Reflections on 9/11

When I woke up the morning of September 12, 2001 I did so under the assumption that the previous day’s events were now part of the landscape of American life. Like the Israelis, we would have to learn to deal with terrorist attacks as a permanent feature of our politics. This would mean greater security and greater restrictions on our liberties, but it would also mean that American optimism would be unalterably tempered by the persistence of tragedy in our midst.

Furthermore, it seemed to me that the thousand-year fraternal battle within Islam had now drawn the West permanently into its orbit; and, given the West’s own imperialist reach, the clash was certain to be long and bloody, and that America would be fighting this battle largely on its own.

Nine years later, I am amazed that we haven’t had further terrorist attacks on the homeland. This is not for lack of effort on the part of the terrorists. I spent some time in 2008 with the then Deputy Attorney General of the United States who told me in hair-raising detail some of the plans his office was tracking and foiling on a daily basis. If we take it to be the case that one of the fundamental responsibilities of government is to provide security for its citizens, I have to say I think they’ve done a pretty admirable job.

Things don’t end there however. We know that Osama bin Laden considers all Americans, children included, to be legitimate targets of violence. We know that he considers such targeting to be just recompense for the suffering America has visited upon the Muslim lands. We know that he holds America and Israel singularly responsible for this suffering (making explicit mention of the fact that al Qaeda has no interest in Sweden). I see no reason to accuse him of bad faith on these issues; that is to say, I believe he believes what he says.

For we Americans this raises at least two questions. First, is there any legitimacy to his complaints? To raise this question is to invite heated rejoinders, for Americans do not respond at all well to the idea that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 might be warranted, but not justified. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

The second question is in a sense far simpler and more practical: is being an American worth the implicit death threat under which you place yourself, your spouse, and your children? As a parent, and as someone married to a Canadian and thus possessing a citizenship option I could easily exercise, this question seems to me not just an abstract one. Is being an American worth taking such a chance? Which, of course, raises the question of what, exactly, it means to be an American.

The questions are in part answered by reference to America’s self-understanding as derived from the Puritan settlements. Sacvan Bercovitch has contributed the important argument that the jeremiad forms an essential part of America’s justification of itself both to itself and to the world at large, for America is uniquely concerned about the idea that its existence has some sort of transcendent purpose. The jeremiad was a public acknowledgement of America’s special place as God’s chosen people, but also a way of reorienting the community so that it could fulfill its promise. God punishes those he loves, especially when they stray, and uses punishment as a way of reminding them of their dependence on divine favor. As a result, the communities can reorganize themselves according to the dictates of divine command.

The divine punishment can manifest itself in many ways: natural disasters, disease, or through the violence of a scourge. The latter, a cat o’ nine tails, could also be metaphorically any agent which expresses divine ends through evil means. Not of God, they serve God’s purposes. Attila the Hun was so considered, the whip by which God punished and called his people to repentance.

Lincoln explicitly referred to the war as a scourge by which God was punishing the nation for the sin of slavery, and also by which it was being called to fulfill the vision of being an “almost chosen people.” The jeremiad, as Bercovitch points out, is an affirmation of the “ultimate success” of the political community. “The purpose of their jeremiads,” he wrote, “was to direct an imperiled people of God toward the fulfillment of their destiny, to guide them individually toward salvation, and collectively toward the American city of God.”

Page 1 of 2 | Next page