NYTimes: Roundtable on What 9/11 Means

In 10th Anniversary on September 10, 2011 at 7:42 am

Freewheeling discussion on 9/11:

The American reaction to being attacked on Sept. 11 was in many ways an intellectual one. President George W. Bush tended to frame it that way: the attack was on our “values,” and the “war against terror” was a war of ideas meant to advance the idea of freedom. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the administration’s epistemologist, worrying over the question of knowability; Bernard Lewis was its historian, Paul Wolfowitz its moralist in arms. That America’s actions (as opposed to precautions) after 9/11 almost all took place far from home, with a professional army, strengthened this sense of abstraction. The possibility of anything like victory over our enemies was discounted early on (by Rumsfeld). Little wonder that, unlike in earlier wars, we have talked so much about what this conflict means, rather than simply working to end it as soon as possible.

This magazine participated from the beginning in debates on the meaning of 9/11 and its aftermath. For this 10th anniversary, we brought together some of the actors to discuss what has been learned and where our conclusions might take us. Michael Ignatieff wrote frequently for the magazine on terrorism and war before entering Canadian politics as a member of Parliament and then Liberal Party leader; he is now at the University of Toronto. David Rieff was a frequent contributor of essays short and long on American policy. James Traub anchored our foreign-policy reporting across this period while producing two books on the subject, “The Best Intentions” and “The Freedom Agenda.” Paul Berman’s March 2003 cover story on Sayyid Qutb, ‘‘The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,’’ was a seminal attempt to frame the conflict in terms of competing ideologies. Ian Buruma’s magazine articles focused more on contemporary Muslims, most notably Tariq Ramadan (in February 2007). We met virtually, on two separate occasions, with Ignatieff entering the fray late and Rieff exiting early. – SCOTT MALCOMSON

SCOTT MALCOMSON: I was looking over George Packer’s 2002 New York Times Magazine piece on war and liberalism and it occurred to me that the liberal-engagement debate really didn’t start until some months after 9/11. The Afghan action received relatively little higher thought, so to speak. It seemed a different sort of war than Iraq. Ten years later the differences seem much less great. We’re still tucked into both — and more so into Afghanistan. Does this imply that the debate should have begun on 9/12?

PAUL BERMAN: For me the debate did begin on 9/11. I wrote a little essay on 9/12, expanded it over the next few days, turned it in to the American Prospect on Sept. 16, and it ran in the next issue under the title “Terror and Liberalism.” The essay laid out an argument for interpreting al Qaeda as a kind of totalitarianism, that is, as a modern phenomenon, which ought to be opposed in a modern way and with modern hopes. I think that was the debate, and has remained the debate — at least, for me.

JAMES TRAUB: I think Paul’s point raises the question of what a “modern” or at least substantive response to terrorism would be. Many of us — all of us at this roundtable — criticized President Bush for his refusal to recognize the immense difficulty of bringing “modernity,” or something like democracy, to backward places like Afghanistan and Iraq. That was the argument then. But I think after 10 years the argument has much more to do with the capacity of outsiders — America above all — to shape meaningfully better outcomes in these places. That is, had we taken more seriously the difficulties of nation-building in Afghanistan or Iraq, would it have made a difference? Or have we run up against the limits of the possible?

DAVID RIEFF: I suppose my question would be why we ever thought we could do these things in the first place. Even empires, with all the means at their disposal (think of the British, or for that matter, the Soviets in Central Asia), failed at this. Yes, it could be argued we were successful in Germany and Japan, but that was because there was a different context (total victory on our side, parliamentary history on theirs).

MALCOMSON: David, do you recall now your own thinking on 9/12?

RIEFF: Well, my position then was that we had every right to go after those who had attacked us. (I never took seriously Mullah Omar’s so-called offer). But that such an expedition, to use the old imperial term, would have nothing to do with trying to bring a better future to the Afghan people.


IAN BURUMA: Like David, I saw nothing wrong in striking back, but don’t think the Bush administration was ever remotely interested in building a nation in Afghanistan. Before going on, I think it would help the clarity of our discussion if we dispensed with the words “terror” and “terrorism,” as though they have an ideological meaning. Islamist extremism is one thing. Terrorism is a method. I did think something had to be done about Islamist extremism. The modernity of the response eludes me a little. If I read Paul Berman’s article right, he argued that liberals had to find a response that was as ‘deep’, as much to do with matters of life and death, with religion even, as Osama’s thought. This strikes me as neither very liberal, nor terribly modern.

