When I look back on the news cycle over the last two months, I think of 9/11 and floods. On the morning of August 28, I turned on the television and watched as the local newscaster showed the Hudson River lapping against the top of the concrete bulkhead, threatening to rush into the streets of Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. This spot was just a few blocks away from Ground Zero, where, as the scene shifted, we could see the site being prepared for the upcoming memorial event. As the storm waters receded, news outlets fixed their attention on this scene, and we found ourselves awash in a sea of commentary on the anniversary and the impact of 9/11 over the last decade.
This wave of analyses crested with The New York Times’ special section devoted entirely to 9/11, “The Reckoning: America and the World A Decade After 9/11,” which circulated in New York on September 10, with pieces on the families of victims, the memorial site, the wars that followed, and the economic cost of the tragedy and the Global War on Terror that followed in its wake. The front-page story filed by Robert McFadden on the afternoon of September 11, “On 9/11, Vows of Remembrance,” served as a capstone on the memorialization that had preoccupied the nation in these weeks. Using a different meteorological metaphor, the article noted that the many forms of commemoration in the weeks leading up to and including the day had steadily grown into an “avalanche of introspection and analyses unrivaled since the turn of the millennium.”
Introspection is an interesting choice of words. It correctly observes but does not criticize the tendency of these commemorations to adopt an inward gaze in which the nation reflected on its own tragedy.
Most of this “reckoning” failed to fully account for the historical and international dimensions of 9/11. As the current commemorative impulse recedes into the past, the impact of U.S. foreign policy in many of the world’s trouble spots has been increasingly erased from the record.
The World: Ten Years and One Day Later
In his 2010 book, The American Way of War, Tom Engelhardt begins his analysis of the media coverage of 9/11 with a survey of The New York Times one day before the two planes struck the World Trade Center. An op-ed about the statistical chance of getting attacked by a shark stands in sharp contrast to the news of the following day, when apocalyptic images of terrorist attacks began to dominate the nation’s fears. As Engelhardt shows, we can learn a lot about the impact of 9/11 by studying the national mood in the preceding days and weeks, before the event took hold of the national psyche.
A similar, though converse logic could be applied to understanding the national mood ten years after 9/11. Though so much commentary was dedicated to the lead-up to the anniversary, there is much to learn from the subsequent days and weeks, as the formal reckoning fades from view and we are left with a more everyday sense of what is and isn’t remembered ten years after 9/11.
Coverage of the memorial service at Ground Zero was still the lead feature on September 12, 2011, a special tribute to those who died that day before their names and faces inevitably recede from the front page and from the headlines altogether.
But already, by September 12, news of the world beyond U.S. borders was devoid of direct references to 9/11. There was a story about the lingering effects of the tsunami in Japan, a report on China’s sale of $200 million worth of weapons to Gaddafi in Libya, coverage of the transitional government’s crackdown on Al Jazeera in Egypt, a story about gunmen attacking British tourists in Somalia, an analysis of popular support for enhanced security measures in Guatemala, and an examination of fiscal crisis in Palestine.
Except for a report on mass murders caused by gangs in Iraq and coverage of an attack on a NATO outpost in Afghanistan, the presence of the United States in the world was hardly perceptible in this section. And even in those stories, it was difficult to detect: the Iraq piece focused on gang violence, and buried on the last page, the Afghanistan story made a point of noting that no American forces had been killed in the attack.
The coverage was so typical that I didn’t think anything of it at first. Only after writing down the names of the countries did I realize that over the last six-plus decades, the United States has projected its power in each of these places, in five instances through direct military invasion, and in the others through proxy wars and military and foreign aid.
Japan, of course, was the site of the first ground zero in 1945. The Guatemalan civil war erupted after the United States killed the country’s left-leaning president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954. The United States financed and trained the security forces that killed hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans over the next four decades. U.S. political and military aid to Egypt made it possible for that country’s autocrats to stay in power throughout the Cold War and right up until the Arab Spring. The United States backed the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, which contributed to the proliferation of al-Shabaab extremists in that country. And then there is Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Local elites benefitted greatly from the U.S. involvement in these countries, while the rest of the population paid a severe price. Now these countries are some of the most problematic areas in the grand swath of the globe that includes central and south Asia, Africa, and part of Latin America, what George W. Bush administration dubbed the “arc of instability,” 97 countries in which, according to Nick Turse, U.S. military and security forces are currently involved.
