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We now know ‘how,’ but who'll ask ‘why’?

A test of the Tribute in Light memorial illuminates a passing cloud above lower Manhattan Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004.
A test of the Tribute in Light memorial illuminates a passing cloud above lower Manhattan Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004. Mike Hvozda / AP

Three years: a short period of time in the life of a nation; an eternity for those left to mourn the victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. How sad and infuriating, then, that the nation is firmly back in denial.

This denial is multi-tiered, in part stemming from the fact that the respect and solemnity which once shielded the day from partisan politics long ago fell away.

With the third anniversary upon us, “9/11” lies exposed to cynics of various hues who claim to know its lessons and represent its legacy. From politicians to filmmakers, from union leaders to country music balladeers, people pluck from the atrocity only that which supports their version of truth. This has led to domestic divisions as profound as any in a generation.

It feeds, as well, on the country’s quick retreat back into that collective happy place, an America perched high above and far away from the world’s problems. In one of the most poignant lines from the 9/11 commission report, the panel noted how out of touch with the wider world Americans were in the late 1990s as their music, clothes, movies, values and corporate brands reached the most remote corners of the globe:

“America stood out as an object for admiration, envy, and blame. This created a kind of cultural asymmetry. To us, Afghanistan seemed very far away. To members of al Qaeda, America seemed very close. In a sense, they were more globalized than we were.” — 9/11 commission report, p. 340

Fortress America
For all the talk since the attacks of reformed intelligence agencies, tightened security and spreading democracy abroad, Americans seem to be lapsing back into navel-gazing. What else could explain the focus on Vietnam-era military records at a time when American troops are fighting two separate wars overseas?

At the root of this denial is an erosion of national humility — a stubborn inability to examine our own actions that prevents us from getting beyond the question of “how” we were attacked and to the question of “why?”

We know today some of the answers to “how?” Sclerotic as it may be, the American bureaucracy appears resigned to accepting some of the changes the 9/11 commission proposed, though the fight to blunt some of the more radical ideas, like making someone accountable for such failures, will go on.

But addressing the “why” of the attack is far more difficult. Understand, the question is not why al-Qaida ordered the attacks, or why individual attackers were motivated to commit suicide. The cult of death that exists at the fringes of Islam explains that all too well.

The deeper “why,” however, concerns the enormous gap between the way Americans view their actions abroad and the way the rest of the planet is viewing them. How did America go from a country viewed by many as, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “the last best hope of mankind,” to being ranked in polls by many as a greater threat to world peace than Osama bin Laden?

Restoring reputation
If America is truly going to win a “global war on terrorism” and enlist the world’s full support and sympathy when it acts in defense of its interests, it needs to re-examine flawed and failing policies. Here are some places to start:

  • Hand “real” sovereignty to Iraqis: The administration may be laying the groundwork for this already, with more references from top policymakers to the fact that “eventually, the Iraqis will have to take this thing in their own hands.” There is no consensus on when the bulk of U.S. forces should leave, but also no guarantee that sticking around ad infinitum and taking (and inflicting) casualties will make it happen, either. At some point, a new line in the sand must be drawn. If post-Saddam Iraq is viable, it will survive. If it is not, better that we learn it now, before mounting casualties and a dead-end mission demoralize our military.
  • Re-engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The Bush administration’s tack on the “peace process” when it came to office was understandable; Bill Clinton had just spent the last few months of his tenure cajoling both sides into a deal that appeared astoundingly reasonable, only to have it collapse at the last minute. But 9/11 should have ended the deep freeze on Mideast diplomacy. Instead, the new tack was away from mediation and toward an almost uncritical backing of Israeli positions. Al-Qaida’s motives on 9/11 had nothing to do with helping “dispossessed Palestinians.” But the Bush administration’s lack of progress in bringing the two sides together has made it easy for al-Qaida to portray America as Israel’s bully, and Israel as America’s puppet. That feeds the deepest vein of cynicism in the world about America, and in the long run, does Israel no favors, either.
  • Refocus on Afghanistan: “Imagine failing, and imagine turning over the world to the people who want to chop off people's heads.” That’s Donald Rumsfeld Tuesday on Iraq, and to a point, he is absolutely correct. But the stakes are higher still in Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, there is no controversy over America’s efforts in Afghanistan: its regime harbored al-Qaida, and al-Qaida trained and launched the 9/11 attacks from there. The 11,000 American troops in Afghanistan focus almost completely on al-Qaida, while Afghanistan’s own problems are festering.
  • Create a “target nations” action group: In a world where nuclear terrorism has become a distinct possibility, allowing nuclear weapons to proliferate is in the interest of none of the world’s great powers. But some have a higher stake than others. Russia, India, Japan, the United States and Israel have a particular common interest in preventing nuclear proliferation because they stand out, for various reasons, as the most likely targets of it. There may be time when pre-emptive action must be taken on this issue. When that time comes, this is the kind of group you want behind you.
  • Champion the enlargement of the Security Council: This makes sense by several measures, and regardless of which side of America’s political abyss one stands. The first measure is logic: The world of 2004 is very different from the one that founded the United Nations in 1945. (How else to explain separate permanent seats for France and Britain?) Only the United States could broker the kind of compromise that can reform the body, and doing so would earn it the thanks of many who now feel powerless. Besides, the Left should welcome three or four new permanent members to restrain superpower unilateralism: India, Brazil, Germany and Japan are the most often-mentioned candidates. And for the Right, which takes pleasure in watching the United Nations bumble and fail, what better guarantee than to add several new voices to the caterwauling chorus that is the world body’s top table?

None of this is easy, but something must be done to reverse America's free fall in the eyes of the world. And the action has to start in Iraq. Good things have happened in Iraq, yes: Saddam is gone, his maniacal, murdering sons and many of his worst henchmen are either dead or imprisoned; schools, wells, clinics and roads are under construction. But the cost of all this, without getting into the lives of young Americans or the charge borne by taxpayers, is an incalculable drop to America’s most important asset: its reputation. Not everything the United States fails to achieve automatically equals "terrorist victory." Some things simply are not possible to do, and turning Iraq into Denmark may be one of them.

So do those that are possible. Whether Bush or Kerry wins in November, the election provides an opportunity to revisit that moment after the attacks when facts and policies that seem set in stone can be challenged, reformed and even jettisoned. Let’s hope whoever wins has the foresight to ask, “Why?”

Michael Moran's Brave New World column appears each week on