Recently, I've started to get calls from reporters doing pieces on the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11. The thrust of the conversations is the same: How were we changed by that watershed moment?
But in responding to their questions and mulling the question in my head, I keep coming back to the same conclusion: 9/11, for all its tragic and heroic drama, is an easy event to overestimate. Indeed, we have been overestimating its significance since almost the moment it happened. (According to President George W. Bush, his chief of staff, Andrew Card, leaned forward to whisper the news of the attack in his ear and said, "America is under attack." Although factually accurate, the statement was in the language of traditional wars with traditional enemies and implied that the United States as a nation was somehow at risk in ways much broader than was actually the case.)
In fact, the success of Osama bin Laden was in masterminding a low-cost, comparatively low-risk action by a handful of thugs that produced one of the most profound overreactions in military history. Trillions of dollars were expended and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the emotion-fueled maelstrom unleashed by a shaken and clearly disoriented America. Bin Laden aimed for Wall Street and Washington, seeking to strike a blow against symbols of American power, but in so doing he also hit us where it would hurt the most -- right in our sense of perspective.
We spoke of 9/11 as though it were somehow equivalent to Pearl Harbor, the beginning of a global war against enemies bent on, and at least theoretically capable of, destroying the American way of life (unlike al Qaeda, a ragtag band of extremists with limited punch). We spoke of cultural wars and a divided world. We reorganized our entire security establishment to go after a few thousand bad guys. We went mad.
And now, as we are recovering our senses, withdrawing from Iraq, and soon starting to exit Afghanistan, having buried bin Laden and hosts of his henchmen, we are beginning to be able to see this. At least in theory we can. For the next couple of weeks, we will witness documentary after editorial mega-feature, interviews with victims and heroes, the American legend machine producing historical bumpf at full blast. That is not, by the way, to diminish the brutal blows struck 10 years ago or the deeply felt human experiences associated with it and its aftermath. Rather it is to say that once again we will seek to frame 9/11 as a great event, the definer of an era, when in fact, its greatest defining characteristic was that of a distraction -- The Great Distraction -- that drew America's focus and that of many in the world from the greater issues of our time. That distraction and the opportunity costs associated with it were bin Laden's triumph and our loss -- and our ultimate victory will come as we get a grip back on reality.
One way to demonstrate that restoration of historical sensibility comes if we ask ourselves, looking back over the past 10 years, what other developments took place that exceed 9/11 in lasting importance? What events of the past decade will historians write of that will have them looking past or beyond the attack, its masterminds, or its immediate response? There are scores, I suspect. Here are just 10 that come to me off the top of my head.
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