear, self-doubt, and uncertainty. We longed for justice, and marched to Kabul. We feared for our sons and daughters, and streaked across the skies to Baghdad. Whether wisely or not, we led boldly and embraced our global hegemony.
As we beat back the barbarians, we felt ourselves on the ledge of something new, as C.P. Cavafy so eloquently described in his 1904 poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”:
Why all of a sudden this unrest and confusion.
(How solemn the faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders, and said that
there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.
We beat back the barbarians and gave them the war we never knew they wanted. Osama bin Laden left a powerful legacy: neither a global caliphate nor an independent Palestine, but a Great Satan sapped of strength by a slow bloodletting in Iraq and Afghanistan. More importantly, he goaded us into overplaying our hand: American foreign policy in the period 2001- 2008 was characterized by unbridled hubris, unilateral action, and a general disdain for the subtleties of international diplomacy. Meanwhile, we were busy overdrawing our accounts: to pay for Medicare Part D, to finance new mortgages, and to inflate Jamie Dimon’s wallet. A Brown University analysis pinpoints the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at over $4 trillion, but the true cost of 9/11 was far greater.
Perhaps for the first time since Vietnam, we glimpsed our own heart of darkness in our military response, and we turned away. We twisted the Constitution and the Geneva Convention, and strained the moral superiority with which we faced the world until cracks visibly appeared in its mantle. And even before the smoke had cleared, revealing Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Park51, we began to doubt.
Today the War on Terror is ending, yet Islamic militarism is resurgent once again. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still retains the strength to prompt the closure of nearly twenty American embassies across the Middle East. The perceived failure of moderate Islamists in Egypt and Syria has given al-Qaeda new life. Finally, Iraqi security forces are still trying to wrest Fallujah and Ramadi from sectarian forces’ clutches, re- fighting battles over ten years on.
Doubt still lingers in the American psyche. The Pew Research Center reports that, for the first time in decades, a majority of Americans believe that the US should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” and that America plays a less important and powerful role as world leader than it did a decade ago.
These doubts persist even when there is reason for optimism. On January 23rd, the Brookings Institution issued its annual “Presidential Briefing Book.” Its opening essay, written by Robert Kagan and Ted Piccone, offered the following statement: “contrary to what the public has now fully absorbed as the conventional wisdom, the United States is not in decline but may be in the early stages of a significant upturn.” They are correct. American manufacturing is resurgent. American oil and gas production is smashing records. And America has led the global recovery from the Great Recession. Yet skepticism and doubt remain the “conventional wisdom.”
Gone are the exuberant optimism and excess of the score of years prior to the Great Recession; now, we are wiser. Now, claims The Economist, “Washington is changing. High strategy is out, a focus on the achievable is in… be in no doubt, this is a low-ambition era in American foreign policy.” Some, like Mr. Piccone, lament this trend, yearning for America’s strategic and moral global leadership. Others, however, see this measured, cautious foreign policy as a sign of national maturity.
Certainly, we struggle with our national identity. We struggle to find the right balance between security and privacy. We grapple with the contradiction between our self- interest and our desire to flatten systemic inequality. And more than at any time since the Civil War, we hurl our arguments from and at opposite sides of the political spectrum. Disagreements are to be expected – indeed, they are essential – in a fully functioning representative democracy, but ours have grown to the point where spasms of rage periodically paralyze the American body politic. Yet we are learning to deal with our polarized politics, as evidenced by Harry Reid’s decision to go nuclear in the Senate, by recent bipartisan agreements on the budget, and by the repeal of the Medicare sustainable growth rate formula. More importantly, we continue to earnestly debate these issues, grappling with our core national values.
Pessimism, self-doubt, and division have not consumed us in the post-9/11 era. As always, America continues to press on, forging new milestones and innovations. Through PEPFAR, we struck a blow to AIDS. Through the ACA, we offered health insurance to dozens of millions of Americans. We elected a black president and slowly but surely learned to accept Muslims as citizens rather than outsiders. We mapped the human genome and connected ourselves with Google, Facebook, and the iPhone. We continued to look upwards in wonder and set our sights on Mars and the stars.
The lasting legacy of 9/11 is not one of division and decay: instead, it is one of introspection and the building of a measured, responsible confidence. 1WTC is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, but not in the world. Rather than smash all height records with an arrogant fist to the skies, American architects chose to dominate the New York City skyline with measured grace and symbolism, emphasizing the significance of our founding values its height. It will be a display of weary maturity, poised in stark relief to the relentless action and reaction of the previous decade.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.
Image (Attribution License) courtesy of Paul VanDerWerf on Flickr.