A tragedy shaped by narcissism

Immediately after the September 11 attacks the then national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, called in her senior staff and asked them to think seriously about “how [to] capitalise on these opportunities”.

The primary opportunity came from a public united in anger, grief and fear, which the Bush administration sought to leverage to maximum political effect.

“I think September 11 was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen,” Rice told the New Yorker six months afterwards. “Events are in much sharper relief.”

Ten years later the United States’s response to the terror attacks has clarified three things: the limits to what its enormous military power can achieve, its relative geopolitical decline and the intensity of its polarised political culture. It has been incapable of winning the wars it started, paying for them and coming to any consensus about why the attacks took place.

The execution of Osama bin Laden provoked such joy in part because almost every other American response to 9/11 is regarded as a partial or total failure. Inevitably, the unity brought about by the 9/11 ­tragedy proved as intense as it was fleeting. The rally around the flag was a genuine, spontaneous reaction to events in a nation for which ­patriotism is not an optional ­addendum but a central part of the political culture.

At the same time, there was an element of narcissism to the national grief that would play out in policy and which remains evident in the tone of many of the current retrospective discourses. The problem, for some, was not that such a tragedy had happened but that it could have happened in America and to Americans. The ability to empathise with others who had suffered similar tragedies and the desire to prevent further such suffering proved elusive when set against the need for revenge. It was as though Americans were unique in their ability to feel pain, and the deaths of civilians of other nations were worth less.

The narcissism is exemplified by former vice-president Dick Cheney’s answer when asked last week how he could object to Iran water-boarding Americans when he supported America’s right to water-board. “We have obligations towards our citizens. And we do everything to protect our citizens,” he said.

“Terror is first of all the terror of the next attack,” writes Arjun Appadurai in Fear of Small Numbers. If nothing else, the Bush administration had fear on its side. “The next time the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud,” said Rice. “They only have to be right once. We have to be right every time.”

The trouble is the US got very little right. Broad sweeps of people from predominantly Muslim countries resulted in the “preventive detention” of 1 200 people and a programme of special registration for more than 82 000 — but not a single terrorism conviction.

A decade on, the US ability to crush al-Qaeda still depends almost entirely on its ability to negotiate with Pakistan and doing a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, where last month the US military had its highest death toll since the war began. And that is before we get to Iraq.

An effective response to 9/11 that would have truly satisfied the US public probably did not exist. A combination of diplomatic pressure, targeted intelligence-led operations and a more enlightened foreign policy would have been most effective. But following the attacks, when declarative sentences were the only ones heard, the public insisted on something more punitive and impressive.

Even now the case against bombing Afghanistan is often met with the question: “So should we have done nothing?” — as if anything short of a military response was not a response at all, and as if doing something that did not work and left untold innocents dead is better than doing something that would have been more effective but less dramatic.

Dissent was ridiculed or vilified, even by the mainstream. Shortly after the attacks ABC news anchor Ted Koppel introduced Arundhati Roy, Indian novelist and opponent of the Afghanistan war, thus: “Some of you, many of you, are not going to like what you hear tonight. You don’t have to listen. But if you do, you should know that dissent sometimes comes in strange packages …”

But as time went on the number of dissenters started swelling. The most important factor that shapes American attitudes to any war is whether they think they will win, explains Christopher Gelpi, Duke University political scientist. As the Iraq war floundered unity gave way to the acrimony, mistrust and mutual recrimination that characterises US politics today.

The response to 9/11 did not create these divisions — a year before the presidential election was decided by the courts — but it deepened, broadened, sustained and framed them for more than half a decade. It was the central issue in the 2004 election and cast the 2008 election in terms of hope (Barack Obama) against fear (John McCain and Sarah Palin). Internationally Obama’s victory marked the country’s belated, more nuanced and enlightened response to 9/11, signalling its readiness to engage again with the rest of the world and the treaties that govern it.

Sadly that change in tone, style and, to some extent, substance has also proved inadequate. True, Obama’s administration plans to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and has retired the phrase “war on terror”. But it has maintained many of the most problematic elements of the war, including Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and military commissions, while intensifying the war in Afghanistan.

On the right, the hubris displayed by Rice that the US could simply bend the world to its will has since given way to denial and occasional bouts of impotent rage. Islamaphobia is on the rise, “Muslim” has become a slur and Iraq, apparently, was a success.

In 2004 a Bush aide chided a New York Times journalist for working in the “reality-based community”, meaning people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works any more. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

But that has never been how the world works. Over the past 10 years reality has caught up with rhetoric. —

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