The List

The Black Hole of 9/11

As we assess the legacy of the 10th anniversary of America's seminal terrorist attack, it's worth looking at 10 events from the past decade that have actually been more important.

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.


10. The American Response to 9/11

While some might consider America's overwrought response to 9/11 to be proof of its significance, so much of that response was irrational and more directly related to issues in America's past (the invasion of Iraq, for example) that it needs to be seen as a thing apart. Indeed, we had been directly and indirectly fighting wars in and around Iraq for years. Further, that war was a "war of choice," just as the violation of our national principles at Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo was purely self-destructive, auto-terrorism if you will. We did more damage to ourselves than did the two-bit criminals who baited us. In any event, our response -- which extends on the positive side to our coming to better understand how to combat terrorism (the "intelligence war" and drone attacks bin Laden ended up bitterly lamenting) -- was both vastly bigger in scope and in consequence than the events that triggered it.


9. The Arab Spring

We have no idea how the string of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa this year is going to turn out. But we do know that they are a sign of deep change that has toppled more governments in the region than either al Qaeda or the United States could. These revolutions are having a broader social impact than extremism and are linked more directly to the self-interest of the masses in the region -- which ought to have us handicapping it with better odds than we'd give fundamentalist murderers practicing their ancient, outmoded, and ineffective trade. The United States was right to focus on the rise of nonstate actors and asymmetric power -- it was just focusing on the wrong sources of that power.


8. The Rebalancing of Asia

This trend is related to the No. 1 story of the decade (keep reading), but it touches more lives and will be of far greater impact to global foreign policy than anything that happens in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or anywhere in the Middle East. In fact, the intensive efforts to forge new alliances and open new relationships among all the international players with interests in Asia will probably play a decisive role in AfPak as it encompasses developments like the U.S. embrace of India. That evolving partnership between the world's two largest democracies will have important regional consequences vis-à-vis the battle against terrorism and containing threats from within Pakistan while at the same time creating an important counterbalance to China. These strategic shifts across Asia touch far more countries than those, however, as they involve creating new alliances and deepened relationships to address, engage with, and at the same time, manage the consequences of China's rise -- as well as that of other emerging powers such as India and, someday soon, perhaps a reunified Korea. It's complicated, but it's the big leagues of foreign policy compared with the Middle East, which is attention-grabbing but over the long term strictly second division.


7. The Stagnation of the U.S. and Other Developed-World Economies

This trend started a few years before 9/11 with Japan's economic meltdown. But it really gained momentum in the 2000s, when the United States experienced its first-ever decade of zero net new job creation and declining median incomes. Europe also spluttered, especially in the south -- and this weakening of the pillars of the post-World War II world clearly fed a reordering of geopolitics. Entering an age of limitations is forcing big powers to work together differently and has put the kibosh on the momentary and misguided unilateralism of the Bush era in the United States.


6. The Invention of Social Media

What's more important? Knocking down the World Trade Center and killing several thousand innocents or linking half a billion people together as never before (as Facebook did)? Passing notes from cave to cave in Waziristan or fueling a Twitter revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square? It's not even close.

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5. The Proliferation of Cell Phones and Hand-Held Computing Devices

As big as the advent of social media is, the big technology story of the past decade is the unprecedented, mind-boggling, world-reordering spread of cell phones. In 1991, 10 years before 9/11, there were 16 million cell-phone subscribers worldwide. Today, we are rapidly approaching 6 billion cell-phone subscribers. Eight trillion text messages will be sent in 2011. Within three or four years, more people will access the Internet via phone than via computer. And growth is fastest in the emerging world. There are more cell phone cameras today than all other forms of camera added together. Everyone is connected. Everyone is a witness. Everyone is part of a global news network, an instant coalition, a mob, an electorate.


4. The Crash of 2008

The Dow Jones industrial average fell from a peak of 14,164 on Oct. 9, 2007, to 6,469 the following March, a decline of 54 percent. It took 17 months to "recover." (The jury is still out on what's next.) The U.S. housing market, which peaked in 2006, has plummeted virtually unabated ever since, and some experts expect that those past highs may be unattainable for years, if ever. The resulting tens of trillions of dollars in losses sent hundreds of millions of people deeper into poverty, crushed retirement accounts, impacted the well-being of billions of people, and called into question the viability of countries and companies in ways that cannot yet be calculated. It also had political and policy implications -- from reconsidering national priorities to changing global views toward "American capitalism" -- that will dwarf those associated with 9/11.

