Reflections on 9/11 Twenty Years After

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We all have our own memories associated with the tragedy of 9/11. In my case I can remember going to Ground Zero shortly after the attacks and noticing that awful, pungent smell of the place, as if the terrorists had opened up some special, sulfurous path to hell. Later, directing the commission investigating what happened, I have vivid memories of tramping through the Tarnak Farms camp in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden had once had a headquarters. Or there we were in a Washington office, leaning toward a loudspeaker to listen one more time to the cockpit voice recording recovered from United Flight 93, matched up with our reconstruction of the behavior of the aircraft, painstakingly trying to reconstruct moments of agony and astonishing courage.

We all have a need to construct meaning from occasions like these. In the rare cases when a historical event, especially a traumatic event, stirs emotions on a massive scale, touching many millions of people, it enters popular culture. Great numbers of people soon form beliefs about what happened and why. People usually try to make sense of events in ways that fit their prior understanding of how the world works. But sometimes a catalytic event opens their mind to new possibilities — in this case the scale of danger that might be posed by an organization of zealots based on the other side of the planet in one of the most primitive countries on earth.



At its core, though, the 9/11 operation was an effort to deform the actual nature of the struggle going on within the Muslim world. These extremists, relatively powerless within their world, sought to elevate themselves by waging war against the United States, launching an attack that Americans could not ignore. In that sense, they were successful. That success was meant to elevate their faction of violent Islamists in their local struggles for cultural power. But every characterization of this war that reinforces a “United States versus Islamists” picture can divert and distract from the main story.

Consider the faces that the Muslim world has presented to the world. During the 1990s and culminating on 9/11, some Islamist extremists preferred to place the root of their troubles elsewhere, in America or Europe. This agenda was sometimes attractive to clusters of alienated expatriates living overseas and others whose restless energy is displaced onto a distant, enemy abstraction. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for instance, was truly a man without a country. On 9/11 the world was introduced to one face of this struggle: a set of fanatical mass killers. That image lingers.

But flash forward ten years later, to September 2011, when for six months the world watched Syrians protest against their tyranny. These unarmed men and women gathering in the streets faced every horror that a clever, malignant regime and its creatures could devise. They suffered the deaths and terrifying disappearances of family members and friends, a toll then numbered in the thousands. Then — against all odds — they turned out again the next Friday, and the next. For this American, raised to black-and-white television images of civil rights protesters facing their oppressors, the smuggled, fragmentary images of what the Syrian protesters endured, week after week, month after month, presented as astonishing and heroic a display of raw, sustained civic courage as I have ever seen, anywhere in the world. This image should linger too.

Flash forward again, ten years after that, to September 2021. Amid the recent chaos in Afghanistan, a global view of the continuing civil conflicts wracking the Muslim world, from Niger to Indonesia, invites a broader historical perspective. My lifetime has coincided with a generational struggle in the Muslim world about how to cope with modernity and globalization. The contemporary and most violent phase of this struggle began in 1979, with revolts and revolutions in Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. These immediately ignited major wars and defined often violent contests for leadership in the Muslim world.

Over the past 42 years these struggles have flamed or merely smoldered — they never ended. As a historian, I am reminded of the struggles — internal and transnational — that wracked the Christian world for more than a hundred years across the 16th and 17th centuries, or the long 19th and 20th century struggles about how to organize modern industrial societies. It took a long time for those struggles to subside. The Muslim world has not yet found the ingredients of civilizational peace.

The United States was always secondary to this primary struggle in the Muslim world.  The main participants sought America as villain or as ally. For a time, reacting understandably to the 9/11 attacks but then adding the catastrophically misjudged invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States seemed to place itself at the center of this struggle. But now, as the United States has receded from such a central place in the Muslim struggles, there are fresh opportunities to reassess whether, where, and how the United States and other outsiders can play some constructive role in helping the Muslim world find that civilizational peace.

