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Visiting Santiago, Chile a few years ago I was startled to find that one of the city’s main traffic arteries is “September the 11th Avenue.” Chileans, I discovered, remember September 11 as the anniversary of the 1973 coup in which Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende.
That morning in Santiago was a reminder of something we Americans too often forget: just because 9/11 has become a defining experience in our lives does not mean the rest of the world sees it that way. Indeed, if there is a single element of 9/11 that separates American memory of the event from what the rest of the world recalls it is the oft-heard phrase “everything changed.”
For me, as a Vermonter who has spent much of his adult life living in and reporting on the Middle East (indeed, I am writing this article from Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar), the last decade has been marked by a series of disappointments at how our society has handled the traumas of September 11, 2001.
One of the things that used to separate America from the autocratic world of the Middle East was our approach to the word “security.”
In the Middle East, “security” has long been a word invoked by officialdom whenever it wishes to avoid accountability for both great decisions of state and petty intrusions into individuals’ lives. Prior to 9/11 the United States was not that sort of place. Today, in too many respects, it is.
As in the Middle East, the word is used easily by both the highest and the lowest of public servants. It is cited by our former vice president as a justification for torture. It is also the reason why Transportation Security Administration agents at some airports insist that your shoes must go through the X-ray machine in a plastic bin while other agents at other airports insist that the same shoes must sit on the belt by themselves. Ask why there is a difference and the TSA will not tell you. It is a matter of “security.”
Blame for this situation lies not with the officials themselves, but with the rest of us for letting this happen. In the years since the 9/11 attacks too many of us have too easily accepted platitudes in place of explanations.
Yes, there are people out there who wish us ill. That, however, has been the case at some level or other throughout American history – and in this regard we are not unique. Americans, of course, do not like to be told that we are not unique, but it is instructive to remember that we are hardly the first nation ever to be attacked and that other democratic societies have dealt with the aftermath of similarly devastating experiences. More importantly, they have done so without radically altering the social contracts that hold their societies together.
A few years after 9/11 I found myself having dinner at a hotel in Abu Dhabi with an old friend – an Egyptian Christian a few years my senior. He had family in the United States, and would later send his children to school here. That night in 2004, however, he was angry mainly at George W. Bush.
Bush, he said, “took away my America.” What he meant was that the America which emerged from 9/11 was not the place he had grown up idolizing. The pre-9/11 America stood for certain ideals and made a genuine, if often imperfect, effort to be the country it imagined itself to be. America’s openness and self-confidence were what had appealed to him and other Arabs of his generation, men and women who came of age in the 70s and 80s in closed societies where it often seemed as though nothing ever could, or would, change.
Becoming that America again will require a little more humility on our part. That, in turn, starts with our own understanding that the events of 9/11 did not “change everything.” The tragedy of September 11 may be uniquely ours, but it is precisely because other societies have endured similarly wrenching violence that so many were able to sympathize so deeply with us in the fall of 2001.
As a nation we missed the chance to embrace and build on that empathy. For too much of the last decade we have viewed the rest of the world from a fearful, defensive crouch. It is time for that to change. For America to be the country we know ourselves to be the second decade after 9/11 must be utterly unlike the first.
Gordon Robison has worked in the Middle East for ABC, CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera. He has also taught Middle East politics at UVM and Islamic History and Culture at Emerson College. He lives in Burlington.