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3. The Eurozone Crisis and the Crash of 2011-2012

Don't believe point No. 4? Well, keep watching. The weakening caused by the decline of developed-world economies, the crash of 2008, reckless overborrowing by European governments, and lax management of the banking sector (as well as localized national problems such as the failure by the Spanish to learn the lessons of the U.S. housing crisis) has led to a crisis that could undo the European Union, blow up the euro, and -- even if neither of those things happen -- send the world's economy into another tailspin that could recall or exceed 2008's crash. If it does, it will have an even more devastating impact on already weakened economies worldwide; and if it undoes the European experiment, which has helped ensure decades of peace on a continent previously riven by conflict, well, then it will again on totally different grounds easily trump 9/11.


2. The Failure to Address Global Warming

While evidence piled up that man-made warming was accelerating in ways that outstripped all models and all precedent in human history, while the scientific community united in its agreement that the crisis would be existential for many forms of life and coastal communities where billions of people live, while the entire planet was threatened as never before, the leaders of the world were otherwise engaged. If global temperatures rise another degree or three this century, 9/11 will be seen as a comparative footnote to an event that could remake the nature of life on Earth and lead to a toll many, many times greater than either 9/11 or the wars it triggered.


1. The Rise of China and the Other BRICs

The only reason global warming is not No. 1 is that we haven't seen its full effects yet. But its contours -- and that of economic growth and political power on the planet -- will be shaped increasingly by the influence of the "new" powers of the 21st century, led by China, India, Brazil, and others. Of course, they're not new: China and India were the world's largest economies from the dawn of time until almost the mid-19th century. But still, on September 11, 2001, they were considered players to watch -- in the distant future. The past decade has seen them emerge to the point that they are now the engines of growth that will determine whether a market crash of 2011 occurs, whether the United States and Europe can borrow to fund their ailing economies, whether the world will reach an agreement to manage greenhouse gas emissions, whether we will truly contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and what the real future of international institutions and agreements will look like. The BRICs rose while the United States was distracted by bin Laden's sideshow; now, America's future will depend on how quickly Americans can refocus on what's really important.

So, does all this mean 9/11 was not important? Of course not. It was a significant day in the life of America, a turning point in our view of our vulnerabilities and of the nature of threats and real power in the world. It led us to question many of our assumptions about the nature of our country, our alliances, our military capabilities, and our worldview. It and its aftermath have had a horrific human cost -- on victims of the attack, on the families of our soldiers, and on the many victims and their families of the wars we subsequently conducted in the Middle East. It has changed America, taught us our limitations, and forced us to question ourselves. We have been diminished by it, raised up by the noble examples of individual Americans -- and in the end we have learned much from it. Foremost among those lessons, however, must be that we as a nation need to summon the discipline in times of great national challenges to frame events in the broader context of time and our larger interests. We cannot allow single isolated events to warp our view of all around them, like historical black holes twisting the fabric of adjacent time and events. It is important to our process of consigning 9/11 to history to understand both what it was and what it was not, why it was important and why it was just one of many even greater stories of the past decade.

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The List

Hotels for Hacks

A look at some of the world's famous hotels, loved, hated, and holed up in by far-flung war correspondents.

After nearly three days of being held hostage by armed Qaddafi loyalists at Tripoli's Rixos hotel, more than 30 international journalists were set free on Wednesday, Aug. 24. It was apparently a tense and wild ride: In the late hours of Monday night, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi showed up to rouse the press corps with his convoy's appearance in the parking lot, but as the city was overrun by rebel forces, a handful of loyalist gunmen prevented journalists from leaving the hotel. With sporadic electricity, sniper fire, and threat of bombardment, journalists holed up in hallways and in the basement.

Upon being released, CNN's senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, tweeted "Crisis ended when #rixos gunmen realised that #Libya outside of hotel doors was no longer Libya of old. Handed us their guns & said 'sorry.'"

The Rixos experience may have been rather brief -- and thankfully, bloodless -- but the hotel now deserves its place in the pantheon of legendary havens for traveling war correspondents. Here's a look at seven of the world's greatest hack haunts.