MALCOMSON: I think we might go all right without too much reference to “terrorism” though I suspect it will come up. But what strikes me, Ian, in what you’ve said is the more complicated business of “ideological depth” — whether one’s assessment of Al Qaeda’s ideology as “profound” then requires some similarly “deep” response that, given AQ’s thinking, would almost have to be illiberal.

TRAUB: I will jump in for one moment. The deep response had to come from whom? Us? I think not. We gave much agonized thought to this question, as well as to the question, How can we provoke such a response from the Islamic world? And we couldn’t really — until it happened on its own. There was no meaningful response to the ideological threat until the Arab Spring — and now there is. That is why this remains the most hopeful event of at least the last 20 years, notwithstanding all the concerns.


BERMAN:  I think that, during the last 80 or 90 years, we have seen a series of totalitarian ideologies spring up — communist, fascist in different versions, together with doctrines like Baathism and Islamism. I do not think these are anthropological developments, which could only be addressed by, say, Russians, or Germans, or people who consider themselves part of a Muslim ummah. The ideas are modern, and everyone is free to engage with them — obliged to engage with them, I would think. It was crucial, generations ago, to argue with the fascists, and some people did. Crucial to argue with the communists. And more recently crucial to argue with the Baathists (whose own doctrine has died, thankfully) and the Islamists. The Islamists do not come out of primitive caves; they come out of modern intellectual settings, out of universities and libraries. And everyone can argue with them. Even successfully!

I think the Arab Spring is a confirmation of this notion. The original notion was that, in a large part of the Arab world and some parts of the rest of the Muslim world, the pathologies of totalitarian movements had set in, and had to be opposed — by argument, above all. And the arguments have gone on. And guess what? A great many people in the Arab world — and in Iran, too — agree with the liberal and anti-dictatorial and anti-totalitarian arguments. This is indeed grand. And this is indeed the only way that a true solution of these various problems was ever going to be found.

MALCOMSON: I remember there were several surveys featured in the Arab Human Development Reports showing more enthusiasm for liberal democracy in Arab and other Muslim countries than in most developed countries, including the U.S. This was pretty consistent. It does seem as though the wars that sought to bring democracy to some of those countries were, at least as a form of liberalizing or modernizing argument, entirely ineffective and arguably counterproductive. Would you agree with that Paul? Or anyone?

BURUMA: I don’t think one can accurately describe the Arab Spring as an intellectual argument with Al Qaeda, or extreme Islamism. You cannot use “fascism”, “Islamism”, or “Communism” as abstractions, without historical context. Arguing, in libraries or universities, or even on Tahrir Square, with Al Qaeda believers seems pointless. They are in the business of violent revolution, not argument. So the answer to that is political, and sometimes the use of force, not intellectual.

BERMAN: I think the wars have been counterproductive in some respects — for a while they appeared to discredit the notion of liberal democracy altogether, which was dreadful. This, apart from the deaths and suffering. In other respects, the wars have accomplished a number of things. There is, in fact, a need for force in dealing with people like the Al Qaeda militants. This kind of war has gone on in Afghanistan, and likewise in Iraq, once Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had gotten a foothold. These were necessary wars, I’m afraid.

RIEFF: I find it extraordinary that Paul can say these wars were necessary! There was no Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia presence in Iraq when we overthrew Saddam Hussein — — this is pure Cheney, 1% solution stuff. They came AFTER we invaded. I have nothing against the use of force against Al Qaeda (say in the Sahel). But surely the costs of these wars vastly outweigh whatever benefits there are.

But the more important question is: Why we should be meddling in the first place? Is it our business to decide who rules in Afghanistan? Beyond that, if we are talking about the Arab Spring, I advise caution. It  may well be that the Muslim Brotherhood is the principal beneficiary of Tahrir Square, not the democrats. In any case, there are real economic issues that nothing in the Arab Spring addresses or promises to resolve.

BERMAN: Unfortunately, al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did get established after a while, and it was necessary to fight them. This was the meaning of the “surge.”

