9/11 remembrance and the stories we tell

12 September 2021, 1514 EDT

Taking my children to their dance class yesterday morning in Quincy, MA I found, as the traffic ground to a halt, the town center draped in red, white, and blue bunting. A giant flag hung suspended from two cranes. A parade, I was told, was in the offing. To anyone not looking at a calendar the scene would easily be confused for the celebration of America’s national day on the Fourth of July. But whereas July Fourth marks an event of success—national self-determination—yesterday marks a day of loss. But also failure. Failure of Americans and their policymakers in the run up to the September 11 attacks to recognize the evolving nature of (inter)national security. Failure to heed warnings, to separate the signal from the noise. Failure of imagination. Failure of response, illuminated so dramatically in the restoration to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in recent weeks. The iconography of yesterday, in towns like Quincy across the country, is at odds with these manifest failings. 

Discussing September 11 with my students last week, most felt 9/11 should serve as a remembrance of the lives lost on the day in 2001. A few included the lives of military personnel lost in the ensuing conflicts. One or two recognized that the ceremonies like that I witnessed in Quincy serve a political purpose. That last observation opens up the possibility of reconsidering the role of 9/11 to contemplate not just the event but also the subsequent policies. Going even further, it might create space for reimagining the American response.

These imaginaries are more than flights of fancy

Such possibility is not evident, however, in the current context. The 9/11 ceremonies, like that in Quincy, push Americans to focus on the victims or, implicitly through the celebratory connotations, American greatness manifested through the subsequent policy response. The United States is either righteous victim or crusading avenger. But, as yesterday’s Interpreter  newsletter from the NYTimes nicely explores, even superheroes outgrow this simplistic mindset. Americans, in failing to recognize and confront the multiple failures of 9/11, cannot learn, cannot rectify, cannot grow. The consequences are significant. Policies are not corrected. Mistakes are repeated. And, perhaps more subtly, the public fails to explore counterfactuals: how might the United States have responded differently. These imaginaries are more than flights of fancy. Imaginaries, be they counterfactuals of past events or superhero blockbusters in the movie theater, lay the groundwork for how individuals and (I argue) societies will respond to future crises. In part they do so by providing an interpretive script. They can also reveal, through reactions, persistent socio-political functionalities (common sense, predominant worldviews or cultural frames) that shape crisis response. For example, consider that Bush might have responded thusly to the attacks:

My fellow Americans, today we have suffered a grievous harm. Nearly three thousand of our fellow Americans were murdered. They were mothers, sons, fathers, daughters, cousins, grandparents, friends. As a nation we grieve as they were our own. We do not know yet who perpetrated these heinous criminal acts.

We do not yet know their motivations. But we do know how we will respond. This is the United States of America, and we will respond by our rules and values, not those of these criminals. Where our enemy relies on lawless violence to inspire fear, we will look to the institutions of society and of law. Those who planned and executed these murders will be brought to trial to face justice. We will break apart the networks of violence. We will be implacable in our pursuit of these criminals. They will find no respite. Moving forward, we will work with our allies to strengthen and expand our law enforcement and intelligence capabilities so that nothing like this can happen again.

The attacks today, however, must force us to take a deeper look at the world we inhabit. It has changed in profound ways since the end of the Cold War. While we once worried about the Soviet Union, no state today poses a similar threat. Instead, now we confront diffuse threats for which our military capabilities are a poor response. Bad governance and authoritarian regimes foster social instability, economic inequality, and political malfeasance. During the Cold War, our foreign policy often overlooked these problems or even abided them in the name of countering communism. Today, we do the same, particularly in the Middle East, in the name of global energy stability. This must change, and it will. In the coming days, my administration will undertake a root and branch reassessment of foreign policy. We will work with our longstanding allies and the UN to put political and economic development at the forefront of the international agenda. We will work with our international friends to overhaul our economies to lessen and eventually eliminate the role of the fossil fuels that enable despots and allow the seeds of violence to grow.

The road ahead will be difficult, often without the clear markers of success that we could look to in past eras of turmoil and conflict. But the United States has faced greater challenges and overcome them. We will do so again. We can allow nothing less.

One might respond that such a speech would have been implausible or unpopular. But that should prompt questions of why (the constitution of the Bush Administration or American society?) and, further to my point, why such reimaginings are implausible today.

Perhaps I am too harsh in my assessment. Americans clearly see Afghanistan as a failure. And that is true, but much of the sense-making surrounding Afghanistan circles the same (rational choice) intellectual drain (handwringing over America lost ‘credibility’ in its commitments) or narrow strategic banalities (no land war in Asia, state building is bad). But these are small scale assessments. The Economist, in its withering assessment of U.S. foreign policy since 2001, gets at something deeper. In its response, the United States betrayed itself both in terms of abrogating its values (torture) and trashing the system (undermining or ignoring the UN and allies). Thus, to fret over American credibility of commitment in the withdrawal from Afghanistan is to miss the bigger picture: the United States destroyed much of that credibility by abandoning its commitments to espoused values and the system it spent half a century building in the years immediately after 9/11. The credibility horse has long since left the stable. Only by embracing the failures of 9/11 will policymakers and society be able to come to terms with that loss. 

I suspect foreign policy analysts, including academics, suffer the same maladies. The terms analysts use, most notably the ‘national interest’ (as in assessments of whether leaving Afghanistan is in the national interest) are proposed as objective, meaningful standards against which state behavior can be assessed but are actually devoid of content and lock us into a myopic intellectual straightjacket. Looking back over the past 20 years, what was the American national interest? Certainly, to prevent further large-scale attacks by non-state actors. But that conception of a national interest is vague enough to encompass almost any course of action. Was it in the national interest to oversee hundreds of thousands of deaths of civilians around the world directly caused by military action or indirectly through socio-political instability wrought by that military action? 

Scholars on the peripheries of the discipline (critical, post-colonial, feminist) have much to say on this and related questions. But mainstream IR and foreign policy analysts, who hold most of the tenure-line positions, dominate the commanding heights of the discipline, and channel public discussion, have remarkably little to say. Certainly some will point to their opposition to one or another specific policy actions, but these strike me as tactical points. The larger strategic picture, that it was in the U.S. national interest to respond broadly as it did, seems mostly unquestioned. In the end, appeals to concepts like the power or the national interest serve as a discursive mask, allowing purportedly value-neutral analysts and social scientists to avoid confronting the reality that they are not value-neutral. In their analysis they are implicitly espousing a set of values, in the case of 9/11 those of the reactionary American state. 

The national interest concept—universal in its ontological foundations—also prevents scholars from recognizing the way a variety sociological factors like collective emotion, cultural conceptions, and common sense interacted to produce a specifically American response. Other societies had different responses rooted in differences in those sociological factors. Failure to recognize those differences led policymakers, and many of the analysts that seek to understand the origins and consequences of international behavior, to miss the pernicious potentials of America’s post 9/11 policy failures. The pervasive commentary on American ‘credibility’ in the Afghan withdrawal and the limited strategic imaginaries promulgated in scholar-elite discourse are but the most recent manifestation of the post 9/11 pattern. 

Waking up to our own failings would be as illuminating as it would be for the general public. For many in the mainstream, junking the ‘national interest’ and similar concepts must be uncomfortable; they serve as boundary markers between rational analysis of policy and mere opinion. But we have lots of tools for assessing state behavior, like securitization theory, that do not demand the reification of an ‘objective’ national interest. Hopefully, reflections on this twentieth anniversary might provoke a few more scholars to take them up.