Gary Younge writes:
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks the then national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, called in her senior staff and asked them to think seriously about “how [to] capitalise on these opportunities”. The primary opportunity came from a public united in anger, grief and fear which the Bush administration sought to leverage to maximum political effect. “I think September 11 was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen,” Rice told the New Yorker six months afterwards. “Events are in much sharper relief.”
Ten years later the US response to the terror attacks have clarified three things: the limits to what its enormous military power can achieve, its relative geopolitical decline and the intensity of its polarised political culture. It proved itself incapable of winning the wars it chose to fight and incapable of paying for them and incapable of coming to any consensus as to why. The combination of domestic repression at home and military aggression abroad kept no one safe, and endangered the lives of many. The execution of Osama bin Laden provoked such joy in part because almost every other American response to 9/11 is regarded as a partial or total failure.
Inevitably, the unity brought about by the tragedy of 9/11 proved as intense as it was fleeting. The rally around the flag was a genuine, impulsive reaction to events in a nation where patriotism is not an optional addendum to the political culture but an essential, central component of it. Having been attacked as a nation, people logically felt the need to identify as a nation.
But beyond mourning of the immediate victims’ friends and families, there was an element of narcissism to this national grief that would play out in policy and remains evident in the tone of many of today’s retrospectives. The problem, for some, was not that such a tragedy had happened but that it could have happened in America and to Americans.