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Sarajevo, Bosnia

During the 1992-1996 Bosnian war, the Holiday Inn -- the city's only major hotel -- was the unofficial center of operations for the international press corps. Unfortunately, it was only a few hundred yards from the front, where Serb and Bosniak forces battled throughout the conflict, and was adjacent to "Sniper Alley" -- the city's most dangerous thoroughfare. To leave the hotel, the journalists had to don flak jackets and run in a zigzag pattern to avoid the snipers. Even within the hotel, reporters were forced to avoid windows for fear of stray bullets, making reporting on the action outside difficult.

Inside the Holiday Inn -- which, by the time of the siege, was no longer affiliated with the U.S. chain -- conditions degenerated fast. With no intact windows, running water, or heat during the brutal Bosnian winters, journalists would trade granola bars and cough medicine as well as tips and information with each other for amenities like immersion water heaters for baths and electric hot plates. Despite the hardships, Holiday Inn veterans recall a spirit of camaraderie among the press there, and several marriages began in the hotel's freezing, crumbling halls.

The Holiday Inn still stands today, though reviews are not particularly positive.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Remembered by one nostalgic hack decades later as The Hurt Locker meets Animal House, the Royal -- which was renamed "Le Phnom" under Cambodia's short-lived republican government during the early 1970s -- was the preferred destination of journalists like Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times and Stanley Karnow of Time magazine, who covered the illegal U.S. war in Cambodia and the growing Khmer Rouge insurgency. The hotel pool was a popular way to unwind for journalists covering the confusing and shifting front lines outside the city -- at least, for those who eschewed the city's opium dens.

As the Khmer Rouge got closer to the capital city, rockets began crashing closer to the hotel, blackouts became more common, and swimming in the pool was prohibited; there were fears that in the event of a long siege, the pool water would be needed for drinking. But the siege was not to be -- journalists evacuated in a hurry as the Khmer Rouge entered the city in 1975. Some are still haunted by the pleas of the hotel staff to help them escape. More than 1 million Cambodians would be killed under the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule.

Dozens of journalists returned to the Royal in 2010 for a ceremony commemorating the journalists killed covering the conflict. Schanberg's coverage of the war -- including his time at the Phnom -- was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1984 film The Killing Fields.

Henning Blatt/Wikipedia


Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The Montana, a vast hotel that included an indoor shopping center in Port-au-Prince's leafy Pétionville suburb, was for decades an island of luxury amid Haiti's suffering and poverty -- the destination of choice for aid workers, bureaucrats, and, of course, journalists. Covering the 1994-1995 U.S. intervention in Haiti for Harper's, journalist Bob Shacochis recalls entering the hotel's lobby as being "space-warped into an après-beach party, gawking at the throng of media celebs, the Eddie Bauer tropical-fashion show, the crush of machos at the bar in shorts and network caps, looking as if they've spent their day playing softball." It wasn't all fun and games, however. The Haitian junta would sometimes dump bodies of political enemies in front of the Montana in order to guarantee media attention.

The hotel was almost completely destroyed during Haiti's 2010 earthquake, trapping dozens of guests and workers inside. Aid groups were criticized for attending to the international victims at the Montana while victims in much worse-off parts of the city languished. The Montana's owners are still struggling to rebuild.

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Saigon, Vietnam

For those who grew up reading news of the Vietnam War, it's a good bet that a hefty portion of those articles were filed from the Hotel Continental in Saigon. Both Time and Newsweek maintained bureaus on the hotel's upper floors, and the interior courtyard was awash with diplomats, sources, and soldiers. But the hotel had an earlier chapter for statesmen and scribes as well.

Built in 1880 by businessman Pierre Cazeau, the elegant hotel was a waypoint for French travelers and colonial emissaries. Among its more notable long-term guests were author (and later, Charles de Gaulle's information minister) André Malraux, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature), and Graham Greene, who famously wrote much of the The Quiet American while staying in Room 214. In that novel, set during the French Indochina War, a car bomb explodes across the street from the hotel.

By the time that American journalists descended upon it, violence on the streets of Saigon was a much more regular occurrence. "The sound of artillery shells bursting in the city came through the open window of the Continental Hotel in the early hours before dawn. Up from a shallow sleep came the realization that this sound was different from the occasional incoming rocket that had awakened the capital on other nights.... The fall of Saigon was upon us," wrote H.D.S. Greenway in the Washington Post.