A terrible crisis is also an occasion for discovering more about ourselves, about the worst and the best that it brings out in our society. We saw that Americans can produce the war crimes symbolized by the 2003 abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. And Americans produced the daring professionalism displayed by an “Abbottabad,” the May 2011 operation that killed bin Laden. Thus we can use the anniversary of 9/11 to reflect once again on who we are, about who we can be, when our society confronts violent extremism.

Before the 9/11 attack there was a classic paradox in thinking about the terrorist danger, a paradox of prevention. As the 9/11 Commission observed in its 2004 report: “It is hardest to mount a major effort while a problem still seems minor. Once the danger has fully materialized, evident to all, mobilizing action is easier — but it then may be too late.” Al-Qaeda was most vulnerable in the years before 9/11. But before the catastrophic scale of the potential threat was manifest, massive action to counter it — like serious U.S. military efforts against the Afghan sanctuary — seemed so disproportionate as to be inconceivable. This was a genuine paradox. It did not have an easy or obvious solution.

That pre-9/11 paradox of prevention about the Islamist danger is long gone. (It now applies to other problems, like the global response to the pandemic danger.) A different kind of paradox has now taken its place: a paradox of adjustment.

The danger of global Islamist terrorism is greatly reduced from what it was on 9/11. An attack could still happen at any time. A really large-scale gun massacre — like that in Mumbai in 2008 or in Norway in 2011 or Paris in 2015 — is another obvious danger. Any attack will be publicized sensationally.

Thus any president who downplays the danger, trying to right-size the enemy and put the danger into a more normal proportion, invites humiliation if there is an attack. If there is no attack, public acts of reassurance invite an unwanted dulling of concern.

For both these reasons, the cultural momentum of 9/11 rolls forward. The result in 2021 is the public image of the enemy that the commission described in 2004: “Al Qaeda and its affiliates are popularly described as being all over the world, adaptable, resilient, needing little higher-level organization, and capable of anything.  The American people are thus given the picture of an omnipotent, unslayable hydra of destruction.” The paradox of adjustment is that efforts to right-size, to normalize, a reduced risk seem … too risky.

Yet the reality is that the most serious threats are posed by a relatively tiny number of people, fewer in number and less well-organized than the production crew of any one of Hollywood’s larger films. A handful of deluded people derive most of their power not from their strength or the power of their ideals. They get their power from us — from our society and our culture.

This paradox of adjustment also is genuinely tough to solve. If there is a way out, it may just be a gradual process of the kind that has slowly unfolded during the last ten years. A catalytic event noticed by many millions, like the death of bin Laden, helped politicians to turn the page.

Contemporary societies will remain vulnerable to the abilities of even a few people to do terribly disruptive things. As the Jan. 6 assault by American extremists on the U.S. Capitol illustrated so well, that feature of our age is not unique to the danger posed by Islamist fanatics. A principal function of 21st century government will be to manage a process of healthy adjustment to the kinds of risks that are endemic to this generation, developing more systemic and transnational defenses to more systemic and transnational threats, which include other kinds of transnational criminal organizations.

At the cultural level, a process of adjustment includes adjustment to failures. For there will be failures. The supreme measure of a mature, professional institution — or government — is how it handles failure: its capacity for honest self-examination and thoughtful accountability. This is one reason why my commission colleagues and I took a hard view of the poor quality of work exhibited by parts of the government in their initial reconstructions of what happened on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. This dimension of institutional integrity is, in the long run, vital to the country’s well-being.

In air travel, for example, where societies have adjusted to constant risks of catastrophic failures, maybe the greatest virtues of America’s National Transportation Safety Board are cultural and political. Aside from the particular talents of its employees, the board represents a habit of thought and earned trust. Something goes horribly wrong, and many people lose their lives. A respected institution will examine what happened professionally, rigorously. It will explain to the community what it learned. The community will further reduce the risks. And millions of people will board airplanes each day. They go on with their lives.



Philip Zelikow, a dean and historian at the University of Virginia, was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission. 

Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Photo by Tom Sperduto)