Measuring milestones in decades is a human habit. While the world continues to revolve around the sun, we choose to take stock of something we deem important every ten, fifty or one hundred years. That exercise seems to offer perspective – how far have we come or, perhaps more challenging, how far we have to go.
A Continuing Catharsis
Ten years after that September day in 2001, we Americans are engaged in a national catharsis – the Greek word meaning cleansing or purging and seeking relief from pain. We remember all those who died directly following the attack, as well as those who were to die much later from complications brought on by their efforts to save lives that day. We also seek to find a narrative to explain to ourselves what we have done since that day − to both remember and honor those who were killed, and to seek out ways to prevent another such cataclysm from happening again.
In forging that narrative during the past ten years, Americans reached into their own history to help define the experience and response to it. There was a wave of patriotism which swept the land after 9/11, and a cry for revenge against those who committed the awful act. This was the Pearl Harbor of today’s generation, it was said, and the response would be a war. President Bush offered the narrative of a war on terror – a concept with which Americans would identify. Wars had been fought before and they had been won – mostly. The quick demise of the Taliban in Kabul supported that vision, and the comparisons with the defeats of other past enemies were drawn to explain both the battle plan and the expected victory ahead. Yet, declaring a war on terror was not the same as declaring war on Japan or Germany, nor can the benchmarks of victory be as clear.
Nevertheless, the meaning of 9/11 went well beyond the need for a military response. There was a new and widespread sense of vulnerability in the country, and with it came a fear that such threats remain ominously waiting for another chance to strike. The need to raise our guards and seek out the perpetrators, at home and abroad, became the mantra of the decade. But America would prevail in this war like in all the others, or so it was promised.
With Us or Against Us
In the past ten years, we managed to prevent another attack, mostly due to diligence, but sometimes due to luck. Yet, we also made many mistakes along the way: overstepping the bounds of the constitution and American law, succumbing to the disease of paranoia on occasion, and overreacting to the threats as real as they were and are.
President Bush connected the responses to an agenda aimed at spreading freedom around the world – and defeating all those who challenged that agenda. He asked friends and allies to join him in this quest in a memorable phrase “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
When that request inevitably included invading Iraq, the initial outpouring of support following 9/11 faded. Yet, the debate over just how to confront the threat of terror remained vibrant, especially after more terrorist attacks in Bali, Spain, London, Moscow, Oslo and elsewhere around the globe kept coming. The more recent developments emerging from the so-called “Arab Spring” have generated further debates about how to support indigenous efforts at securing freedom in parts of the world struggling with their own kind of terror from dictatorships. We are still uncertain how to proceed there, but it is clear that helping those in Cairo, Tripoli, Tunis, Teheran and Damascus is part of a response to drying up the roots of terrorism.
Need for a Narrative
While Americans have tried to come to grips with these issues during the past decade within their own self constructed narrative, other countries struggle in different contexts. Germany’s outpouring of support for the US after 9/11 – reflected in then Chancellor Schroeder’s declaration of “unlimited solidarity” − was to be followed by both cooperation in going after suspected terrorists and threats, as well as by a German commitment to Afghanistan. The fact that the 9/11 terrorists had planned the attack in Hamburg added to the urgency for Germany to engage in such efforts.
Despite the heated argument over Iraq in 2003 between Gerhard Schroeder and George Bush, the Afghan engagement in the Hindukush remains intact to this day, even in the face of popular distaste for it at home. The German debate over dealing with terrorist threats has not only been marked by arguments over government controls and intrusions into the private domain of citizens, but also by a realization that there are homegrown sources of threats to Germans – the latter being recently strengthened by the discovery of the so called Sauerland group of terrorists intent on bombing American bases, as well as other more recent incidents, such as the killing of American servicemen at the Frankfurt airport or the arrest of two suspected terrorists this week in Berlin. All of them underscore the fact that Germany should not believe it is immune to the kind of things that happened elsewhere in Europe during the past decade.
Yet the fact is that Germany has been spared by a catastrophe such as 9/11, so far. How Germans would react to such an experience is not clear. When it comes to confronting the dangers, the formation of the narrative in Germany involves declarations of solidarity with its neighbors and partners, and collaborating across a large number of matrices in preventive efforts.
When one compares the ways in which the United States and Germany have been transformed during the past ten years, there is a shared sense of vulnerability and threat in a world which has been, and remains, marked by groups of people who feel compelled to wreak death and havoc wherever possible in the name of a self-defined mission − be it on an Island in Norway, in the streets of Mumbai, or in the London Tubes.
After 9/11, then Interior Minister Otto Schily commented that he felt the world had changed, making that which had been self-evident not so self-evident anymore. Violence in many parts of the world has been self-evident, and the roots of that violence cannot always be extinguished easily with military weapons. Fighting terrorists certainly can require force, be it fighting the drug cartels today in Mexico, defending South Sudan from the Januwied, or rooting out the Al Qaeda cells wherever they may be.
Yet, the sources of the terror that was brought upon the United States ten years ago will be best combated if there is a desire on the part of the people to become invested in their own societies and futures. There is much that can be done to help that process succeed. It is being demonstrated in the Arab crescent and in other countries, which only a few years ago were beset by dictatorships and terrorists wars in South America.
Learning From the Past, Building for the Future
Two countries, the United States and Germany, have much to contribute to this effort, both at home and around the globe. At home, there is the need to maintain a firm grip on the values and the capacity to serve as an example of strong societies in which many people around the world would like to live. Around the globe, both countries have the capacities to assist and collaborate with countries seeking to enhance their chances and investments in a global arena.
This weekend, the United States will be revisiting a moment of catharsis. Beyond this weekend, there will be a need to move ahead with steps to engage a world that is both dangerous and, yet, also open to enormous options. Purging the emotional pain of 9/11 requires remembering that we have responsibilities to those who left us behind to be better and stronger in the future.
The vast majority of Germans living today were born after the catastrophe of World War II. They have inherited an opportunity that emerged from those ashes and have built one of the most successful societies on the globe. That was done with good deal of support from the United States along the way. That makes for a shared narrative marked by the triumph of German unification in 1990.
Those two countries now share a mutual responsibility to see to it that the world after 9/11 –tomorrow and decades from now – is a far better one than we see now. The challenge is whether or not Germany and the United States can build on the lessons of the shared narrative of the past half century to confront both uncertainties and opportunities in the next half century. That will require a clear understanding of how the past decade has shaped the choices we have and the decisions we need to make.
This essay appeared in the September 8, 2011 AICGS Advisor.