TRAUB: But I’m struck by the difference between “responding to the threat of Al Qaeda” and the vast enterprise we have been talking about here. What of our effort in Afghanistan today has to do with the original goal of stopping Al Qaeda? We are now fighting the Taliban. I agree that there was no al Qaeda threat in Iraq at first. In many ways, we have done a very effective job of fighting Al Qaeda. But that’s very little of what we have, in fact, been doing.

BERMAN: I think the crucial thing was to establish that 1) there were and are extremist ideologies that, if identified, can be argued with and opposed. And 2) to support the people who, for many years, had already been calling for some sort of regional revolution along liberal lines. The call was made. There seemed to be successes. There were setbacks and disasters. And now, suddenly, there is a regional revolution.

The Arab spring is not the end of things — it is the beginning. Now the real struggle begins. And of course it involves a struggle between Islamists and anti-Islamists, among other groups. In Tunisia people chanted, “Tunisia is the solution!” — meaning, they were arguing against the Islamists. This is the great thing, the hopeful thing, the thing we have been hoping and calling for.

RIEFF: I don’t know — I would like to know — who this all-encompassing “we” Paul speaks of is. But more importantly, these are anecdotes. Other people in Tunisia are saying different things. More to the point still, more Tunisians are voting with their feet, that is, trying to emigrate. The problem with posing the question as Paul does, in fundamentally “clash of ideas” terms, is that the economy and demography of the region gets lost. There is only democrat v. Islamist. The fact that, say, in both Pakistan and Yemen they have not yet STARTED the demographic transition gets totally lost on this analysis.

BURUMA: I would go further. It is a common habit of religious fanatics — people who have heard “the call” — to see every struggle in terms of good versus evil: Islamists versus anti-Islamists. This is not political. The Muslim Brothers in Egypt are certainly Islamists, but as long as they stick by democratic rules, they have a role to play. If we dismiss them as part of an evil totalitarian block that we must “argue” (how?) against, we could well impede the democratic progress we hope will come from the Arab Spring

TRAUB: I agree altogether with Ian.

MALCOMSON: As a number of you have shown in your work, the battles within Muslim countries between Islamists, anti-Islamists, part-time democrats and Friday believers all went on before 9/11, and they seem all to be going on now, perhaps for the better in these past few months. But 10 years of U.S. and NATO and some non-NATO involvement, at the usual costs we all know, seem to have affected this battle of ideas very little indeed, in the region itself.

TRAUB: But this is just my point. Whether or not we celebrate what is happening now in the Middle East, it is not we who caused it. I would say that we retarded it by providing an alternative narrative — Crusaders seeking to dominate Islam — which allowed autocrats to distract peoples’ attention. But it happened anyway. So it tells us something about the limits of our own abilities, and something else about the resilience of people Over There.

BERMAN: Did we retard these events, or advance them? I don’t know. We advanced the liberal cause for some people, certainly — e.g., the Kurds of Iraq. We — the United States and its allies- — at least raised the issue of liberal democracy.

RIEFF: Raised the issue? At the price of how many dead, including our own? This is not a high table debate, for God’s sake. Huge numbers of people have killed and been killed because of our decision to stay in Afghanistan after we had toppled the Taliban and our invasion of Iraq. All this to raise the issue of liberal democracy? My God, man!

BERMAN: As for the question of how does one argue, I think one argues in the usual way. The way that intellectuals do: by reading people, by writing criticisms, by writing essays. A lot of this has been going on. It is not restricted to the Arab world. It is a European debate. And it is an American debate. It is, if I may say so, the obligation of intellectuals to engage in these debates. And it is possible to win these debates.

A great deal of what was done militarily was catastrophic — that is beyond dispute. But it is also the case that Kurds have rights, Shiites can practice their religious rites in Iraq, etc., so there is a mixed reality. And now we are faced with the question of what to do now — which is, I think, to engage in the argument, above all, which is what we ought to have been doing all along. The Arab liberals need support — they have received some support in the past, in spite of everything — and there ought to be more. And there ought to be arguments on their behalf.

MALCOMSON: In terms of what should be done now, two questions: Do you (each) believe that the Western or American public, having financed and fought most of this since 9/11, is eager to engage in further advancement of liberal arguments? If not, does that matter? And relatedly, President Obama has to figure out what to do himself, pretty practically. (He makes little public reference to 9/11, interestingly.) Where do you see whatever lessons we might have learned in the past decade taking policies in the near future?

