Where were you on 9/11?
For those of us who had been old enough in 2001 to remember the attacks on the World Trade Center, this question takes us back to an unnerving period of our country’s history.
I was in literature class. As the rest of the 7th graders and I were sitting down for a lesson, the announcement came on the loudspeaker.
Something has happened.
It wasn’t until we returned from school early that I watched news coverage playing footage of the planes crashing and realized what had happened.
I was still too young to appreciate the impact this must have had at the time. I watched the destruction of a building which was familiar to me not only as a NYC icon, but to which I had also been personally. If I had to hazard a guess, the footage of the burning buildings must have etched itself into the minds of everyone who had tuned into the news that day.
We were lucky. Living in New Jersey, with a father working in the city, we fit the mold of many families which had been torn apart that day. Despite none of our loved ones being affected, there was something which we – and the rest of the country – soon realized:
Something has changed.
In the 15 years since the attacks – regardless whether one thinks it was an inside job, some government conspiracy, what have you – the country has changed.
American Sense and Sensibility
In pre-9/11 America – that’s the term for describing this era in American consciousness – you did not hear about the Middle East. You did not talk about Saudi Arabia. You didn’t concern yourself with al-Qaeda.
For the average American from my parents’ generation, memories of the Gulf War were just that, memories.
Overnight, Americans suddenly felt vulnerable. We had been attacked on our own soil – the last time a foreign entity had shed American blood on American soil to this degree had been by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor during WWII.1 This instilled not only panic in light of the risk of further attacks, but also the awareness that we are players in the international front.
Patriotism developed overnight. In the aftermath of 9/11, “Proud to be an American,” “Freedom Fries,” and “Support our Troops” became the phrases with which our generation’s national allegiance was defined.
The voices of those who spoke out in protest of the wars were drowned out by the much more “American” sentiment at that time: If you did not support the war, you did not support the troops fighting and dying in the Middle East to protect Freedom and Democracy.
The War on Terror
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, President George W. Bush announced the War on Terror.
From that point, the US revisited the regions which they had been involved in during the Soviet-US conflicts of the late-70’s and the Gulf War of the early-90’s.
The War on Terror, like other campaigns against concepts, established an ideology for which the country would be fighting. In this case the leadership of the US positioned the ideals of Freedom, Democracy, Justice, and Peace as Western ideas endangered by radical “Others.”
As President Bush put it in his State of the Union address days after the attacks, “On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.”2
American allies were called to join hands in the sandbox to assist in eliminating this threat to Freedom.
Iraq and Afghanistan were that sandbox.
America as a World Power
Those who joined the US in the Middle East – whether by sending troops or other resources – were deemed allies. Those who didn’t – regardless of the reasons they gave for their lack of support – were mocked. Domestically, France became the unfortunate butt of many jokes aimed at their cowardice.
America’s aggressive behavior – and beyond that, its tenuous justification for entering Iraq – earned it the scorn of the international community. President Bush became considered a war criminal by a minority, and incompetent by the majority. Americans traveling abroad began to receive less than warm welcomes as a consequence.
As public support for the wars dwindled since the mid-2000’s – citizens having realized it is possible to support one’s troops without simultaneously approving of the one giving the orders – the next administration’s eagerness to engage in conflict likewise diminished. Yet ironically this has harmed America’s efficiency in war. President Barack Obama’s administration has continued waging war, however its tactics have changed. Hesitant to become engaged directly, America now supplies local forces with weapons and information.
America relies on preventative power-plays, displays of military might, and sanctions which, once challenged, it does not have the desire – or perhaps ability – to follow through on. This has prompted countries such as Russia and Iran to shake up the status quo in an attempt to see how far the new line can be drawn.
Not merely militarily and politically, but in light of Asia’s – predominantly China’s – rapidly developing economic prowess, America is finding itself in a more competitive international climate. In reaction, it has used the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a means to maintain its status as an integral player in international trade. No longer able to strong-arm other countries, it now focuses on negotiation.
America’s hegemonic days have already come to a close, and it must consider how it will fit within the new world order.