These omissions of the U.S. role in fueling past and ongoing crises are not surprising, nor, for practical as well as ideological reasons, is it easy to envision an alternative. Imagine a newspaper in which the United States tried to fully account for the vast web of connections between its policies and the crisis spots of the world. The full reckoning would overwhelm even the likes of Noam Chomsky who has repeatedly attempted to flesh out the links between the last 60 years of U.S. foreign policy and 9/11.
The United States Watches the World
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After the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the nation has arguably amplified its tendency to turn a blind eye to the U.S. footprint in the world once the damage has been done.
A perusal through some of the international news items in The New York Times over the weeks since the anniversary reinforces the sense of the United States as a mere observer of international crisis, rather than an agent in the story.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in reports on the war in Afghanistan. When suicide bombers attacked buildings in and around the U.S. embassy in Kabul on September 13, U.S. officials went out of their way to extricate themselves from the crisis. At first, they did so by framing the attack as an Afghan problem with an Afghan solution. Testifying before a joint meeting of congress, CIA director David Petraeus insisted that Afghan forces are “completely in charge” of security in Kabul and the surrounding area. In a typical Orwellian twist, he praised the local security forces for clearing the area after the attack, framing this accomplishment as a sign of progress in the ongoing effort to hand responsibility over to the Afghans. U.S. officials then went on to blame Pakistan’s intelligence services for helping the Haqqani network coordinate and carry out this attack, as well as another two weeks later, in which an Afghan man working with the CIA in Kabul shot two American CIA employees, killing one. Both attacks were aimed at the symbolic epicenter of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. But U.S. officials still managed to write the United States out of the story.
News reports of other international crises over the past month have been similarly devoid of U.S. agency. Thus, although there was much talk about how the United States could be affected by the ongoing fiscal crisis in Europe, there was little mention of how the U.S. banking system contributed to the crisis in the first place. And when President Obama made his speech before the UN General Assembly in response to the Palestinian bid for statehood, he acted as though the United States played no role in determining the outcome, opting for a refrain that was entirely devoid of power politics and historical agency: “Peace is hard.” In these and other examples, references to the U.S. role in contributing to the problems that plague the international community are almost impossible to find.
The Fantasy of Counter-Terrorism
The erasure of U.S. agency from news about the world in the last month is in keeping with the country’s general malaise about foreign affairs, a domestic desire to see the United States scale back its international ventures so the country can concentrate on its own crises.
This is the appeal of counter-terrorism, which claims to offer a more targeted approach to the Global War on Terror, in which Special Forces, the CIA, and the NYPD smoke out the enemy with prowess and precision, leaving behind only the good news that the bad guys have been killed.
Since the 10th anniversary of 9/11, reports on the expansion of counter-terror operations stand as a major exception to the image of the United States as a mere observer of international crisis.
On September 22, Hillary Clinton announced the creation of a Global Counter-Terrorism Forum of 29 states, co-founded by the United States and Turkey, with a Global Counter-Terrorism Center to open in Abu Dhabi next year. Clinton didn’t bother to explain the politics of membership in the forum, or why the United Arab Emirates, which has tortured and jailed several members of a nascent pro-democracy movement on trumped up charges, is helping to spearhead the effort.
Three days later, 60 Minutes aired a heroic portrait of NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly and his awesome Counter-Terrorism Unit, larger and better-equipped than most national armies and with the capacity to shoot a plane out of the New York City sky.
On September 30, the United States triumphantly announced the latest death of a top al-Qaeda operative, an American citizen living in Yemen who was killed by a CIA drone strike along with two other “militants.”
In the current hype about counter-terrorism, there are no innocent civilians caught up in the fight, no national sovereignties transgressed, no compromised alliances with corrupt anti-democratic regimes.
Counter-terrorism fits perfectly with the current political mood. The United States gets to act without the risk of repercussions. It is a vision of historical agency without a political footprint. Like so much of the news about the world 10 years and one month after 9/11, it is a politically attractive though impossible fantasy that reveals little about the role of the United States in the world but a lot about the limits of U.S. introspection.