There is unacknowledged freedom associated with any event inscribed in our individual and collective experience of profoundly disabling and disturbing public occurrences. For most older Americans, what is most vividly remembered among such occurrences is likely to have been Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, and the 9/11 attacks, each coming as a shock to a shared societal sense of exceeding the limits of what could be expected to happen. I doubt that other societies would have a comparable hierarchy of recollections about these three rupture of expectations that have proved so significant for an understanding of American political identity over the course of the last fifty years.
To make my point clearer, most Japanese would almost certainly single out Hiroshima, and possibly the more recent disaster that followed the 3/11/11 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima meltdown, and are likely to ignore the events that Americans have found so transformative. Germans, and many Europeans, are likely to be inclined to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and possibly the exposure of the Holocaust, while most citizens of former colonies are undoubtedly most moved by the day on which their national independence was finally achieved.
Because American responses to such transformative events are likely to be global in their effect, there is a greater tendency to acknowledge some American preoccupations but not their interpretation. This diversity amid universality is probably truer for 9/11 than any other recent transformative event, not only because of the drama of the attacks and global visualization in real time, but as a result of the violence unleashed in response, what I identify here as the perspective of 9/12. Shifting ever so slightly, the angle of perception greatly alters our sense of the significance of the event. Just as 9/12 places emphasis on the American response, the launching of ‘the global war on terror,’ the day before, 9/10 calls our attention to the mood of imperial complacency and global vulnerability to American power that preceded the attacks. This mood was completely oblivious to the legitimate grievances that pervaded the Arab populace associated with the appropriation of the region’s resources, the American support lent to cruel and oppressive tyrants, the lethal sanctions imposed on the people of Iraq for a decade, the deployment of massive numbers of American troops near to Muslim sacred sites, and the enabling over the course of many years of Israel’s oppressive dispossession and occupation of Palestinian lands. From this perspective, the crimes of 9/11 were widely understood as an outgrowth of the wrongs of 9/10 and led unreflectively to the crimes and strategic mistakes of 9/12. Such a critical understanding does not diminish the criminality of attacks directed at civilians, a strategic pushback that violates the most fundamental constraints of law and morality.
It is probably misleading to think of 9/11 as primarily a global historical event. Undoubtedly its interpretation is mainly a national experience more affected by 9/10 and 9/12 than by the attacks themselves. Such an observation reminds us that despite the hype about globalization that was so prominent during the dawn of the Information Age in the 1990s, it is our shared lives within a particular sovereign state that continues to dominate our political consciousness. Surely most Palestinians see 9/11 through an optic reflecting their ordeal as understood on 9/10, while most Israelis likely saw 9/11 as a long overdue enabling of the 9/12 response that led Americans to share Israel’s preexisting national preoccupation with terrorism. A deeper encounter with 9/11 ten years later allows us to sense more clearly that most of us are still living in a world of sovereign states despite the borderless wonders of social networking and other globalizing phenomena of this historical period. Even Europe that seemed to go further toward establishing a state-transcending civilizational identity required only the stress of an economic recession to bring back its strong conviction that what mattered most was not being a European, but rather being Italian, Spanish, Greek, or French.
Of course, for Americans this is not so obvious. The United States is truly a global state, perhaps the first in history, with the capabilities and commitment to act anywhere on the planet if its vital interests are at stake. From this perspective, 9/11 was experienced by many Americans as a challenge that could be neither addressed territorially nor by retaliatory attacks on the enemy state that inflicted the harm. The leaders at the time, but with wide national backing, insisted that future security meant limiting freedom at home while waging war abroad. It was this global projection of this American security response that made it natural for 9/12 to be the day that most stays in the mind of foreigners, perhaps not literally, but through their feelings of victimization that resulted from the American response by way of war rather than through reliance on the enforcement of law against those who commit crimes against humanity. This latter road not taken, and not even seriously considered, might have been the most radical peacemaking experiment in all of modern history. It was far too radical for either the leadership or the citizenry of not only America, but the constituted politics of all states.
With this outlook of American geopolitical exceptionalism, globalization seems real. When Barrack Obama was elected the American president in November 2008, it was a global event, with people the world over often believing that his election was more important for their future than the outcome of their own national elections. When Lula went to a meeting in Europe of the G-20 while he was still President of Brazil, he said that he prayed for Obama more than for himself. The American role in the world economy and security system is truly global, but does that mean that 9/11 was interpreted as a blow struck against the whole world as George W. Bush insisted at the time? Hardly. For parts of the world it meant new and increased violence in their homeland, drones attacking targets selected in the U.S., special forces, an array of mercenaries roaming covertly in search of terrorist suspects, and new wars.
We are, of course, free to remember certain things and to forget others. This is normally not done consciously, but it will explain the incredible diversity of how 9/11 was observed on its tenth anniversary, itself a milestone that causes especially Americans to pause and reflect. For most Americans, this became an occasion for a renewal of remorse, lament, resolve, and anger, if not rage.
The most innocent memories of 9/11 are those of loss, a recollection that is both personal and collective, associated with any human tragedy caused deliberately that has a negative impact on innocent civilian lives. Less innocent, and more relevant ten years later, is the complexity surrounding the response that is prompted by fear, revenge, counter-crusading passions, and geopolitical ambition. In these respects, 9/11 is both text and pretext, and gave way to the 9/12 furies that unleashed a global war on terror that has caused widespread destruction, questionable improvements in security, and a general weakening of the American claim to exercise global leadership.