Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

George Will on the Emptiness of Our 9/11 Remembrance

I thought I’d have one more 9/11 post—this time on 9/11.

I’ve gotten a couple of emails accusing me of hating Muslims.  Well, I don’t.  I’m, of course, also aware of the many studies that show that Islamic believers in America are characteristically solid, loyal citizens—in many ways more admirable than most of us.  Maybe that’s something we should celebrate today:  Our country is very good (not as good as it used to be–but that’s a topic for another day) in assimilating people of a wide variety of faiths from all over the world.  Lots of Islamic believers know of no religious reason for not embracing the American idea of political freedom—meaning freedom from an all-encompassing, tyrannical “law.”  And most Muslims throughout the world are, of course, disgusted by murderous fanatics acting in the name of Allah.  Let me remind you, of course, that even President Bush was very careful to say that we weren’t at war against Islam. 

My own view is that we just don’t know what to think or do in response to 9/11 today. George Will goes a long way toward explaining why:

The depleted armed forces that have been fighting these wars [Afghanistan and Iraq] for a nation not conscripted into any notable inconvenience will eventually recuperate. For mostly oblivious civilians, the only recurring and most visible reminder of the post-Sept. 11 world is shoeless participation in the security theater at airports. It thus seems wildly incongruous that some Americans rushed to proclaim that 9/11 “changed everything.”

The dozen years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and that of the twin towers featured complacent, self-congratulatory speculation about “the end of history.” The end, that is, of a grand politics of clashes about fundamental questions of social organization. By the time 9/11 awakened the nation from such reveries, some Americans seemed to be suffering “1930s envy,” a longing for the vast drama of global conflict with a huge ideological enemy.

Ten years on from Sept. 11, national unity, usually a compensation for the rigors of war, has been a casualty of wars of dubious choices. Ten years after 1941, and in more recent decades, the nation, having lost 400,000 in the unavoidable war that Pearl Harbor announced, preferred to remember more inspiriting dates, such as D-Day.

Today, for reasons having little to do with 9/11 and policy responses to it, the nation is more demoralized than at any time since the late 1970s, when, as now, feelings of impotence, vulnerability and decline were pervasive. Of all the sadness surrounding this anniversary, the most aching is the palpable and futile hope that commemoration can somehow help heal self-inflicted wounds.

So, first of all, 9/11 didn’t change everything. (Pearl Harbor did.)  Ordinary Americans weren’t inconvenienced at all by the resulting military conflict.  The war against al-Qaeda was necessary and successful, but it was conducted mainly by SPECIAL FORCES and with no involvement and little attention by ordinary citizens.

The war in Iraq now seems optional and botched.  We should be grateful for those military volunteers who did as well as anyone could, but we don’t much want to remember it.

Will is right that 9/11 did, in a way, explode the pretensions of THE END OF HISTORY:  Modern liberal democracy had won!  The defeat of COMMUNISM was the obliteration of the only credible rival ideology.  All that’s left to do is bring the rest of the world in with a bunch of mop-up operations.

The argument of the Iraq War, given with some eloquence by President Bush in his Second Inaugural, was, as some have said, kind of “Leninist.”  Liberty and democracy are still destined to win, but the people in the Middle East need the push of our powerful help.  It’s increasingly clear that the result of our intervention might really be that we’ll have less influence in that region than ever, and we may well have little control over even the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran, meanwhile, just ain’t scared of us at this point.

End-of-history theorist Francis Fukuyama opposed that Leninist war from an “organic” view.  Democracy will win by movements that organically originate among various peoples themselves.  Our military intervention can only muck the more-or-less inevitable up.  That view, of course, also now seems naive.

We’ve had an Arab spring, and it’s always encouraging to see tyrants deposed.  But we don’t know what’s coming next in Libya, Egypt, and so forth.  It may well not be regimes we can believe in or even work with, and our influence over their change will be pretty darn marginal.

So maybe we do have 1930s (or 1940s or 1950s or even 1980s) envy.  America powerfully defeated insane Western ideologies—COMMUNISM and FASCISM.  The conflicts were necessary; citizens were mobilized, and the victories enhanced—with plenty of good reason—our proud experience of personal and political liberty.  WE were the people free of the delusion that it was necessary to choose between one form of tyrannical, murderous ideological insanity or the other. And we were willing to fight—all of us, if need be—to save the whole world for personal freedom.

But now we feel demoralized and impotent.  The victory over Islamic fanaticism is very ambiguous and limited, and it’s not a victory that inspires and should inspire the same kind of pride.  It turns out history isn’t over; our power and influence (and that of the West as a whole perhaps) is diminishing, and we can’t even grasp—much less face up to—the unprecedented challenge of China’s  authoritarian, capitalist, imperial technophilia.  (It turns out the Internet won’t save us from that!)


Up Next