TRAUB: On the first question, this is what troubles me about David’s response. There is a big difference between humility and despair. I think we have learned a lot about limits. But I don’t think the lesson is: We can do nothing to shape better outcomes in the world; we only make things worse. I would say that the American people, far from being interventionist, as they were in the aftermath of 9/11, are now heavily isolationist. How does one find the language that justifies a significant and positive American role in the world? Obama is searching — not so successfully, right now.

BURUMA: One way is to be concrete. I really don’t know what “advancing the liberal argument” means, except that it is supposed to make us feel warm all over. Are we talking about U.S. government policies? Fine. Military intervention, to topple regimes, the Napoleonic enterprise of revolutionary war, is almost always a mistake. Humanitarian intervention is the way this is phrased these days, but in fact this is often not so different from the Napoleonic way. There are things a powerful government can do to help democrats and liberals in other countries short of military force. Sometimes it is better to do nothing much at all. I believe that Obama’s relative passivity vis a vis the Green Revolution in Iran, for example, actually helped. It gave room for people in the Middle East to find their own way, without fear of being seen as America’s boys.

BERMAN: I think that “advancing the liberal argument” has a simple meaning. We should try to demonstrate the falsity of horrendous ideas — e.g., the false nature of Islamism. Islamism is not “the solution,” as it claims to be. It is a compilation of modern and ancient ideas, admixed with a great many horrendous European ideas. We should try to expose the nature of these doctrines. Very important, for instance, is to put up an argument against anti-Semitism, a key element in totalitarian doctrines, sooner or later. Women’s rights: another big theme.

Do these arguments mean nothing? We know very well that, in Iran, the universities are a center of resistance. Do people in other parts of the world listen to our own arguments? They do. They argue back. Exchanges go on. This — THIS — is the actual solution: the advancing of lucidity. I wish Obama did a bit more of it, given that, unlike Bush, he has the talent to do so. But it is not ultimately for politicians to do. This is something that intellectuals, writers, artists, journalists can do — something that quite a few NGO’s have been doing, with success too, as we have lately learned.

BURUMA: If only everybody in the world would read The New Republic, the world would solve all its problems.

RIEFF: First, let me reply to James. I don’t think the choice is between despair and hope or anything of the sort. There are things that governments can do, that, as Paul says, NGOs can do, and, though I am more skeptical about their importance, intellectuals can do. But I would far prefer that  we despaired than that we went to war! After Iraq, it wasn’t unreasonable to hope that we had learned NOT to do that, and that those who supported that war — — maybe not the war Bush fought but the ideal human rights war they called on him to fight — — would have lost their faith in military interventions in the name of human rights. That they have clearly not, as this conversation makes clear, seems to me ample cause for despair. Until that happens, I would prefer, yes, that we stand down! And where I do agree with James is that I think more and more formerly hawkish, or, at least interventionist, Americans agree — — a great thing in my view.


MICHAEL IGNATIEFF:  Looking over the first discussion, which I missed, I thought I’d add my two cents worth before the next one starts.  The first point to make is that there hasn’t been a successful attack on the U.S. mainland since 9/11. This is a fact worth thinking about. The apocalypse did not happen. The dog did not bark. Remember that autumn of 2001? We feared attacks on nuclear installations would come next. We believed that the anthrax attacks belonged to a wider conspiracy. There was widespread anxiety that the Muslim minority in the US was infiltrated by terrorists or their sympathizers, and a commensurate anxiety that these minorities would be subject to revenge attacks. None of this occurred. The apocalypse has been deferred indefinitely.  

One obvious reason has been the ferocious counter-attack by US special forces, CIA, and other secret agencies. The most obvious consequence of 9/11 to me has been the creation of a new national security state, to rival the one created at the start of the Cold War. It is an archipelago beneath democratic scrutiny, and it has done liberal democracies real damage: rendition, torture, detention without trial, Guantánamo, military tribunals. Its justification is that it has prevented an attack on the homeland. But this is a strange kind of justification: the absence of apocalypse is held to justify a permanent state of emergency, extending indefinitely into the future.  So the first question might be, with Bin Laden dead, what dismantling of this apparatus becomes possible? What enhanced oversight becomes necessary if we are not to perpetuate a permanent emergency?

