x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Americans still live in a September 10 world

Correspondent's notebook Citizens are ignorant about their country's actions even today.

June Nelson, 84, is a retired nurse living in the US state of Minnesota. Unlike most Americans, she has travelled abroad frequently, and not always to cushy European capitals. She is proud of her overseas adventures in the Middle East, Asia and South America, and from them she has drawn a measure of insight about how the US is viewed abroad.

I mention my (sainted) mother's travels because when I phoned her from Moscow shortly after the September 11 attacks eight years ago to ask how she and her neighbours were dealing with the news, what she had learnt seemed so irrelevant to the fear and bewilderment that gripped her, let alone other, far less well-travelled Americans. "Nobody understands why people are so mad at us," she said, her voice trembling with alarm.

Little wonder. Isolated by geography and insulated by general prosperity, Americans by and large have been notoriously uninterested in what happens beyond their borders and what their leaders do there in their name. Woven through their collective marrow is the warning of John Quincy Adams, the sixth US president, in 1821, against going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy". It takes a world war - or declaration of one - to rouse them from their general somnolence and fear of foreign entanglements. That is precisely what the administration of George W Bush was aiming to do when it declared in the wake of the September 11 attacks that the "world had changed forever". The then attorney general John Ashcroft is generally credited with making the fateful declaration first; flying in a Cessna jet over Detroit when he received word that the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center had been hit, he turned to an aide and uttered the momentous words.

The idea caught on swiftly. Never mind that it partly represented the Bush administration's cynical manipulation of a tragedy for political ends and a pretext to subsequently subvert domestic and international law. Never mind, too, the suggestion that 19 killers should not be permitted to change the world. Finally, never mind that Gilles Keppel and other scholars of political Islam were arguing that September 11 represented the last gasp of a movement rather than a splashy debut. No, even the entertainment world was declared forever altered by the attacks. "I think it's the end of the age of irony," declared Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine.

Amid all the dramatic, post-September 11 pronouncements by politicians and media mavens, what really was key to any judgment about the epoch-changing implications of the attacks were the attitudes of ordinary Americans. How would they respond as anger replaced shock and grief? Would they retreat into jingoism? Would they duck behind a mantle of injured innocence? Or would they begin to better comprehend the effects of US actions in the world? Would they reflect on the role of their nation and government in the suffering of Arabs? In short, would Americans grow up?

Eight years later, the answer is depressingly clear: Americans still live in a September 10 world. Despite September 11, they do not understand why - especially in the Arab Middle East - people are still deeply sceptical, if not downright angry, at what America does. This is not to minimise or deny the pain and trauma inflicted by the attacks eight years ago. To be sure, from the perspective of the Middle East, September 11 certainly did not resemble the scale of, say, the carnage of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s or of Israel's two invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006.

Even so, it was the most devastating attack on America's mainland and struck at symbols millions of Americans could connect with. Since the topping-out ceremony of the World Trade Center's South Tower in 1971, droves of Americans and others had visited the observation deck on the building's 107th floor. In wonder, they watched aircraft sweeping up the Hudson River just above eye level, ferries like water beetles shuttling to Staten Island and the magic of Manhattan's blinking lights far below.

Thus, millions could identify with the office workers who left their homes on the morning of September 11 and inside of a few hours, found themselves facing the choice of being incinerated by jet fuel or hurling themselves into the void 350 metres above the marbled promenade at the tower's foot. This is why 1 September 1939, W H Auden's long lament for the 1930s, resonated so widely after September 11, with its lines about how "the unmentionable odour of death/offends the September night". They expressed a deeply felt grief and answered a deeply felt need. For all but the youngest Americans, September 11 has become one of those "where-were-you-then" moments that is seared into memory and remembered till death's door.

Sadly, in the eight years since September 11, such sentiment has become a substitute for a clear-eyed analysis of the historical reasons for the attacks. Such soul-searching in America has too often been ridiculed as "blaming the victim". Instead, the word "mindless" often precedes "terrorism" - a coupling that in effect exonerates the speaker and his audience from thinking too deeply about the ferment that gave rise to September 11 and succeeding terrorist attacks.

Furthermore, there have been precious few efforts to understand why most Arabs and Muslims felt that with September 11, the moral hinge upon which history pivots had at last turned. Rather than press for a debate, America's political leaders and its media have largely insisted in the past eight years that September 11 had nothing to do with policy. What the attackers hated was "our values" and our "way of life", they say ad nauseam.

President Barack Obama's words in Cairo in July, while pleasant to the ear and soothing to souls coarsened by years of Bush rhetoric, have not changed that perception. Instead, what matters most to Americans like my mother is that in the 2,922 days since September 11, there have been no further attacks on US soil. Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA's Bin Laden unit, says the American public is being hoodwinked.

Political leaders continue to insist that "we are being attacked because we have freedoms and liberties and women in the workplace and beer after work. Of course, none of that is true," Mr Scheuer told the BBC recently. He continued: "We're being attacked because of our foreign policy, because of our unquestioning blind support for Israel, because of our presence on the Arabian peninsula, because of our invasion of Iraq, because of probably most of all our hypocritical and real dastardly support for Arab tyrannies over the last 50 years.

"If we were being attacked because people didn't like McDonalds or women in the workplace, we wouldn't have any problem at all." It was true eight years ago. It remains so now. cnelson@thenational.ae