Was 9/11 a Historical Turning Point?

Dominique Moïsi argued on these pages on Sept. 8 (An infamy in history) that the significance of 9/11 lies not in what many observers see as an opening salvo in a “clash of civilizations,” but rather in the fact that the attacks accelerated the end of the American Century. Ted Widmer, a historian who directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, joins the debate.

It was irresistible, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, to draw large historical conclusions about the demise of the United States, and to express regrets over paths not taken. And so a mighty wind blew across the media landscape, lamenting “the lost decade,” as Dominique Moïsi called it in his column.

Moreover, Moïsi asked leading questions about the fall of empires, wondering if 9/11 was a historical disaster on the order of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Without quite answering in the affirmative, he still suggested that it marked the beginning of the end of the American Century.

It is always tempting to search for historical comparisons — or in this case two (“the American Century” was coined as the United States was about to enter World War II). But 9/11 stands alone as an event, and we should resist the easy path to lump it together with the disasters of the past.

Few now deny that the Iraq war was a misguided effort that achieved few of its stated aims. That seemed to be nearly unanimous last week as commentators tried to focus on 9/11, but inevitably found their way into the series of military actions that followed the destruction of the World Trade Center. And the end of the adventure in Afghanistan cannot come soon enough.

But Sarajevo? A lot of terrible things have happened in the last 10 years, but nothing on the scale of World War I. The Great War may have killed as many as 20 million people, destroyed three empires and permanently disrupted a power structure that had ruled much of the world for centuries. World War II may have killed 50 million and reshaped the world all over again. Most surveys indicate that 100,000 have been killed in Iraq, a small country in the Middle East. That is not to minimize its consequences — Vietnam was a small country too, and Sarajevo a distant Balkan outpost. But still, it is not the same.

It is essential to be precise about the details. Playing fast and loose with the past can have disastrous consequences, and it was a similar imprecision that brought the Iraq war into our living rooms and our lives. For much of the last decade, we heard Osama bin Laden likened to Hitler or Stalin, when in fact there was nothing even remotely fascistic or totalitarian about the stateless band of terrorists he was trying to direct.

Most of those exuberant claims were made on the right, by partisans of the Iraq war nostalgic for World War II, but highly selective in their memory. In the neoconservative narrative, Winston Churchill was usually the dominant leader of the Allies, rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose politics were inconveniently progressive. Or for that matter, the other member of the Big Three, Joseph Stalin, whose politics went considerably past “progressive.” We didn’t hear Uncle Joe described very often in that context.

It has become rather easy to criticize President George W. Bush for the mistakes he made, especially in Paris, where America’s failure to live up to French expectations is a much-cherished local tradition, nearly as old as the United States itself. But to fall into undisciplined thinking about the past risks perpetuating the same mistakes.

It also surrenders to a form of pessimism that is not especially instructive when the world seeks a new and better narrative.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have eroded both hard and soft power for the United States at a time when we could use both — along with the $1.2 trillion or so that we spent chasing after the specters of 9/11. But it is hard to see how a refusal to fight those wars would have slowed China’s growth.

And it remains difficult to see how China will assume the great mantle of leadership that was thrust upon the United States for much of the last century. Or how that would bring much comfort to France.

Instead, commentators on the left and the right need to come up with creative solutions for guiding a world that does not always live up to its history.

By Ted Widmer, a historian who directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

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