by Richard Peres
I was at a business meeting in New Jersey on September 11, 2001, arriving early in the morning. A close colleague of mind lamented to me about his inability to book a booth for his company on the top floor of the World Trade Center, at the Windows of the World restaurant. He had tried until the evening of the day before that fateful horrible event. Then, as the news came in, the disappointment on his face suddenly changed to shock. The conference abruptly ended.
Driving home that day the smoke from the WTC could be seen across the Hudson, eventually smothering us with grief and torment. It was as if a dagger was struck into the hearts of us New Yorkers and it affected all Americans.
The impact was extraordinary, devastating and lasting not only on the American economy and world politics, but the American psyche. After 9-11, a galvanizing wave of nationalism swept the country unlike anything I had witnessed in my lifetime, similar to December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. That touchstone event of my father’s generation had sparked the start of World War II, something that the invasion of Poland, bombing of London and sinking of ships in the Atlantic could not do. Similarly, after 9-11, the political differences of Americans were temporarily forgotten as the country came together. US flags appeared everywhere, flying from cars, hanging from bridges and buildings, including my house. The need to fight back in the defense of the nation was overwhelming.
From 9-11 to the Iraq War
But the most compelling characteristic of this fight was that the enemy was not easily identifiable, so much so that Osama ben Laden himself had avoided the full force of US intelligence resources for almost ten years. The US public’s unfortunate support for the invasion of Iraq two years later – despite little evidence that Iraq had any involvement in supporting terrorism or was even a threat to America – was emblematic of how America’s frustrations needed a target to alleviate its pain. American military recruiters now had an easy time to get young men to sign up for a stint in the US Army without the need for conscription because many of them thought they were fighting the good fight in the “war on terror” as they left for Iraq. More than 5000 never returned.
I watched disapprovingly at the relentless campaign by the Bush administration to gain support for the invasion of Iraq from an American public that was easily swayed in this post-911 environment. Any accurate assessment of the so-called Iraqi threat seemed to dissipate in the wind. The CIA’s objections were smothered and those in the Pentagon who objected were either ignored or dismissed. The investigation by ex-ambassador Joe Wilson of a so-called nuclear threat supposedly evidenced by Iraq’s purchase of nuclear materials was attacked and his CIA agent wife, Valerie Plame was “outed” by sources in the Vice President’s office. One of the few voices of opposition to the Iraq invasion by an elected official was a young Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, but little attention was given to him at that time. Journalists lacked the motivation and heart to oppose the invasion and the rest, as is said, is history.
Bush played the security card again in the 2004 elections to get re-elected, pitching the Democrats as weak on terrorism. Ten years later America is still in Afghanistan – a deceptively fast expedition that initially eliminated the Taliban -- and Iraq, despite increasing disinterest on the part of the American public, although most want to exit in a feasible manner.
Now the situation has been reversed. The Democrats can take responsibility for eliminating Ben Laden, a big disappointment for Republicans that will only be expressed in private. If the economy continues to improve, one wonders what compelling issue the Republicans can use to regain the White House.
Waking to the news on May 2 that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, I was initially surprised at the spontaneous celebratory crowds in the early morning hours in Washington and New York. I guess I had forgotten the impact of what had happened ten years ago. I can see now how important spontaneity is: a true, clear, honest and immediate response of feelings and passions. It was spontaneity, after all, that sparked the events in Tunisia, then Egypt, toppling governments in weeks after years of repression. It was spontaneity that overcame what guerrilla movements, political groups and organizations could not do in decades in those countries, including Al Qaeda. One should never underestimate the meaning of a spontaneous demonstration, but fully absorb it. Nor should one give little value to the impact of nationalistic fervor.
This leads to the question of whether Bin Laden’s death will end a siege mentality after ten years of worrying over threats of terrorism. It will once again depend on the managing of the force of nationalism in the post- Bin Laden era. The answer is unclear. But President Obama shows no sign of mismanaging, if not abusing, American nationalism the way the Bush administration did. His absolute reluctance to be the lead participant in the NATO-run Libya operation is one example. The seemingly unending way the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq turned out to be complex supports this view; Obama’s unique and original opposition to the Iraq war provides another source of optimism for competent leadership in the future.
Right vs. Wrong
The killing of Osama ben Laden was naturally more enthusiastically celebrated in America than elsewhere, as seen by television coverage on Monday morning coming from Qatar, England, France, Italy and Turkey. It was the CNN US commentators who were obviously caught up in the celebrations and covered them as the main story. It was as if a sleeping giant was awakened after a decade of slumber and had something to celebrate – a decade of Bin Laden videos, threats and pronouncements, color-coded terrorism warnings, and killings of innocent people regardless of religion or nationality.
America inherited a particular brand of puritan ethics from the British, a view of right and wrong that does not necessarily relate to religion. Getting back at Bin Laden was righting a horrible wrong. Burying him within 24 hours in adherence to Islamic values was also, it seems, a result of respect for right and wrong, a clear sign echoed by both Bush and Obama that the war on terror is unrelated to religion.
An event that motivates a nation as radically as this is tapping into a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful on earth. Such a force can have hard-to-imagine impacts on the human race, some good and others bad. As humans we should try to remain cognizant of the differences and not let politics interfere with discouraging the bad and supporting the good. Killing innocent people, ignoring past injustices, shooting demonstrators and protesters need to be universally recognized as bad by all countries regardless of politics Too much is at stake to do otherwise.