Another point to make is that apocalypse has been avoided in the homeland, but it has spread to Bali, Madrid, London and Mumbai. Anywhere is now a target and so it is not obvious who is the target and who is the perpetrator.  Low level anxiety, in every airport, in every large public space, is now the norm, and since the perpetrators that have been caught don’t fit any obvious demographic profile, it’s not clear who were are supposed to watch with a beady eye and report to police.  Here too, we have become used to a permanent emergency: the scans at every airport, the occasional sight of someone being removed from a plane, the security systems that scan our emails and data transfers, the sense that 9/11 has created a global security archipelago beyond oversight or control. And since it still makes mistakes — Norway, for example — its very mistakes justify further expansion of the apparatus.

I’d feel happier engaging in a strong liberal defense of democracy against Islamic fascism if I felt we had this archipelago under better control. It seems to me we have paid a price for defeating Bin Laden which Bin Laden himself might find ironic confirmation of his power.

A similar kind of thought occurs in relation to the fiscal cost of the US pursuit of terrorism world-wide: three wars and the imperial overstretch and fiscal crisis that have resulted. Who is the real beneficiary of 10 years of imperial overstretch?  China and the other BRICs. It’s impossible to look back over the last 10 years and not to wonder what long-term price the U.S. has paid for devoting itself so fully to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency while its economic rivals, chiefly China, were busy capturing cheap manufacturing and primary commodity production, together with influence in every developing economy. Who is buying up Portuguese, Greek, Hungarian bonds to keep these governments afloat? China. Who is investing in infrastructure throughout Africa? China.  Nobody anticipated this, least of all the fanatics in their caves, but it is surely one of the consequences of 9/11 that might please them.

MALCOMSON: I’d suggest we start round two by addressing Michael’s question of whether one effect of 9/11 is a permanent counterterror “archipelago” that, to state the obvious, is not a natural friend of liberal politics, democracy, or perhaps some other goals of the reaction to 9/11.

BURUMA: I think the problem is with the idea of “terror”. Since this is a method — propaganda by violent means — there will never be a total end to it. There might be an end to a more clearly defined danger, extreme Islamism for example. But that is not the same as an all-out war “against terror.”

TRAUB: Well, okay, but, to go to Michael’s question, is it time for a kind of post-Osama “peace dividend”? Do we need to spend well over $500 billion a year on defense when our own sense of the threat has diminished?  Do we need to retain the same restraints on visas issued for the Islamic world?


IGNATIEFF: The issue to me is oversight, not just spending: How a liberal democracy manages to guard the guards. And here I think we’ve lost ground since 9/11.

MALCOMSON: I also draw attention to the remarkable enthusiasm now in many quarters for a foreign policy that is significantly dependent on assassinations (simply put).

TRAUB: I think that the dependence on assassinations, to use Scott’s term, is a sign of a wish to conduct foreign policy on the cheap. We’ve despaired of state-building, etc., as we discussed the other day. So instead we choose a kind of “stand-off” policy of killings from afar. Is there any way to remedy this policy without accepting the need for what Michael sometimes describes as the “imperial burden”? My fear is that it’s precisely the American public’s unwillingness to do so that leads to policy-by-drone.

BURUMA: The solution to conflicts in the end has to be political. Both sides must see an advantage in politics instead of violence. This was shown very clearly in the conflict in Ireland. British conservatives advocated for a long time that only more military force (including torture) would force the Irish Republican Army to its knees. In the end only negotiation with an IRA that saw its own advantage in politics worked. This means one has to negotiate often with nasty people. It is interesting to read in today’s NYT that the Taliban, or certain factions, are interested in negotiation.

MALCOMSON: My own sense is that policy-by-drone is also due to a lack of faith among those running states in state-based policies that can deal with non-state actors. After ten years of watching states like the U.S. try to deal with non-state disruptive forces, we’ve reached a point where shooting individuals from the sky looks very sensible. But it is also a change from the past. Michael, since you have the advantage among this group of actual governing experience, I’m wondering how you might see this shift from a state perspective?

