“People respond to fear, not to love,” Richard Nixon once said of American voters. “They do not learn it in Sunday school, but it is true.”
In the 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Nixon’s jaundice on democracy has been put to the test and appears to be regularly true. But the story of how America was changed by the first attack on its homeland since Pearl Harbor was better seized from the ground than via the four-year presidential cycle.
No matter how far they were from the smoldering wreck of the Twin Towers, Americans woke up on 9/12 to a world that was permanently changing from what it was on 9/10. Looking back on the late summer weeks in New York [in 2001] feels like the weightless moment when a ball has reached the top when its bow has not yet begun to sag, ‘writes Evan Osnos, author of Wildland.
Since Thucydides predicted that the expansion of the Athenian empire could endanger tyranny abroad as well as abroad, savants warned that war could not be shut off from the society that persecuted it. George W. Bush and his successors nevertheless sought to separate the ‘global war on terror’ from everyday American life.
In one respect, they succeeded. As Samuel Moyn points out in his scholarly and provocative book, Human, lawyers are just as much an integral part of the American war struggle these days as generals. The “murder lists” that Barack Obama so carefully analyzed led to more civilian deaths than his White House was willing to admit – 4,000 in the Pakistani countryside of Waziristan alone, according to Moyn. But those numbers are small compared to the hundreds of thousands or more who died in U.S. carpet bombings in the Vietnam and Korean wars.
According to Moyn, Obama was forced to go between “two Georges” – George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate whose disastrous campaign against Nixon against his party became permanently at odds in 1972, and George Bush, who exceeded the 9/11 mandate to an invasion of Iraq. Obama did this by placing it all on a better legal basis. On the same day that Obama banned torture – or “improved interrogation techniques” – he launched his first drone attack. In his first year, he did more than Bush in his full eight years as president.
A few weeks after taking office, Obama “globalized” and “formalized” America’s doctrine against terrorism, beyond Bush’s morally offensive stance. “This was the initial reason for a storm of human killing on which the sun would never set in space or end in time,” Moyn writes.
In this respect, Obama is especially the face of the American era of ‘human’ fighting – a war that has even been removed from those who commit the killings. In the first volume of his memoirs, Obama says he wanted to save the young men who gave the United States so much trouble – to send them to school, to give them a scholarship and to remove them from hatred. “And yet the world in which they were a part, and the machinery I commanded, killed me rather,” Obama wrote.
The greatest value of Moyn’s book is the ethical questions he raises. Since war has become so much less bloody today and so many fewer Americans have been involved, what can stop it from becoming eternal? If you’re a hawk, the answer is: who cares? As long as terrorists are eliminated, the US government is doing its job. The problem is that not every American president will be as purposeful as Obama (see Donald Trump). Plus, what should stop other countries, like China, from using their killing drones similarly?
Then there is the future of autonomous drones that will have the ability to kill based on algorithms rather than human computation. Their record can be just as good compared to human judgment as self-driving cars. It is nevertheless a frightening prospect. Human wars are likely to be much harder to end than the slaughter wars that have occurred. “The moral improvement of intelligence can run the risk of just making it beautiful,” Moyn says.
It remains to be seen whether President Joe Biden will withdraw Afghanistan will put an end to the boots-on-the-ground dimension of America’s “eternal wars” if not its remote control world war on terror. But the changes that 9/11 brought to American society show little sign of abating. By the fortunes of three places – Clarksburg, West Virginia; Greenwich, Connecticut; and the south side of Chicago-Osnos describes the changes after 9/11 that ‘are driving America to a breaking point’.
Of these, the move to a more combat culture is perhaps the most tangible. The US now has 13 million citizens with permits to carry concealed firearms, which is more than 12 times the number of police officers. As a lobbyist from the National Rifle Association for Osnos says, the attacks on Al-Qaeda were a huge windfall for the American gun lobby. The fall of the Twin Towers followed a decade of sharply declining crime rates and lower gun sales. Suddenly there was a new paranoia of terrorists to exploit.
In fact, the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack was and remains infinitely small. In a 2016 poll, Americans estimated that one in six of their fellow citizens was Muslim. The true answer is one in 100. The NRA has used the xenophobic fears profitably. Rifle businesses have shifted from focusing on deer and duck hunters to marketing the idea that anyone can be a Navy Seal. NRA videos depict Americans in tactical combat gear fighting heroically against terrorists. “You have to look pretty hard for something designed to kill animals instead of humans,” wrote one hunting enthusiast of this new era of gun marketing. Similar cultural changes can be observed in the military. The US ended its military design in 1973. Since then, wars have been waged by the 0.5 percent of society recruited – mostly from poorer rural and urban America.
In the days after 9/11, Bush encouraged his fellow Americans to go skiing as usual. His reprimands in the aftermath, which was a graphically heinous attack on American citizens, were motivated primarily by fears of a collapse in consumer sentiment. But they grew up in a culture that was increasingly prone to aggressive attitudes without risking personal consequences. The idea of war as a shared sacrifice was therefore also broken.
The Bush presidency, like Trump, has been marked by huge tax cuts. Second, after the growth of the combat culture, America after 9/11 is characterized by increasing inequality. Osnos, an author of The New Yorker, illustrates this trend with the rise of hedge funds in his hometown of Greenwich, which has transformed from a prosperous banking town into a magnet for billionaires and insider trading.
Many of them increase their net worth by investing in asset-deprivation businesses that have deprived West Virginia miners of the pensions and health care they owe — blessed by the pro-corporate U.S. bankruptcy courts. During the same period, West Virginia, and many other “backward” states, went from democratic to republican.
In 2000, Bush becomes the first non-established Republican since Herbert Hoover to win West Virginia. In 2012, Obama lost every province in the state to Mitt Romney. Although state voters had few illusions that Trump would fulfill his promise to restore the coal industry, they feel culturally closer to him than to Democrats like Hillary Clinton. Much of this can be laid down in the aftermath of 9/11.
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Twenty years later, the political and psychological consequences of the attack became more understandable
Osnos’ book spans the time between the fall of the Twin Towers and the storm of the Capitol on January 6 this year – the period in which “Americans lost their vision for the common good”, he argues. You do not have to share the author’s implicit rosy about the collective sentiment that preceded the terrorist attacks, to agree with his vague version of what has happened since. Nearly a fifth of those arrested for the assault on Capitol Hill this year were former U.S. military personnel – more than 20 times their share of the population. As Moyn argues, the way we wage war is related to how we behave at home.
In early 2003, Norman Mailer, the now deceased novelist, warned that democracy is a ‘condition we must defend in the years to come’. Mailer’s conscience is still relevant.
Human: How the United States Rediscovered Peace and Peace by Samuel Moyn, Farrar, Straus and Giroux $ 30, 416 pages, published in the UK in January
Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux $ 30 / Bloomsbury £ 20, 480 pages
Edward Luce is the American editor of the FT
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