Ron Paul was booed at the recent Tea Party GOP candidate’s debate when he said that Americans should think about what motivated the 9-11 attacks. Rick Santorum had already said that the US was attacked because the terrorists hated “American exceptionalism” and the freedoms it brings, a comment that brought cheers from the audience. Even admitting that the audience was full of Tea Party adherents, what is disturbing is that this sentiment–that the US was attacked for its freedoms and that the underlying causes of the attack are reducible to that–is generalized throughout the population.
Neither Paul or other thoughtful commentators have justified the attacks (and I am not referring to the Ward Churchill variant of commentary). They have simply sought to open debate on the nature of US actions that could prompt such an act of premeditated violence against the symbols of US power and the innocents caught in them. For that, they have been accused as anti-American traitors and terrorist sympathisers.
The hard truth is that Americans simply do not want to reflect on the impact of US foreign policy in general, and on its role in setting up the conditions in which the 9/11 attacks were carried out. Scholars (most notably Chalmers Johnson) have used the term “blowback” to describe the unintended effect of US neo-imperialism. But this is not acceptable in American political discourse because, in spite of its myriad problems, the narrative being sold is that the US remains the “shining house on the hill” that can do no wrong and whose impact on global affairs is always benign. Thus two wars of occupation are considered to be acts of bringing freedom and democracy to backwards places, even if the majority of citizensÂ in those places openly oppose the presence of US troops. Extrajudicial rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques on “unlawful combatants” and a host of innocents are justified as necessary for freedom to prevail in the Islamic world. There is a hallucinatory aspect to the way in which US foreign policy and international behaviour is construed, and it is disturbing that so many average Americans buy into that construction.
Admittedly, Ron Paul calling for a reflection on what motivated the 9/11 attackers in a presidential candidate’s debate held on September 12 a decade after the attacks shows poor political judgement, for which he will be punished electorally. Equally understandable is that right-wingers in the US would seek to cloak all US actions in the mantle of righteousness. But it is profoundly alarming that even after ten years a majority of Americans appear to believe that the attacks were unprovoked, or at a minimum inspired by some form of jealousy on the part of Islamic evil-doers. It is also alarming that in the present political context no Democrat is going to disabuse the American public of that notion.
It may be hard to swallow, but the US public needs to understand that there is a direct link between US actions abroad and the resentment it breeds. It needs to understand that this resentment is long standing in some parts of the world (I am most familiar with Latin America), and that the desire to strike back is deeply embedded in many places. It needs to take pause and reflect on this cold fact in order to begin to address what the US international role properly should be. Many Americans think that it should act as the global policeman, not only because other states cannot but because this is what politicians and the mainstream press tell them that is the role it should play. But that view is not universally shared overseas, where moral authority, diplomatic leadership and economic exchange is more highly valued than carrying (in Teddy Roosevelt’s terms) a big stick.
Better yet, with its economy hollowed out and its military stretched across the globe fighting to preserve a status quo increasingly under siege, perhaps it would be wise for the US public to drop the blinders and reflect on the fact that it many ways the US is starting to look like the USSR in the 1980s–a military power increasingly left without the economic or political foundation to regulate the international system rather than simply clinging on to a role it once had, and which may never be again (remembering that the difference between a superpower and a great power is that the former intervenes in the international system (often using war as a systems regulator) in order to defend systemic interests, while the latter intervenes in the international system in order to defend national interests). Only by confronting the truth about the nature and impact of its actions abroad will the US be able to begin the process of re-establishing its international reputation, if not status.
That, it seems to me, is the root question that needs to be addressed a decade on from 9/11.