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The Best Responses to 9/11—and the Worst

I was in bed at a New York hotel when my stock trader called to say that one of the Twin Towers had been hit by an airplane. “A horrible accident,” he surmised, adding “unprecedented” to the presumption. He told me to turn on the “tube,” such nomenclature dating him as middle-aged. The phone rang again: “The second tower is on its way down. And, of course, this means it is no accident at all.” Which was my intuition as soon as I’d heard the first terrible tidings. Moreover, I knew instinctively who’d done the dreadful deed; and it wasn’t a new version of the Unabomber. Indeed, if anybody had had time to poll the public on who was responsible for the death of 3,000 before they had been told, a vast majority would have concluded that it was Muslim extremists. Everybody knew, although some of the discombobulated newscasters were afraid to say unless or until it was “confirmed” by authority. News of other related disasters began to filter in: the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon and the one that slammed into the deserted field in Pennsylvania.

Where was my family? There was no horrible news from Boston, except, to be sure, that one of the fated airplanes had taken off from security-hapless Logan Airport with Mohamed Atta and his satanic comrades on board. (They had been on various “alert” lists. But nobody checked any of them.) I could make no contact with my wife until much later in the day. My son and his girlfriend (now married and the parents of two children) were in Paris and were kept there for days until the skies cleared, so to speak—even as James Baker was able to arrange a private jet flight for an exit from the United States for the many bin Laden kin who had settled in our country. My daughter, who then lived two blocks from the World Trade Center, was in a dentist’s chair somewhere on the Upper East Side, although we didn’t know this for several hours until cellular phone service was more or less restored. Before that, I’d spoken with my son-in-law, the first in the family to succeed in making contact. He’d gone in pursuit of his wife, having joined that seemingly endless trek of New Yorkers who were marching north, a bit dazed, to the Upper East and West Sides, while others were traipsing laterally to Brooklyn, Long Island, and New Jersey.

My mother-in-law, Eve Curie, nearing 100, was still very fit and very much with it. So our skeletal family went out to dinner at what was normally a subdued and very formal French restaurant. This night, the room was filled with agitated conversation. The waiter added to our own emotions: “We are all Israelis now,” he said, the desperate cliché of the first days, more or less true. But Eve, a member of the resistance during World War II, a Free French volunteer and close to General de Gaulle, piped up from her habitual Pouilly Fumé, and declared: “Never say ‘all.’ There will always be people who side with the enemies of civilization. And many more who will, for advantage, out of fear or by disposition, underestimate their threat. At dinner parties in Paris after the war, they sat smug, as if they had always been right: ‘See, we are still here.’ Later, many of them underestimated the communist evil, too. I knew them. I was a Gaulliste and, then, I was against de Gaulle. You remember, Marty—don’t you?—I was deputy to the first NATO secretary-general, Lord Ismay.” Not a bad summation for a centenarian who had lived intimately the whole horridly ideological century, a risk-taking anti-fascist and an anticommunist, both. This omits her mother (of whom she was the biographer), the incarnation of selfless science, the first woman to touch and to be touched by the atom, because she had herself also envisioned it. Back in her apartment, Eve pulled out of a drawer photographs of her mother, Marie Curie, of her father, Pierre Curie, and then with a slight tremor handed me her little treasure, the Cross of Lorraine, evoking at once Joan of Arc and the fight for the freedom of France.

The enormity of the catastrophe had not quite penetrated until the next morning, when, as if in some cruel but haphazard ritual, we began on television to meet the dead and their families. That night, I went to Union Square, always a bustling hippie place but then with a tamped-down sobriety, and from there to the West Village, where bonds of solidarity cut across class and race, religion and affect. America had been sorely wounded, and we were tending to her care. A burly policeman carried an old drunk to a bench and gave him an apple. A small legion of young people carried bunches of flowers to a fire station in tribute to the first responders, of which there were nearly 350 dead firefighters and 60 police. (I thought then and I think now of how much our society really owes these folks in every city and village in the country.) Not for years before, and not since, had there been such a palpable sensation of camaraderie. What appeared was a good deal of patriotic feeling in the streets, of ardor for country, which, if truth be told, had become altogether alien to some progressive intellectuals who try to set the mood for many others, a mood of guilt and self-reproach. Love of country was just a joke to such people.

It did not take long for these heavy thinkers to try to retake the stage. Susan Sontag, Cornel West, and Judith Butler (the hands-down, first-place winner of “The Bad Writing Contest” of the academic journal Philosophy and Literature) were perhaps the three most eager and well-known of the admonishers, and their scoldings were picked up by others. We had done evil to others. So they took revenge. The chickens had come home to roost. Soon larger and crazier explanations were heard. The attacks had not been the work of the young Saudis and one or two other Arabs on the doomed planes. They had actually been carried out by the United States, or by the Mossad, that other residual culprit. Richard Falk, emeritus Milbank professor of international law and practice at Princeton and now special rapporteur on Palestine for the U.N. Human Rights Council, has just lately accused the United States of organizing the 9/11 disasters and somehow getting the press to look elsewhere. (Arabs were ipso facto unblameworthy, since they are the victims of U.S. imperialism.) I’ve known Falk for nearly half a century; nothing surprises me about him, nothing. Then there is Noam Chomsky, a great linguist and political fantasist, who recently opined that there was no evidence that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the mass killings ten years ago. Never mind that the man was claiming credit for the deed until just before his arraignment before his god. The Hamas prime minister disagrees with Chomsky in this matter. He believes that bin Laden was a “holy warrior.”