IGNATIEFF: You flatter me. I have no experience whatever from a state perspective, and for what it’s worth, I’d say the move toward risk-averse military action has been going on for some time. I called Kosovo a “virtual war” precisely because we tried to protect civilians from the air, to eliminate risk to ground troops, and more importantly, to maintain domestic political support for an operation in a faraway place that was always shallow. I think this is a key consideration: no one wants to die for the sake of someone else’s real estate or security, if they can avoid it, and the new technologies — drones etc. — help to square the circle. They allow interventions on the cheap, which is all domestic political considerations will allow. The problem is if the risk to us is low, oversight will be similarly casual. We start killing lots of people rather casually, and lose whatever strategic purpose we were trying to achieve.

Which brings us back to oversight. Democratic consent has to be the key: if you can’t explain something to the people, in this case the American people, I wouldn’t try it overseas. The concern I have about the whole world opened up after 9/11 is this archipelago, not just of drones, but of communication intercepts, Internet monitoring, which preserves our security at the price of . . . what? We don’t even know. I’m relatively trusting, far from paranoid, but we do have a new institutional problem:  to subject special forces, cybercommand, the boys with the drones, to some form of democratic oversight and control, if we are to stay what we say we are.

BURUMA: I agree with Michael, but one reason Americans have allowed this to happen, I think, is that they bought into Dick Cheney’s paranoid world view, initially at least, the idea that we are in an existentialist war with terror, that Islamofascism, or whatever one wishes to call it, is a deadly threat to our existence. This is why it is so important to be clear and honest about our reasons to wage war. My opposition to the war in Iraq was not because I have a moral objection to taking out a tyrant. But the government was shifty, not clear about its reasons, and often lying about them. This damages our democracy. The same is true in Libya, I fear. Humanitarian intervention has become a fig leaf for revolutionary war, to topple a regime.

MALCOMSON: From a governing perspective, the appeal of drones and the rest of the archipelago is precisely that you can keep fighting without having to be clear and honest about anything. And that is also why it is so dangerous.

TRAUB: Can we go back to this question of democratic oversight and democratic consent? One problem is that, as Ian said, the American people have proved quite willing to grant their consent to torture, to harsh immigration policies, to the militarization of our judiciary. I actually don’t think that our worst fears over the throttling of domestic dissent have been realized — far from it, in fact. But we have acquiesced in a series of serious transformations of our policy, or rather of the face we turn to the world. I wish Obama had fought harder to keep KSM’s trial in civilian court, in New York. But once Mayor Bloomberg and Ray Kelly, the police commissioner, turned against him, he began to look like a liberal softie. Until we lose this overwhelming sense of fear, democratic consent for change will be hard to come by.

BURUMA: Perhaps this fear is part of the ethos of the United States. It was founded on a sense of fear, fear of the bad Old World, from which people found refuge. It has long been relatively easy for the U.S. government to talk the people into a sense of fear of the wicked outside world.

MALCOMSON: The best book I have read about intellectuals and 9/11 is George Fredrickson’s “The Inner Civil War,” which is about Emerson, Whittier etc. reacting to the North-South crisis before and on into the Civil War. It is amazing how similar the debates and attitudes were. So I want to celebrate Ian’s turn to the American past, although for my money American attitudes are much more formed by the Western expansion than by fear of the Old World. But in any event, Paul, you are being silent. Part of the discussion here is about intellectual responses to 9/11, and in the context of U.S. history you might have something to say…

BERMAN: Let me return for a moment to Michael’s original point. I do think there is an enormous problem of oversight. It derives from a systematic mendacity, which got its start under Bush in regard to the Iraq War, but I’m afraid has not come to an end. So we find ourselves fighting in Libya, Yemen, in Pakistan, in Somalia — fighting in various ways — and there is very little public recognition or discussion of this. This is an immense problem: political and moral.  

BURUMA: But surely intellectuals, including, if I may say so, Michael and yourself, are complicit in that government mendacity. You both took the view at the time that you disagreed with most of Bush’s policies, but you were in favor of the war in Iraq, whatever Bush’s reasons. This makes light of the government’s stated reasons for war. If we accept war, just because we might like some of the possible results from it, we end up encouraging, or at least condoning, mendacity.

IGNATIEFF: This is a discussion about what has happened to us — all of us — since 9/11, and I am putting the issue of oversight into the frame, because we have all learned a great deal about our obligations to keep ourselves honest, to refuse to condone mendacity, as you put it. Oversight in my idea of it involves us all. Congressional committees, a free press, intellectuals, academics: we all have some stake in making sure we keep each other honest. The problem I see is that we have allowed a huge apparatus to be created in our name to defend us and this apparatus is under very imperfect control. This is a consequence of 9/11 that concerns me. Of course, we have been here before. Scott referred to the Civil War. Of course societies usually go too far in the first shock of an emergency. Lincoln is widely criticized for suspending habeas corpus. But over time, we learn. It would be good to learn from the last decade. We can settle scores forever.

