Ten years after 9/11, progressives need to fashion a pro-democracy movement here at home.
In those days before kids, I was fast asleep when the phone by my bed rang at about half past six in the morning. It was my father calling. Planes had flown into the World Trade Center. America was being attacked. I knocked on the door of my guest bedroom to awaken a visiting friend. Together, thousands of miles from New York and Washington, we experienced the day—the fall of one tower and then the other, the attack on the Pentagon, the confusion, the rumors, the terror—the way most Americans did: watching television in stunned silence. It’s not just that we all still remember where we were when we heard; it’s that at that very moment we knew we would always remember.
But even as it was already clear on September 11, 2001 that the attacks were a turning point in American history, no one could have foreseen the direction of that pivot. The terrorists struck an ascendant America that had seen a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. While so much was destroyed that day, our confidence was unshaken. Most Americans anticipated a long war in Afghanistan with many casualties, but were certain of victory.
In the days after 9/11, according to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive, two-thirds of Americans said they had prayed and a similar number admitted to having wept. Eighty percent told someone they loved them as a result of the attack, and 60 percent kept in closer touch with relatives. Seventy percent had sung “God Bless America” and 63 percent sang the national anthem. But by September 27, 2001, 60 percent of Americans believed life had returned to normal. Looking back after ten years, we were clearly wrong. September 11 ushered in a sorry, sad, low decade. Ten years later, we are a nation that has been humbled abroad and felled at home. In a Time poll conducted this summer, only 6 percent of Americans now believe the country has fully recovered from the attacks.
It is more than the tragedies of Iraq or the sorrows of economic stagnation that have beset America in the ten years since 2001. It is the widespread sense that we are no longer the young, brave nation that brushes off adversity and charges forward—the America that went from Sputnik to Apollo in 11 years and from “malaise” to “Morning in America” in five. It is the belief that we are a slower, older country—an America stuck in its ways, no longer able to tackle big challenges and make big changes. More than a hundred years ago, the transition into the Industrial Age saw the rise of the Progressives and a new approach to public action. But now America moves into an individualized economy while politicians still repeat the familiar arguments of a bygone era. The Great Depression brought about the New Deal and a transformation of government while the Great Recession has produced little more than tinkers to an ossified system. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, America mobilized its manpower and machinery to win a global war against fascism. We invaded North Africa and Normandy. Four years after the attack, Hitler lay dead and Tojo was in chains. The occupations and transitions to democracy of Germany and Japan began and would succeed. Ten years after 9/11, the case for victory is far more muddled—at best.
In a nondescript house on a leafy street in a medium-sized city in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden—surrounded by porn and Pepsis—met his long overdue end on May 1. With the news, cheering crowds poured into Times Square and gathered in front of the White House. It had the feeling of a victory celebration, a national relief after a decade of frustration. But, in many ways, it was the Arab Spring—as much as a Navy SEAL’s bullet—that closed the chapter on bin Laden. And it is the impulse that led to that Arab Spring—for all its contradictions and uncertainty—that provides the best hope for a regeneration of an optimistic, forward-looking American spirit at home and around the world.
The wave of protests that began when 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and lit a match not only toppled dictatorships—it swept away the false debate that undergirded much of the past decade. Whether they were the Facebook revolutionaries or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the young people in the streets seemed as committed to implicitly challenging the assumptions of others about them as they were to explicitly challenging the corrupt governments that ruled over them. The generation that had been bin Laden’s hope for bringing about an orthodox caliphate with global aspirations called instead for civil rights and individual liberties. While the despair of economic dead ends certainly weighed on these young people, American liberals who claimed that what the people of the Middle East demanded more than anything were jobs, not democracy, were proven wrong. (A 2011 poll of Arab youth indicated that 92 percent ranked “living in a democratic country” as very important compared to a still-high 76 percent who gave such a ranking to “being able to find a job.”) And in the region where the Bush Administration hoped that “regime change” brought about by American troops would lead to the spread of freedom, it was ordinary individuals—with an unspoken faith that they had inherent and inalienable rights—who changed their own countries’ courses. The call for regime change did sweep across the Middle East, but it was not a call for American military action. It was the repeated chant of Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam—“The people want to bring down the regime.”
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