How did the Muslim world actually respond to the 9/11 happenings? Almost all of the governments (with the notable exception of Saddam Hussein’s) condemned its perpetrators, at least formally. After all, Al Qaeda was also an enemy of these regimes—although we did not yet know how compromised Pakistan was. What occurred on the ground was a more complicated matter. There was certainly no mass protestation, no passionate denunciation, on the Arab street or on the wider Muslim street. Perhaps Arabs and Muslims have become inured to political violence, to jihadi depredations that kill in scores, today in one town, tomorrow in another, morning, noon, or night. There is never a mass protest against such killings. Yasir Arafat denounced, but his people in the streets sang and danced. In Egypt, the anti-Hosni Mubarak press also celebrated the massacre, and this is the press on which liberal optimists are pinning our hopes and on which we are basing our expectations.

The president has already commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9/11. He did so on August 10 at his White House Iftar (break-the-fast) dinner for Ramadan. Barack Obama likes to repeat his oratory—the potted history that his staff routinely puts into his speeches—about how Muslims are central to the American past. Last year, it was about how Thomas Jefferson also gave a Ramadan dinner, this one for the Tunisian emissary. What he neglected to mention was that this dinner took place in the middle of the Barbary Wars. Almost no one noticed. This year’s speech was mostly pabulum. At least he didn’t repeat the libel, put forward in his ridiculous Cairo address, that the IRS prevents Muslims from donating to legitimate Muslim charities. The truth is that Muslims have not had a bad time in the United States, certainly not as bad as Chinese immigrants and Japanese, or Germans and Irish and Italians and, for that matter, many Catholics, some Jews, almost all Mormons, and certainly immigrant slaves from Africa. It’s unseemly for Obama to hint otherwise, when the Muslim and Arab journey in America, including the journey of many Christian Arabs, has been so mercifully uneventful, if by events one means boycotts, lynchings, job discrimination, and school and housing exclusion.

Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when tempers might have been frayed, or hatreds aroused, there was no single incident to bring shame to the American legatees of Enlightenment understanding. Ministers and rabbis and priests charged their churches and congregations to hold out their hands to Muslims in what might otherwise have been for them a period of chilly isolation at best. In the synagogue in which I prayed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of 2001, that is precisely what occurred. It was a moment to remember. There was that twisted Florida minister who wanted to burn the Koran, and I do not doubt that some other abuses have occurred, but we are a fairer and more decent society than we ever were, at least with respect to otherness and difference, and those Muslim citizens who are grateful that they live in this country are right.

The narrative of the decade after 9/11 includes, of course, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the president, having boldly executed bin Laden, is basically dropping our commitments and declaring victory in both countries. In a sleight of hand, the administration now defines the enemy as merely Al Qaeda and allies, which we are said to have almost destroyed (though not in Yemen and Somalia). But, as The New York Times reported the other day: “The 42 apparently coordinated attacks [on August 15] underscored the reality that few places in Iraq are safe. The number of American troops killed this year has jumped, ahead of their planned withdrawal. Monday’s strikes against civilians and security forces made it the deadliest day of the year for Iraqis, and it came in many forms: suicide attacks, car bombs, homemade bombs and gunmen.” The week before, the Taliban, Al Qaeda’s even more formidable ally in Afghanistan, shot down a Chinook helicopter and killed 30 Americans, including 22 Navy SEALS, some from the unit that took out bin Laden. How can Obama claim victory in these two countries? You tell me.

Some good news! As I write, the Qaddafi regime is evaporating. But not, I am sorry to say, much due to the United States. We were belated and half-hearted in our support of the Libyan rebels and in unfreezing their cash, even if our drones provided essential intelligence for the rebel march on Tripoli. And the same prevarication has characterized our (non) policy in Syria. To the very end, Hillary Clinton hedged. Now, we may not be entitled to demand of Anna Wintour what persuaded her to sign up Vogue magazine in the publicity campaign to make Baathist Syria seem oh, so civilized, oh, so chic—but it should be proper, even required, for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to inquire into how and why the administration so misunderstood the Damascus regime, its aims, its intrinsic weaknesses, its supporters, its opponents, and other significant factors in the definition of Syria. The narrative of Obama’s callow and pseudo-clever position on Syria would expose his team’s flaccid standards of argument and proof. If, as many informed people say, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett are in on these decisions, you have at least half an explanation.

As well as the hope generated in the last eight months (much of it already dispersed), what we have seen in the Arab world and Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa is a routinization of brutality. What else can one say about Bashar Al Assad’s relentless war on his own people? And as mosque after mosque gets blown up in Iraq? It is a calamity and a curse. It is not right to gloat at these happenings. But it is neither smart nor just to pretend that they are not with us.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic. This piece ran in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.