After September 11, a rough consensus developed in America about what had happened to us. The day itself was horrific: A great national melancholy filled the voids in lower Manhattan. Before there were geopolitical implications and debates about how to respond, there was grief and the simple fact of human death on a massive scale: people jumping from the Twin Towers and then the buildings falling, crushing thousands of people inside. The suffering was not a matter of ideology. It was sickening in the most basic human terms. In its wake, Americans were heartbroken and angry and terrified. And they were right to be.
Yet September 11 was also a matter of politics. Everyone knew, even as they were still reeling from the awful nature of what they just witnessed, that the question of what to do next would be a political question. Initially, there was broad consensus about what that response should look like: a campaign to disable Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. None of this was controversial at the time, and President Bush, at least at first, carried out these objectives ably.
But Bush did one other thing as well. This, too, was not controversial at the time; but, unlike his other actions, it has become deeply controversial in the years since. He began using the word “freedom” in connection with the attacks, implying that there were deep ideological matters at stake in Al Qaeda’s decision to target us. “Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom,” he told a joint session of Congress nine days after the attack. He went on to describe Al Qaeda terrorists as “enemies of freedom” and to say that “they hate our freedoms.” On the day several weeks later that Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, he told Americans that “we defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear.”
Ten years later, no politician talks this way. The left long ago stopped speaking about foreign policy in terms of “freedom,” given the word’s association with Bush. From Democrats, there is now talk that the United States must learn to play a humbler role in world affairs—even though that means enemies of freedom, such as China and Russia and even Iran, might come to play a larger one. On the right, a certain mix of isolationism and self-interest—against human rights, against foreign aid, against humanitarian intervention—appears to be carrying the day. Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann has made clear that her approach to foreign policy will consist of a deep xenophobia toward Muslim Americans fused with a preference for dictators like Hosni Mubarak who pose no direct threat to us.
That America has arrived at this point is understandable. Bush’s elevation of freedom into a central tenet of our response to September 11 took us in some terrible directions, or rather one terrible direction especially: It helped to justify a war in Iraq that was based on false premises about weapons of mass destruction and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In the wake of that war and the bloodshed it caused, many Americans concluded that countering Al Qaeda by trying to spread freedom was likely to cause far more suffering than it forestalled. And this was not an irrational lesson to draw from an idealistic enterprise gone wrong.
So do we now retire all such idealism? The current consensus in favor of modesty in U.S. politics begs the question. Was it a mistake to link freedom to September 11 in the first place? Certainly, Bush’s language was reductive and propagandistic. Even if Afghanistan had been a perfectly functioning liberal democracy, Al Qaeda might well have managed to attack us anyway.
But liberals, and Americans as a whole, should not be so quick to dismiss completely the intuition that led Bush and many others to conclude in the fall of 2001 that September 11 might have had something to do with freedom. The people who attacked us did have a political philosophy, and that philosophy was a challenge to freedom, here and in many other countries. A world that is more liberal, more democratic, more free would clearly be a world in which such terrorists—or any terrorists for that matter, whatever their ideological leanings—would be less likely to thrive. The question, of course, is how to move incrementally toward that world—not in the utopian fashion of leading a crusade from country to country, and not with the expectation that the United States can bring about a freer world overnight; but, all the same, with a sense that promoting freedom has long been, and should remain, a central part of this country’s identity. Anyway, we have no need of utopianism to justify the promotion of democracy: There are democratic forces all over the Muslim world and elsewhere. We did not invent them. And we must support them.
Ultimately, the links that connect September 11 to the concept of freedom are complicated—more complicated than George W. Bush was ever willing to explain. But those links are not cynical or imaginary. It would be a disaster if, ten years later, the United States retreated from its longstanding goal of seeking to make the world a freer place.
This piece ran in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.