MALCOMSON: The genius of Fredrickson’s book is it shows intellectuals taking the Civil War as the content, so to speak, for their pre-existing ideas. Nathaniel Hawthorne was the one who resisted this; he reminds me rather of Rieff, which is a strange feeling.

But anyway, I would think another lesson from the past ten years is how hard it is to predict the results of our own violence. And I don’t want to lose track of Michael’s other point on BRICs and China, speaking of unintended consequences.

BERMAN: Mendacity was my own word, applied to Bush, back in 2003, and it was the right word. And his mendacity has had terrible consequences. But have we managed to avoid this now, to be more honest? I think we are in a situation where we have never had a proper public discussion of the whole problem. There are real things to fear, and false things to fear. I don’t think a trial of KSM in Manhattan was a good idea: there was reason to be frightened. Not every fear is a bogeyman. But how can we tell? By discussing the political issues, I would think. I think Ian is right to label the problem as a political one: Islamist extremism. And right to say there must be a political solutions. This doesn’t mean sharing the cake, though. There are movements that have to be transformed, or defeated. We should be open about this, but we are not.

Whether these issues should be traced into the American past- — I don’t know. I love Hawthorne. I am right now writing a book about him. But he was hugely wrong on the Civil War. He didn’t understand the main issue, which was slavery. To identify the big problem: this is essential.

TRAUB: The relevance of these historical examples has to do with what we did to ourselves in the face of war. But I don’t think the salient aspect of our reaction to 9/11 was a modern equivalent to the Alien and Sedition Acts, or the suspension of habeas corpus, or the Red Scare after WWI. It is not what we did to ourselves, but rather what we gave ourselves leave to do to others, that we now need to think about. To take a minor example: Americans now suffer a minor inconvenience getting on a plane, but non-Americans, and especially people from the Arab and Islamic world, can travel here at all only with great difficulty, and risk humiliating treatment once they arrive. Doesn’t that have to change?

MALCOMSON: I agree with Jim. The biggest flaw of US intellectuals’ response to the Civil War was that they always considered it as of importance only to white people (including when discussing slavery — very much including that). And much of the post-9/11 discussion was about us, ultimately, and not about the countries and people who we were, by far, the most affected.

BERMAN:  But Scott, isn’t this what we continue to do, to our shame? We are discussing our sins, our bogeymen, etc., and meanwhile somehow or another the fact that right now, as we speak, people are rising in rebellion against tyrants in Libya and Syria and other places goes barely mentioned, or unmentioned. And yet the United States and even the scribbling intellectuals and journalists might be able to do something about this. No, it’s not all about us. So, then, what about them? What are we doing for them? Or are we too self-absorbed, and too unwilling to pay taxes, and unwilling to take risks, to do anything for the people who are right now embodying a love of liberty?

MALCOMSON: I hate to demur but really want to hear Michael, Ian and Jim. I don’t disagree with you Paul, at least not at that level of generality.

IGNATIEFF: Two reactions, one to an earlier remark by Jim Traub to the effect that it’s not what we did to ourselves, it’s what we did to others that we should reflect upon. That’s true enough, and the humiliation of Muslims will have consequences that will be far-reaching both for our security and for the domestic peace of the country. But what we did to ourselves, or what liberal societies did to their domestic liberties after 9/11, is not negligible either. The new technologies of surveillance — those vast computers that sit there somewhere in Washington and elsewhere, mining telecommunications — the thousands of people in Washington and elsewhere with top-secret security clearance — I’m not sure these are passing phenomena, and I’m not sure they are easily dismantled or easily invigilated. I do want someone to be looking at all that traffic, sorting the signal of danger from the noise. But we need to keep the whole scene under control.

As for Paul’s remark about our congenital narcissism as intellectuals, ‘twas ever thus, but I would say that it pays to be a little circumspect about other people’s battles for liberty. It is their fight, not ours. We should let them know they are not alone, and we should do what we can to make sure they are not massacred, but I come away from all of this thinking it is a kind of respect to acknowledge how different their fight is, how specific it is to their situation, how little we are likely to understand their language of freedom, and how circumspect we should be about jumping in, especially with troops.

