Read more from Slate’s Sept. 11 anniversary coverage.
The proper task of the “public intellectual” might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either. To the government and most of the people of the United States, it seemed that the country on 9/11 had been attacked in a particularly odious way (air piracy used to maximize civilian casualties) by a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and “unbelievers,” and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.
To me, this remains the main point about al-Qaida and its surrogates. I do not believe, by stipulating it as the main point, that I try to oversimplify matters. I feel no need to show off or to think of something novel to say. Moreover, many of the attempts to introduce “complexity” into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions. These range from the irredeemably paranoid and contemptible efforts to pin responsibility for the attacks onto the Bush administration or the Jews, to the sometimes wearisome but not necessarily untrue insistence that Islamic peoples have suffered oppression. (Even when formally true, the latter must simply not be used as nonsequitur special pleading for the use of random violence by self-appointed Muslims.)
Underlying these and other attempts to change the subject there was, and still is, a perverse desire to say that the 9/11 atrocities were in some way deserved, or made historically more explicable, by the many crimes of past American foreign policy. Either that, or—to recall the contemporary comments of the “Reverends” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—a punishment from heaven for American sinfulness. (The two ways of thinking, one of them ostensibly “left” and the other “right,” are in fact more or less identical.) That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist “targets,” was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali. There was always some “intellectual,” however, to argue in each case that the policy of Tony Blair, or George Bush, or the Spanish government, was the “root cause” of the broad-daylight slaughter of civilians. Responsibility, somehow, never lay squarely with the perpetrators.
So, although the official tone of this month’s pious commemorations will stress the victims and their families (to the pathetically masochistic extent of continuing to forbid much of the graphic footage of the actual atrocities, lest “feelings” and susceptibilities be wounded), it is quite probable that those who accept the conventional “narrative” are, at least globally, in a minority. It is not only in the Muslim world that it is commonplace to hear that the events of 9/11 were part of a Jewish or U.S. government plot. And it is not only on the demented fringe that such fantasies circulate in “the West.” A book alleging that the Pentagon rocketed the Pentagon with a cruise missile—somehow managing to dispose of the craft and crew and passengers of the still-missing Flight 77, including my slight friend Barbara Olson—was a best-seller in France, while another book about another 9/11 conspiracy theory was published in the United States by the publishing arm of the Nation magazine. Westminster John Knox Press, a respected house long associated with American Presbyterianism, published Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, which asserted that the events of that day were planned in order to furnish a pretext for intervention in the Middle East. More explicitly on the Left, my old publishing house Verso—offshoot of the New Left Review—published an anthology of Osama Bin Laden’s sermonizing rants in which the editors compared the leader of al-Qaida explicitly, and in the context not unfavorably, to Che Guevara.
So, for me at any rate, the experience of engaging in the 9/11 politico-cultural wars was a vertiginous one in at least two ways. To begin with, I found myself for the first time in my life sharing the outlook of soldiers and cops, or at least of those soldiers and cops who had not (like George Tenet and most of the CIA) left us defenseless under open skies while well-known “no fly” names were allowed to pay cash for one-way tickets after having done perfunctory training at flight schools. My sympathies were wholeheartedly and unironically (and, I claim, rationally) with the forces of law and order. Second, I became heavily involved in defending my adopted country from an amazing campaign of defamation, in which large numbers of the intellectual class seemed determined at least to minimize the gravity of what had occurred, or to translate it into innocuous terms (poverty is the cause of political violence) that would leave their worldview undisturbed. How much easier to maintain, as many did, that it was all an excuse to build a pipeline across Afghanistan (an option bizarrely neglected by American imperialism after the fall of communism in Kabul, when the wretched country could have been ours for the taking!).
My solidarity with soldiers, cops, and other “responders” didn’t make me a full convert to the police mentality. I was a named plaintiff in the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the National Security Agency, for its practice of warrantless wiretapping. I found a way of having myself “waterboarded” by former professionals, in order to satisfy my readers that the process does indeed constitute torture. I have visited Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, those two grotesque hellholes of American panic-reaction, and written very critically from both. And I was and remain unreconciled to the stupid, wasteful, oppressive collective punishment of Americans who try to use our civil aviation, or who want to be able to get into their own offices without showing ID to a guard who has no database against which to check it. But I had also seen Abu Ghraib shortly after it was first broken open in 2003, and could have no truck with the moral defectives who talked glibly as if that mini-Auschwitz and mass grave was no worse. When Amnesty International described Guantanamo as “the Gulag of our time,” I felt a collapse of seriousness that I have felt many times since.
One reason for opposing excesses and stupidities on “our” side (actually, why do I defensively lob in those quotation marks? Please consider them as optional) was my conviction that the defeat of Bin-Ladenism was ultimately certain. Al-Qaida demands the impossible—worldwide application of the most fanatical interpretation of sharia—and to forward the demand employs the most hysterically irrational means. (This combination, by the way, would make a reasonable definition of “terrorism.”) It follows that the resort to panicky or degrading tactics in order to combat terrorism is, as well as immoral, self-defeating.
Ten years ago I wrote to a despairing friend that a time would come when al-Qaida had been penetrated, when its own paranoia would devour it, when it had tried every tactic and failed to repeat its 9/11 coup, when it would fall victim to its own deluded worldview and—because it has no means of generating self-criticism—would begin to implode. The trove recovered from Bin Laden’s rather dismal Abbottabad hideaway appears to confirm that this fate has indeed, with much labor on the part of unsung heroes, begun to engulf al-Qaida. I take this as a part vindication of the superiority of “our” civilization, which is at least so constituted as to be able to learn from past mistakes, rather than remain a prisoner of “faith.”
The battle against casuistry and bad faith has also been worth fighting. So have many other struggles to assert the obvious. Contrary to the peddlers of shallow anti-Western self-hatred, the Muslim world did not adopt Bin-Ladenism as its shield against reality. Very much to the contrary, there turned out to be many millions of Arabs who have heretically and robustly preferred life over death. In many societies, al-Qaida defeated itself as well as underwent defeat.
In these cases, then, the problems did turn out to be more complicated than any “simple” solution the theocratic fanatics could propose. But, and against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain. Among them: Holocaust denial is in fact a surreptitious form of Holocaust affirmation. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a direct and lethal challenge to free expression, not a clash between traditional faith and “free speech fundamentalism.” The mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the random product of “ancient hatreds” but a deliberate plan to erase the Muslim population. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called “evil.” And, 10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.