When I was in New York last week, I prowled Ground Zero. I couldn’t actually touch it — the entire site is now a massive construction zone, a concatenation of Shanghais, encircled in chain link, surrounded by uniformed officers of the New York City Police Department.
I crossed Church Street from the subway station to get a better view of the memorial pools, and an officer quickly barked at me to move along.
A self-styled tour guide, an elderly black man with no indoor voice, had appointed himself the unofficial one-man welcome wagon for the throngs of visitors. He waved souvenirs and shouted at us.
“How many buildings were at Ground Zero?!” he called out. No one answered. “It was two! You need to know how many buildings were at the site of Ground Zero on the day of the attack!”
Perhaps he had been a little unbalanced before, or maybe he was like Scarlett O’Hara’s father, turned batty by the shock of loss.
One of the cops posed with a couple of English tourists. A friend took their picture, then they switched places for the next set. The officer handled it all with matter-of-fact hospitality. “Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir.”
The “tour guide” and the cop were reminders that 9/11 had turned America both crazy and sober. We indulged in folly and fantasy, and we have faced hard truths that have required all of our intelligence and resolve. We both overreacted, and we reacted judiciously. We were impetuous and impatient, and deliberate and relentless. Tragedy, they say, doesn’t change you as much as it brings out your essence. For a country of multitudes, 9/11 unleashed all our best and worst attributes, and reflected our complexity.
One of our worst attributes is our desire for simple answers. Do you remember, starting about 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, how the media started asking: “Why?”
And instead of taking time to investigate the facts and come up with the answer, the left — generally speaking — presented a ready-made one: “They hate us because of what we’ve done.” And the right, generally speaking, countered with, “They hate us because of who they are.”
The European and Arab press especially promoted the former view, pointing to all the things America had done to “deserve” the attacks — especially our support for Israel and our various interventions in the Middle East, whether for oil or democracy. The implication was that if we would just knock these things off, the terrorists would lay down their arms, send us a Teleflora bouquet and go home.
From the opposite extreme came the idea that hate and violence are built into Islam. It seems like every day for the past decade, I’ve been forwarded e-mails “proving” how the Quran demands every Muslim destroy the West. That anti-Islam hysteria reached a fever pitch during the controversy over whether to build an Islamic center several blocks from Ground Zero, when activists and politicians managed to equate religious tolerance with weakness.
Ten years later, it’s worthwhile to look at how those dominant “answers” fared: not well. The pundits of the left and right, with their simple certainties and gullible constituencies, were wrong.
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Late last week, I called Brian Michael Jenkins, the Rand Corp. terrorism expert, whose new book, “The Long Shadow of 9/11,” is a collection of heavily researched, thoughtful essays on the attack’s aftermath. I had heard Jenkins speak just after 9/11, and back then he was one of the unflappable, sober-minded voices cautioning against hysteria and rash action — a voice crying in the wilderness. How, I wondered, did he think the go-to explanations held up?
“If the U.S. were to suddenly withdraw forces from the Middle East and suspend support for Israel,” Jenkins told me, “al-Qaeda would not put up a banner saying ‘Mission Accomplished’ and quit. They see themselves in endless conflict, until Judgment Day.”
As for the second line of reasoning, Jenkins said al-Qaeda represents not Islam, but, “an interpretation of the religion by a small group of people.”
The real cause of the ongoing terrorism threat — which Jenkins takes pains to point out does not threaten us as individuals in any statistically significant way — is a small tribal warrior subculture with access to modern weapons and technology.
“Al-Qaeda has become an organization for individuals to prove their manhood, do ‘good’ for God and reap the rewards of the hereafter,” Jenkins said. “Discontents and anyone whose soul is running on empty can join al-Qaeda and find resonance.”
That’s right, we are fighting testosterone, nihilism, boredom, opportunism, archaic notions of tribalism — the stuff that gangs around the world are made of.
Why, 10 years later, does it still matter that we all understand the “why” of 9/11?
The “why” matters because we don’t have the luxury of either withstanding numerous attacks, or the ability to engage in many more wrong-headed reactions to attacks.
The consensus of the intelligence community, Jenkins said, is that the Iraq War was one of those blunders, a tragic “huge diversion” of resources that actually “gave al-Qaeda a lift” in the Arab world.
“9/11 cost us $3.8 trillion,” Jenkins said. “We can’t spend $3.8 trillion in the next decade, so we’re going to have to get smarter about how we do this.”
If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s that we can and should get angry, but we should never let ourselves go mad.