BURUMA: I’m with Michael. “Doing something”, however well intentioned, can make things much worse for the people we are supposed to help. U.S. intervention against the Nazis, after Hitler declared war, was certainly a good thing. The problem with learning lessons from the past, however, is that we tend to learn the wrong lessons. It is a terrible form of narcissism of many U.S. presidents to imagine they are Churchill, and see Hitlers behind every tinpot tyrant.

TRAUB: We have now come full circle to our central topic of last time: Can the U.S. shape better outcomes in the world? I do think this is the great question going forward, and I do think we’re all very much chastened, and I do think the American public is sick to death of the whole enterprise. But surely this is not a question with a yes or no answer. The real question is: Where, and how, can we matter? How can we do some good without being so blithe, and so self-righteous about it? I still find our role in Libya a positive example, though I recognize I may come to regret that view.

BURUMA: It helps in these matters to be an American client state. When South Koreans and Filipinos rebelled against their military dictators, the U.S. was able to put pressure on those governments, precisely they were dependent on the U.S. Alas, this was not the case with China, during Tiananmen Square. Indeed, it is rarely the case. When the U.S. cannot do anything much, it is often better for all concerned to acknowledge that and not either indulge in huffing and puffing, to no effect, or flail about like a well-meaning, but sometimes lethal, giant.

BERMAN: Can we do harm, or the wrong thing? U.S. history is full of examples. But the examples go both ways. At minimum we can speak up — the intellectuals especially. Here we have gone through ten years — since we are speaking on the occasion of an anniversary — in which I do not think we have done a whole lot to speak up for the liberals in tyrannical places.

IGNATIEFF: We can certainly shine a light on people in trouble. Pointing the spotlight of our attention can sometimes keep them out of jail, and knowing that they have international support can help them with their own tyrants.  But I would say we are in a different world than we were in 2001. A decade later, and our discussion now sounds Americanocentric. China, the BRICS, are increasingly determining what happens. I’m not a declinist, and I do think America and Americans will always have a special vocation for liberty, but the century ahead is not American. It’s not anybody else’s either. I see national communities becoming more salient than ever, as identities and languages take refuge from globalization and seek some way to protect economies and ways of life from the big economic forces. So freedom will be local, and that’s why people will fight and die for it. Those of us with the enormous good fortune to live in societies that have some control of their internal and external destinies need to help other peoples have what we have: elementary forms of self-determination so they can protect themselves. If self-determination is what we and they are after, then the rule is: stay out until they ask, and do what they ask us to do, and stay with it till it gets done.

BURUMA: The problem with helping liberals and dissidents in authoritarian countries is that they often end up as pawns in diplomatic games. Take China, for example. The only place where dissidents can make a difference is in China itself, at great personal risk. What the US and Western countries can do is put pressure on the Chinese government to release them from prison, sometimes, when it suits the Chinese. This means the Chinese government wins on two fronts: they get concessions from the US, and they are rid of a nuisance. Also, the state department is happy, because they can show that they “have done something.”

BERMAN: Michael says that freedom is local, and it is; but it is also global. If you are a small country, it is good to know that powerful organizations like NATO or the U.S. might come to your aid, and this is part of your freedom. If you are a lonely dissident, likewise. If you are a poor country in Africa, it is good (on balance) that the Chinese and other powerful economies are making investments.

MALCOMSON: Any final comments?

BURUMA: Just one, on Michael’s point about the BRICs, which we haven’t really addressed. I think this would have happened — the rise of China, India, etc. — with or without 9/11 or Bush’s blunders. But the Bush administration has perhaps sped up the decline of U.S. clout in the world, by doing great damage to the country’s good reputation. It is a terrible indictment of the Bush years that when people outside the US hear the word “democracy” in US foreign policy rhetoric, they won’t believe a word of it.

BERMAN: Maybe so, and yet, when the American ambassador arrived in Hama, Syria, to show his solidarity, people were heartened and they cheered. So maybe people do want our support. Maybe we do have something to offer. Whole crowds in the Middle East are right now asking for it.

BURUMA: Yes, and a fat lot of good it did for those crowds in Hama, once the tanks began to roll.

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