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Kabul, Afghanistan

The Hotel Inter-Continental Kabul, perched on a ridgeline on the western edge of the city, has been destroyed and rebuilt more times than it can remember. Opened in September 1969 in a period of relative peace and prosperity during the reign of Afghanistan's last king, the Intercontinental first became a haven for journalists after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The hotel, which occasionally doubled as Soviet officers' quarters, became notorious as a "nest of spies" -- correspondents, diplomats, and spooks exchanged information clandestinely in the basement sauna and hotel staff helped reporters place illegal phone calls out of the country.

But the decades of war following the Soviet invasion were not kind to the Intercontinental. By 1996, when the Taliban took control of Kabul, only 85 of the hotel's 200 rooms were inhabitable due to incessant rocket fire. The culture of the mod-era Intercontinental changed, too, as the raucous, heavy-drinking communist days gave way to a puritanical decade of Islamist rule. The contents of the hotel's wine cellar were crushed by Taliban tanks.

The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan again attracted droves of journalists who holed up in the Intercontinental, which had been restored to something approximating its pre-Soviet grandeur. But the high life died hard again this June when suicide attackers laid siege to the Intercontinental, leaving the building in flames and more than 20 people dead. On the day of the attack, FP's Tom Ricks, who attended his prom there in 1971, reminisced, noting that once upon a time, Benazir Bhutto "went there to party down when her dad was running Pakistan."

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Baghdad, Iraq

Although it was from the top of Baghdad's Al Rasheed Hotel that the world first saw Peter Arnett's live coverage of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, it is the Al Hamra Hotel that most journalists covering the current Iraq war have called home. Located across the Tigris River from the Green Zone, where the recently renovated Rasheed keeps watch over U.S. military personnel, the more modest Hamra served as headquarters for more than half a dozen news outlets before a suicide bomb ripped through its interior in January 2010.

In the early days of the Iraq war, the hotel was known for its barbecues and pool parties, which "could stretch long into the sultry nights," according to the Los Angeles Times. Deteriorating security prompted the construction of a sturdy blast wall, however, and the Hamra's tight-knit group of correspondents soon found themselves unable to travel outside without armed bodyguards. Even before the 2010 bombing that left 16 people dead, there was a feeling among journalists that an attack was inevitable. H.D.S. Greenway reflects on the feeling of trepidation in the Global Post: "It was clear that the Al-Hamra would be next, and I spent evenings on the balcony as the dusty days turned into what seemed like a thousand and one Baghdad nights thinking about where the weak point in the blast walls might be, and from whence the attack would come." When the attack finally came, it marked the end of an era at the Hamra. But as the Los Angeles Times put it, the "Hamra had been filled with too much life, came to symbolize too much persistence, to be allowed to fade away."

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Beirut, Lebanon

Le Commodore in Beirut is perhaps the best-documented of wartime journalistic haunts. A destination of Doonesbury's marauding newsman, Roland Burton Hedley III, and home to the New York Times' Thomas Friedman in the early 1980s during the Lebanese civil war, the Commodore was a sometimes safe haven in a sea of destruction. The hotel clerk's habitual deadpan, recounted by Freidman in his memoir, puts the madness in perspective: He "would ask registering guests whether they wanted a room on the 'shelling side' of the hotel ... or the peaceful side."

The News Bar that greets today's travelers to the Commodore is an attempt to resurrect that romantic era. An homage to the bullet- and booze-fueled press-corps camaraderie, it longs for the time when the battle front came to journalists just as often as they went to the battle front. But with refurbished marble floors and a $35 million face-lift, the Commodore's heart and soul have been papered over. As Friedman wrote, "You did not stay in the Commodore for the quality of its rooms. The only thing that came with your room at the Commodore was a 16 percent service charge, and whatever you found in the blue-and-gold shag rugs."

What prompted a generation of foreign correspondents to write so passionately about this place was something else entirely. It was the faithful employees who kept the power and booze flowing throughout the war; the parrot named Coco, known for his unnerving imitation of incoming artillery shells; and the corps of unflagging correspondents, who kept ordering up "satanics and tonic," even after armed Islamic extremists had stormed the bar and smashed the liquor bottles. It was, as Friedman writes, "the whole insane atmosphere" that guests found so intoxicating.

AP Photo/Staff/Saade